How Does the War in Ukraine Affect Central Asia?

Posted: September 8, 2022 in CABAR
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More catch up posting with another interview in the wake of Sinostan’s publication. This one for the excellent Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting (CABAR). Many thanks to the wonderful Ruslan for sorting it out!

How Does the War in Ukraine Affect Central Asia? An Interview with Raffaello Pantucci

Analytical platform CABAR.asia spoke with Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), about Central Asian countries in the light of confrontation between Russia and the West, the indirect impact of sanctions on the region, the role of China and the potential of the EAEU and the CSTO.


Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) in London. His work focuses on China’s relations with its western neighbours, Central Asia, and terrorism and counter-terrorism. His most recent book is Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022, with Alexandros Petersen). Much of his work can be found at: http://www.raffaellopantucci.com


CABAR.asia: The Central Asian states are in a difficult position because of Russia’s military action in Ukraine – on the one hand, there is no opportunity to speak out openly against the Kremlin’s military action because of the economic and political dependence of the countries in the region on Russia. On the other hand, there is the possibility of falling under Western sanctions alongside with Russia. In the light of these developments, what action should be taken by the Central Asian countries?

I think that Central Asia is in a very hard place in this context, because of all the reasons you outlined, but also because I think no matter what happens, the sanctions are going to hit Central Asia due to the nature of the connection that the region has with Russia in particular. It is almost impossible that it is not going to be affected. If we just look at labor migration, which is a really important part of the connection for the region, maybe less so for Kazakhstan, but for Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan this is a critical part of their economy. That is just going to plummet suddenly in volume and going to have a huge effect and mass potential unemployment for a lot of people. So the impact is unfortunately unavoidable for the region because no matter what there is going to be an echo.

But what is interesting is the fact that the leaderships have all taken slightly different approaches to responding to what Russia has done. So as far as I can tell the Turkmen and the Tajiks have not said much. The leadership in those two countries has said relatively quiet on the conflict in Ukraine so far avoiding criticizing either on Russia or on Ukraine. The Kazakhs have done a very interesting job of actually trying to be quite proactive where on the one hand there have been some attempts to drag them into the debate, in particular from some sort of Russian media sources, but still the Kazakhs they’ve tried to step back from this.

There’s been some public protesting Kazakhstan, which the government has let happen. So obviously that shows a certain level of tacit support for the Ukrainian side. The government has sent humanitarian aid Ukrainian side as well. In addition, they’ve already shown some effects of the sanctions by stopping Air Astana from flying to Russia, which is a massive deal. But they have also engaged with Russia and abstained in UNGA votes. So the Kazakhs have tried to strike a balance, where on the one hand they’ve continued to have a relationship with Russia, but on the other hand, they’ve tried to demonstrate that they are trying to reach out to both sides. The most recent statements by Deputy Foreign Minister Vassilenko about not wanting the country to be stuck behind a new iron curtain with Russia and remain open to the west is the clearest articulation in some ways yet of the fears in Central Asia about being closed off with Russia while at the same time trying to be pragmatic and take advantage of the situation. The Uzbeks are trying something similar, but doing it more subtly. Foreign Minister Kamilov was clear about drawing the lines of where the country would not support Russia in refusing to recognize the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Lughansk (a view shared in Nur-Sultan). As far as I can tell the Kyrgyz appear to be the ones who more are leaning into the relationship with Moscow, though even this is a bit clouded by some of the protests we have seen and a sense that the government is being pushed into this position. Though Kyrgyzstan has always been quite close to Moscow. In some ways, this probably reflects the overriding sentiment that exists in most of these countries towards Russia, which is one kind of concern, but at the same time, a recognition of the importance of the relationship that they do have with Moscow.

To be honest, at the moment that’s probably the best that we can expect because they are all in a very difficult position. I would like to see them more leaning into the relationship with Ukraine, because these are all countries that in many ways have suffered under Russia in similar ways, they’re all bound to Russia in similar ways and Ukraine is an important partner for lots of Central Asian countries. But at the same time, it’s clear that the leaderships across the region are different. So from my perspective, the way the Kazakhs are handling it at the moment would probably be seen as the most positive (especially given events at the beginning of the year in which they leaned on Moscow to help them resolve their domestic problems), with the Uzbeks shadowing them. But it’s still would be nice to see more frankly of them trying to show solidarity and support to the Ukrainians because at the end of the day they’re all in a very similar boat.

How would you describe the mood of the political elites in Central Asia regarding the recent events in Ukraine? How would you assess the statements of the Central Asian authorities on this issue and how the region is now perceived in the international arena?

Broadly speaking, there seems to be quite a high level of concern in Central Asia amongst the elites in so much as it’s possible to discern about what’s happened and what is of concern. In particular,  in Kazakhstan there is an underlying fear that the same that has been done to Ukraine might be visited upon them. But at the same time, they recognize the importance of the relationship with Russia. There does seem to be a level of desire to try to make sure that they don’t let this spillover too much because they do still want to have a working relationship with Russia. It’s important for them to do that. So they want to kind of find a way of striking a balance, but my sense is broadly speaking one of concern. It is, however, challenging trying to figure out what this means in practical terms going forwards.

In terms of how Central Asia is perceived in the international political arena, so far I have seen fairly limited comments about Central Asia in the international sphere within this context. I think the United States appears to be trying to reach out to Central Asia, which I think is quite positive, but I think it reflects an approach from the State Department at the moment of trying to outreach to Central Asia and trying to strengthen that relationship. So we’ve had Secretary Blinken do the C5+1 meetings. We’ve seen them condemn when they’ve been worried about what’s happening, a lot of condemnation about the rioting that we saw happening in Kazakhstan, but at the same time, a desire to reach out, that seems to be where they’re going.

We haven’t seen the Turkmen or the Tajik presidents say anything. We’ve seen the Kyrgyz president quite openly talk about leaning into the relationship with Moscow. But when we look at Tashkent and we look at Nur-Sultan, these two countries seem to be trying to strike a balance. It’s reflected also in the UN voting, where all of the Central Asian countries all seem to be trying to vote in terms of showing some sort of support for Ukraine, even if they do this in a very tempered way and try to abstain from votes rather than necessarily vote in support of Ukrainian positions.

As we know from the events in Georgia in 2008 and the current events in Ukraine, we can observe Russia’s strong measures towards countries conducting a pro-Western policy. Is there any chance that Russia might do the same with Central Asian countries? Which Central Asian country is the least dependent on Russia and can pursue a multivector foreign policy?

The difficulty that Central Asia always has with this multi-vector foreign policy concept is that for it to really work in a transformative way it would require them to change quite a lot in a more Western direction, which they are doing gradually. A greater push westward would be needed for it to work in that direction, otherwise the multi-vector diplomacy is a case of juggling between China in Russia, two powers that are always frankly going to more agree with each other than they are going to pick a side with countries in between.

The multivector foreign policy notion is one that is most credible with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

At the moment the one that everyone used to look to is the one that was doing it most effectively was Kazakhstan because the Kazakhs had more money, more power and more resource to be able to kind of strike an independent view. But what we saw after the rioting at the beginning of the year was that they leaned very heavily on Moscow. That has kind of demonstrated that at the end of the day, when the region worries about security issues, and there are a lot of security issues in the wider region, they still look to Moscow as the kind of father protector rather than Western powers or China. Something that we also saw during the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. So in some ways, the whole narrative of multi-vector diplomacy has changed now from what it used to be and its credibility is diluted. This has been further complicated by events in Ukraine of course which has cast Russian power in a very menacing light once again.

If we look at what Russia is doing, I think the country that’s most understandably concerned is Kazakhstan. Because of all of the kind of underlying issues and motivations which Russia cited as reasons for its military actions in Georgia and Ukraine, you could find in Kazakhstan: there is a population of Russian ethnic communities living in the north, predominantly along the border with Russia who still speak Russian. There has been a campaign in Kazakhstan trying to de-Russify to some degree, though they put it more in light of trying to Kazakh everything – using more the Kazakh language, pushing less use of the Cyrillic script. This could be interpreted by Moscow as a policy of de-Russification (or persecution of Russian minorities), which is exactly the reason why Russia has just given for why it’s gone into Ukraine.

There has been a concern about this in the past and even if we look at what President Putin has said in some of his comments where he’s referred to Kazakhstan, as not being a country, about President Nazarbayev building something interesting out of nothing. You could take these words and interpret them in the same way that we’ve just seen them interpret their justification for going into dismember Ukraine. So within that context, Kazakhstan is the one that’s got to be most concerned about this, but at the same time, one of the key lessons I’ve taken away from what happened at the beginning of the year in Kazakhstan was that the Russians did come in and they left. They came in, they played a stabilizing role and they left.

In some ways, I think what that showed to the Russians and the Kazakhs were that Russia could still be an important security stabilizer and that was ultimately appreciated by the local government. That means that the government there is still one that Moscow would look at as relatively pliant, unlike president Zelenskiy in Ukraine or the leadership in Georgia. I think that that’s why, one of my key takeaways from the beginning of the year was that Kazakhstan is an important country for Russia in the region, but the relationship is different to that with Ukraine. I’m sure the Kazakhs are still worried about the parallels, but at the same time, the lessons from what we saw happening at the beginning of the year were that their relationship with Moscow is still one that Moscow obviously feels quite confident in and still feels that it has an upper hand on. That suggests that they’re less likely to create these kinds of aggressive Novorossiya visions into Kazakhstan than they are in Ukraine as there is less need for it.

Central Asian countries have already felt the effects of the sanctions against Russia: national currencies are devaluing, there are shortages of goods and remittances are shrinking. How do you think the economic crisis will affect the lives of ordinary citizens in the region? Could the economic and financial crisis affect the anti-Russian sentiments of the Central Asian populations, for example, by demanding withdrawal from such organizations as the EAEU or the CSTO?

I think it will impact people as you’ve already described. It’s clear that there’s already a direct impact and it will get worse because remittances will stay low and people will not be able to get jobs. It will become harder because presumably, the economic constriction in Russia will mean fewer jobs and so less need for Central Asian workers to come in. So it is a double-whammy in collapsing national currencies and lack of opportunities.

On the interesting side, some countries are still very dependent on energy and oil and gas and presumably with those prices going up, countries like Kazakhstan should benefit. The problem is that that doesn’t necessarily trickle down into everyone’s wallet. It’s really about how the governments manage that. But I could see people across the region suffering from the drop in remittances and the general constriction of the Russian economy whose close ties to the region make it hard to avoid repercussions.

Will that then lead to more anti-Russian sentiment? I’m not sure. Because I have a sense that I don’t know that people would make the direct connection in a way. It’s more a case that people will blame the sanctions rather than the Russian action that triggered the sanctions. I think anti-Russian sentiment will probably increase amongst a certain segment of the community anyway because people will be worried about what Russia might do. But I’m not sure that the economic constriction will necessarily track into that. I think it will cause more problems to local governments as they struggle to manage the fall-out.

Will it lead to withdrawal from EAEU or CSTO? I don’t think so on those either. Because I think leaving an institution like the EAEU for Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan now when the economy is bad is probably the worst time to do it. Because pulling apart something like that will be so complicated and will lead to more economic blockages that they don’t want. So I think, no, it won’t trigger that. The CSTO it’s a different organization, I’m not sure people directly make that kind of connection. If the CSTO was called to fight in Ukraine, maybe we could see people talking about that, but I have a feeling people wouldn’t leave the organization. What would happen is they would just refuse to send soldiers, as has reportedly already been the case in Kazakhstan.

Against the backdrop of a weakening Russian position, what role will China play vis-à-vis the Central Asian states? Will it undertake any measures to strengthen its position? What is the overall impact of the war on China and its foreign policy?

Within the Central Asian context, I think Central Asians will want to encourage more Chinese investment because suddenly their major economic partner is going to go through an economic recession. So for them to avoid that as well, they will want to bring something in. At the same time, it is going to be very difficult because Chinese companies will be careful about sanctions. Chinese companies will come and while they do employ some people, they’re not going to employ enough people to replace all of the jobs that could be lost from the loss of jobs as migrant labor in Russia.

There will be a desire for more China to come in, but China will only come in in the ways that it wants, which is mostly its companies focused on their investments, focused on projects that they want to do, and economic opportunities that they see. Something which does not always equate with what the local governments or populations necessarily want on the ground. China will not want to provide lots of its aid to help bail the region out. It will do what it wants to do rather than what the region would necessarily want to do. But with the crashing economies, I imagine that means certain assets will become cheaper. So you might see Chinese companies wanting to come and do projects now, which will be cheaper than if they did them before.

I think there will be an interesting question about energy because China is very interested in energy from the region and presumably those prices are going to shoot up and China will want to lobby for them to go back down again. That’ll be an interesting dynamic to watch play out.

So I think China will ultimately try to come in, try to do more, but it will do it on its terms rather than on Central Asia’s terms. That will be something that Central Asians will be frustrated by because they will want more and probably not get exactly what they want or to the level that they want, but they will be much more dependent now than they were before.

Recently there has been some talk in the West of imposing sanctions against other EAEU member states because they can almost freely import and export goods within the union to circumvent anti-Russian sanctions. How true do you think this statement is? What would be the consequences of this?

I’m not entirely clear how this necessarily plays out. I hope people don’t go down the path of sanctioning EEAU countries as well because I think then other countries will be suffering. I don’t think the Western governments would go that far. What you might see them trying to do is maybe target specific companies that are maybe using Kazakhstan as a way or using Kyrgyzstan as a way of sneaking into the Russian market. You could see that happening or sort of targeted sanctions, but I don’t think you’d see a blanket sanctioning of the whole institution because I think that from a Western perspective would look very unfair. Ultimately the West would want to help these countries and them to turn on Russia rather than push them towards Russia. That’s the more likely thing that we are going to see happen.

Could it be a kind of transit point? I think it could be potentially because I think you could see people bringing goods there and then taking advantage of repackaging, relabeling, and then selling into Russia. You could see that happening, you saw happen in the past. On the banking side, I don’t think it could quite work because, from my understanding of how the banking system works, I think the regional banks, except for Kazakhstan, probably wouldn’t be able to support a useful level of financial trade and flows. I think the Kazakh ones people will be watching them to not facilitate this stuff. So it’ll be quite difficult to see that happening.

Is there a possibility that Western international finance and institutions will pay more attention to Central Asia because of the possibility of a Ukrainian scenario? 

There have been hints from Washington at least that they are trying to pursue this kind of strategy. But I don’t know the energy that’s being put behind it and whether this will mean a kind of flow of investments into alternative projects, that is something we will have to probably wait and see. At the moment there was a lot of desire to support Central Asia post Afghanistan. I think what we saw happening in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year complicated things somewhat because it upended the order regionally a bit and made people worry about stability in the region. If those sorts of protests and violence could happen in Kazakhstan, which everyone thought was so stable, what could be happening elsewhere that we do not know about? So that will have have confused approaches to engage with the region. But I would hope that Western countries will lean into Central Asia rather than lean away as a result of what happens in Ukraine.

What forecast can you give for the next year (short term) and the next 5 years? How will Russia emerge from the sanctions, and what awaits the rest of the Central Asian region?

I think Russia is going to come out of these sanctions with a very much weaker economy than it was before. You are going to see a lot of secondary damage which Moscow is not thinking about now, but will have an impact far beyond Russian borders and in particular in places like Central Asia. And you are going to see an erosion of Russian power to some degree as well. Because I don’t think the war in Ukraine’s going to be over quickly and the more it drags out, the more damage Russia suffers. Russia will find its security forces are stretched and that will have an effect on the vision of Russian power, which taken alongside an economy which is going to constrict points to a power which seems less than it currently is. Russia will doubtless continue  to act very loud, but I think its tools will be reduced substantially.

You will see a much stronger China – Russia relationship going forwards.

You will see that showing up in a more complicated context than we have seen until now. All of that has consequences for Central Asia and could lead to a situation where Central Asians find themselves in a very trapped space because the region is essentially surrounded now by countries that are targets of Western sanctions. Admittedly the level of sanctions is different: Russia, Iran – very hard, China – not that hard, but probably going to get harder as time goes on. So, Central Asia going to find itself increasingly struggling to project out of the region and that’s going to complicate things for them.

How can Central Asia maintain a compromise approach, being a welcoming place for Western countries, without becoming trapped in the encirclement of Russia and China?

That’s going to be the real challenge for Central Asia going forward. Because if we look now we’ve had two major crises in the region in the past six months: the fall of the Republic of Afghanistan and the chaos in Kazakhstan. And of course, the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But the two earlier events reflect an instability that still exists in the region that could spark off in all sorts of unpredictable ways. Who knows what is happening in Turkmenistan – the economy has had difficulties and we are now seeing a leadership transition take place which as we have seen in Kazakhstan can have unpredictable consequences. Tajikistan will probably be going to have a leadership transition fairly soon as well. How will that play out? I would suspect we might see some more violence in the region. There have been shootings on the borders between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan again. You worry that in a region where there is all this kindling, you’re now going to have essentially China and Russia as the two powers that are kind of watching over. Russia has shown that it is not very interested in stepping into fix problems unless it’s actively asked like it did in Kazakhstan and it requires a relatively low commitment. The support they provided in the wake of the fall of Kabul was really about Moscow strengthening its extended borders rather than trying to bring stability to the region. And China has repeatedly shown how it’s not interested in committing to anything and happy to watch things play out.

All of this paints a difficult picture for the region. Economically the region is going to suffer going forwards. It’s going to be a very tough few years for Central Asia and its desire to project itself as a region that is not bound by geographical realities but can reach far beyond with its strategic vision and multi-vector diplomacy with the west is going to come under an ever tougher challenge.

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