Russia’s Recent Military Buildup in Central Asia
September 25, 2020
This article is part of the CSIS executive education program Understanding the Russian Military Today.
On June 12, the Kyrgyz parliament ratified an agreement that enables Russia to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to its local foreign military base in Kant. During the course of the year, at least two Orlan-10 multipurpose drones will arrive in Kyrgyzstan. The base will also receive two modernized Mi-8MTV5-1 helicopters, and a commitment was made to upgrade and strengthen its air and missile defense systems as well. The Russian military base in Dushanbe, in neighboring Tajikistan, has already received S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems last autumn, and, based on the declared aims of Russia in Central Asia, further improvements can be expected. Furthermore, the readiness of the Russian forces in Tajikistan is being tested by continuous military drills. What explains this military buildup?
Russia has long viewed Central Asia as part of its privileged sphere of influence, and so the current military buildup in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan can be understood in the broader context of a series of active preparations to project Russian military power to Central Asia. It does this by strengthening existing military bases and other related installations in the region, in progress since 2012 and intensifying after 2014. Russia is not only improving its foreign military bases in the region, but also supporting the militaries of Central Asian states with activities ranging from arms sales and joint military exercises to training and assistance programs, both in bilateral and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) frameworks.
Yet, the Russian forces deployed in Central Asia, even considering the recent developments, are only capable of carrying out limited ground operations, and not sufficient to act in the case of a larger local war, let alone a regional war involving more countries. Furthermore, the current buildup is taking place in a region where neither the regional states nor great powers oversee substantial forces, and where the Russian military is clearly dominant as a result of the CSTO framework and its geographic proximity. This begs a question: Why is Russia enhancing its military presence in a region it already dominates—particularly at a time of global economic downturn?
“Russia’s Soft Underbelly”: Organized Crime and Violent Extremism
Officially, Moscow has continued to explain its efforts to strengthen its military capabilities in Central Asia by using a well-worn narrative: Moscow considers the region as a possible source of political instability and organized crime, and a pathway for extremists onto Russian territory from the Central Asian republics themselves or from Afghanistan. This vision of Central Asia as a potential national security risk leads Russia to act as the primary guarantor of security and stability in the region, both through the direct presence of its armed forces and the CSTO. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in particular play host to Russia’s foreign military bases and are highly dependent on Moscow in terms of security. Under these conditions, border security, surveillance, training and assistance programs, and counterterrorism measures are of core importance, as often emphasized by Russian leaders.
This narrative of political instability, however, ignores recent developments. The likelihood of inner conflict within the region has significantly decreased since 2016, when Shavkat Mirziyoyev became Uzbekistan’s president after Islam Karimov’s death, and introduced a new, cooperative approach to the region by focusing on regional diplomatic coordination. The annual Consultative Meeting of Central Asian Leaders, which aims to take tackle questions of regional stability at the highest level, has changed the region’s security landscape and made it much less vulnerable to inner conflict. Of course, ethnic and clan-related clashes, border issues, and rifts over natural resource allocation have not totally disappeared but the security environment in Central Asia has become more, not less, stable, suggesting that the main reasons for Russia’s military buildup can be found elsewhere.
The role of Central Asia as a possible transmitter of threats emanating from Afghanistan at a time of American withdrawal is of higher concern for Moscow. Indeed, official Russian discourse has also sought to frame the strengthening of its bases in the region as a response to the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and its threat to Russian security. Although in the framework of the recent U.S.-Taliban agreement the Taliban pledged not to provide a safe haven for terrorism within Afghan territory, any U.S. withdrawal is likely to create new threats to border security, as the attack by Islamic State militants on a Tajik border post in November 2019 demonstrated. This fear may explain the deployment of UAVs to Kant and an uptick in military drills at the Russian foreign military base in Dushanbe.
But even this narrative of Russia’s “soft underbelly” does not explain all aspects of Russia’s current military developments. UAVs are certainly useful in the fight against organized crime and violent extremism, but the development of air and missile defense systems is not tailored to this kind of enemy. Moreover, reports this summer about Russia incentivizing the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers undercuts the narrative that Moscow is primarily interested in preventing instability in Afghanistan.
“Not in My Backyard”: Protecting the Russian Sphere of Influence
Some experts posit that Russia exaggerates the threats emanating from Afghanistan and Russia’s military buildup for a different aim: strengthening its position in Central Asia to keep the region within Russia’s sphere of influence and out of the West’s.
But this argument also has holes. Moscow is not likely to risk its traditionally firm position in Central Asia by attempting to strengthen its grasp further and possibly alienate governments in the region since currently there are no real attempts by Central Asian states to leave the Russian sphere of influence (say, in the same way as Ukraine in 2014), or even to loosen ties. Although the aftermath of 2014 shook the region’s trust toward Moscow, the five republics (albeit to different extents) are reliant on Russia militarily and economically, and their societies hold far more favorable views of Russia than of China and the United States.
As for the West’s influence, the United States and European Union have turned away from the region in recent years, calling into question the necessity of Russia’s investments in the Kyrgyz and Tajik foreign military bases as a means of protecting its own backyard. Despite publishing new Central Asia strategies to balance their decreasing interest in the region, these documents largely remain theoretical and value-centered, with little money to back them up. Under these circumstances, scenarios based on the East-West rivalry in the Russian sphere of influence neither seem to apply to the current Central Asian situation nor explain the military buildup in the region.
Is it possible, though, that an Eastern power and a long-term strategic ally would threaten Russia’s Central Asian sphere of influence? Beijing has significant interests and ambitions in Central Asia. In terms of economy, the region offers plenty of natural resources (most importantly, hydrocarbons), transit routes and hubs, and a market for Chinese products and investments. As for security interests, the stability of the region is crucial for the realization of China’s strategic Belt and Road Initiative, and threats from Central Asia and Afghanistan may further jeopardize the already very tense situation in China’s Xinjiang province. Russia has largely tolerated the rapidly expanding Chinese presence in Central Asia, and Russia-China relations in the region have until recently been characterized by an informal division of labor whereby Russia presides over military and security issues and China provides investment. But this division of labor always had its vulnerabilities, given that China’s political leverage has been naturally enhanced by its economic influence and risks eclipsing that of Russia’s, which has increasingly not been able (and willing) to provide sufficient economic assistance to Central Asia. As China has expanded its military-security presence in the region, the Russian-Chinese relationship in Central Asia has come under pressure.
Between 2016 and 2020, Beijing increased its arms sales to 18 percent from the 1.5 percent between 2010 and 2014, established a military facility in Tajikistan without an official announcement, and pledged itself to support Dushanbe’s border protection activities toward Afghanistan with new facilities and military assistance. In summer 2020, China vaguely implied laying claims on Tajik territories, which made Moscow break its silence over the growing Chinese ambitions in Central Asia, and provoked open and sharp criticism from Russia. Evolutions in Chinese policy have contributed to this tension. The principle of non-intervention has been fading out of use in Beijing’s white papers, and a recent anti-terrorism law allows China to deploy its forces beyond its borders, potentially signaling Beijing’s interest in projecting military influence abroad. Central Asia may develop into a ground where these developments are applied in practice. With instability in the region likely to increase after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, China appears to be changing its behavior to protect its core economic and security interests in the region in a proactive way, using security and military tools. This new approach, however, won’t be welcomed by Russia in Moscow’s traditional sphere of influence, even if it tolerates China’s economic presence in Central Asia. Although in formal Russia-China relations cooperation and strategic partnership remains the rule of thumb, Russia’s recent military buildup may signal a warning message to China and a turn toward a new approach.
“The Great Game”: Russia’s Great Power Ambitions
Although an encroaching China may serve as a substantial reason for Russia’s recent military development in Central Asia, the intention to set boundaries for the ambitions of a strategic ally does not explain the entire process, including the deployment of extended air and missile defense systems. There is a prestige element to Russia’s military buildup in the region, with echoes of the historical Great Game. Arms sales, extended joint military exercises with escalation scenarios, increased surveillance activities, cooperation within CSTO, and the strengthening of foreign military bases are all parts of a grand strategy to reinforce Russia’s status on the global level.
The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan opens the opportunity for Moscow to strengthen its power not only over its close neighborhood of Central Asia, but also at the negotiation tables of world politics. Although President Donald Trump promised “If bad things happen, we’ll go back,” it is unlikely the United States would return to a region it has been trying to leave for more than a decade. Moscow is seizing on the opportunity to replace the United States as a security provider to Afghanistan at a relatively low cost. The region also has a historically conditioned position in Russian strategic thinking, and Moscow’s reemergence as a significant power in Afghanistan is important to its great power identity. Russia cares about status and is at times even willing to subjugate its other interests in the region, such as political stability and counter-extremism, in order to achieve this aim, as its well-documented support for the Taliban demonstrates.
In sum, neither of Russia’s official narratives of protecting its “soft underbelly” nor sphere of interest adequately explains the recent Russian military buildup in Central Asia. Moscow’s strengthened military presence in the region is mostly symbolic, reflecting the new tendencies in Russia-China relations and Russia’s role in Afghanistan, with a message aimed partly toward China and perhaps the United States, but no less importantly toward Russia itself.
Kinga Szálkai, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations and European Studies, Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary.
CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).