Western powers should exploit Central Asia’s unease over Ukraine war

Posted: April 18, 2022 in Nikkei Asia Review
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Another piece for the excellent Nikkei Asian Review, this time trying to make the point that there is a missed opportunity for the west in Central Asia. It is a not a new point for me, but it does seem to be something which is all the more relevant given current events in Ukraine. The title is a bit more blunt about the great gaming element of the intended idea than was meant, the idea was really about getting the west to focus on the region and highlight the region’s agency a bit more.

Western powers should exploit Central Asia’s unease over Ukraine war

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have both distanced themselves from Moscow

Demonstrators take part in an anti-war rally in support of Ukraine in Almaty on Mar. 6: Kazakhstan has allowed large protests against the war.   © Reuters

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of the forthcoming “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire” (Oxford University Press, April 2022).

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been received differently around the world, especially in Central Asia, where the two most powerful countries have both expressed clear signs of concern at Moscow’s behavior. There is an opportunity here for the West if they have the agility to take it.

While the modern countries of Central Asia were among the last to separate from the Soviet Union, since then, they have embraced independence and sought to forge a sense of nationhood. Still, when it comes to Russia and its potential to behave like an overbearing bully, there remains a lurking sense of trepidation, even though Russia remains vital to their development, security and future.

Nowhere is this more true than in Kazakhstan, where a similar narrative that Russia has used to invade Ukraine twice and Georgia can also be applied.

In the north of Kazakhstan, there is an ethnic Russian community that makes up around 20% of Kazakhstan’s total population. At the same time, Vladimir Putin sometimes takes digs at Kazakhstan’s legitimacy as a state; a theme periodically picked up by Russian nationalist commentators and officials who like to claim that Kazakhstan or at least part of it is theirs.

While few in Central Asia were surprised by Moscow’s decision to invade Ukraine, this had not diminished their horror at what was unfolding there. For the region, Ukraine was an important partner as well as a fellow former Soviet state.

Central Asia has expressed concern about Russian behavior before. In 2008, they criticized Russia’s actions in Georgia, while in 2014, they sought to try to find ways of encouraging Moscow to peacefully resolve its dispute with Ukraine. In both instances, Russia sought to pressure the Central Asian powers to back its actions.

This time around, the Central Asian powers have been even more vocal. While Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have stayed predictably quiet, the Kyrgyz have made positive remarks seemingly supportive of Putin’s actions but also allowed protests against the war. But the two most powerful states, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, have made clear signs of wanting to highlight their independence.

Neither country has acceded to Russia’s request to formally recognize the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Kazakhstan has allowed large protests against the war, sent aid to Ukraine and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has held talks with Putin and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In Uzbekistan, while public opposition to the war has been more limited, influential Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov declared his support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Moscow has also not been oblivious to the mood in Central Asia. In mid-March, Russia held large-scale training exercises in Tajikistan, while Russia’s Minister of Economic Development Maxim Reshetnikov spoke at a Tashkent trade event highlighting the opportunities for Uzbekistan in the wake of Western sanctions on Russia, as well as encouraging Uzbekistan to play a more active role in Eurasian Economic Union.

Central Asians only need to look back to last August at the fall of Kabul to remember how Moscow rushed in with military aid and support to defend themselves from the unfolding chaos in Afghanistan, while it was Russian soldiers who were called on by Kazakhstan to help stabilize the country during violent protests at the beginning of the year.

Collective Security Treaty Organization peacekeepers are on guard in Almaty on Jan. 11: It was Russian soldiers who were called on by Kazakhstan to help stabilize the country. (Handout photo from Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)   © AP

All of which makes the signals from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan over Ukraine all the more striking. While the criticism may be tempered, it is nevertheless a sign that both countries are eager to show they are not in lockstep with Moscow.

The most recent sign of this was Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko telling German newspaper Die Welt last week that Kazakhstan did not want to be on the wrong side of a new Iron Curtain and would welcome any companies who were finding themselves obliged to exit Russia as a result of Western sanctions.

This was an opportunistic statement and a clear message that Kazakhstan has little desire to be consigned to simply being part of the Russian space involved in a geopolitical conflict with the West. Instead, Kazakhstan wants to maintain its links with the West, something reinforced by the reforms President Tokayev has announced in the wake of the civil unrest earlier in the year.

All of this presents an interesting opportunity for Western countries if they can figure out how to take it. Central Asia’s two most influential players have hinted at a desire to assert their independence from Russia, but Western powers have largely taken their eyes off Central Asia in the wake of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. This disinterest was compounded by the unrest in Kazakhstan earlier in the year, which highlighted the region’s volatility, as well as the fact that a tendency toward repression still exists.

For Western powers eager to find ways of shaping the new global order to their advantage, however, Central Asia is an interesting theater to explore. Increased Western support for Central Asia would create some complexity for Russia on its other flank while also helping encourage regional powers to continue on their stated paths of greater openness, governance and the rule of law.

Comments
  1. umayyad1957 says:

    It would be interesting to see Western compines target Central Asia

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