Posts Tagged ‘Russia’

Almost caught up on re-publishing my writing here after a long period of delay, this time a piece for Nikkei Asian Review on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit pointing to the optics of the session as one of the key attractions to some of the members.

China and Russia to showcase alternative world order at SCO Summit

Samarkand gathering demonstrates sanctioned states still have allies of substance

Xi Jinping is set to attend as he makes his first international trip since the beginning of the COVID pandemic.   © AP

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

As the West advances a world order constructed around institutional structures developed after World War II, those leading the charge against the West are embracing their own institutions to demonstrate their options.

This week, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will hold its annual heads of state summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, bringing together Russia, China, Iran and a host of other nations. The narrative these countries want to advance is that there is another order out there beyond the Western-imposed one, as thin as it often seems on closer inspection.

This year’s summit is attracting more interest than previously as Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to attend as he makes his first international trip since the beginning of the COVID pandemic. The fact that he has chosen Central Asia and an SCO heads of state summit to do this, even before confirmation of his third term as Communist Party leader at the party’s congress next month, is a reflection of the importance of the SCO to Beijing.

The exact agenda of the summit is still being set, but it is likely that Afghanistan, new members and connectivity will be key items.

Afghanistan has been a perennial issue on which the SCO has failed to deliver. With the full accession of Iran to the group next year, Afghanistan will be almost entirely engulfed geographically by full SCO members, save for uncompromisingly neutral Turkmenistan, but Iran has been joining SCO summits for a while and Turkmenistan will be there this year too.

Taliban fighters in Kabul celebrate the first anniversary of the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops on Aug. 31: Afghanistan has been a perennial issue on which the SCO has failed to deliver.   © AP

Notwithstanding the bloc’s clear interest in resolving Afghanistan’s long-standing issues, the organization has done nothing to help it, nor has it come together effectively to deal with the problems emanating from the country.

It is unlikely we will see much material progress this time either amid continuing uncertainty about the longer-term viability of the Taliban authorities, as well as concerns about their mixed attempts to rein in militant groups.

The answer from Uzbekistan’s perspective has been to seek ways of trying to engage with the new Taliban authorities. It has been keen for some time to push a narrative of greater connectivity across Eurasia.

Rather than simply piggyback on China’s Belt and Road Initiative vision, Tashkent has sought to instead cultivate a vision of connectivity between Central and South Asia, to both tap markets and seek escape from the region’s landlocked nature.

But these practical issues are side stories to the main narrative that will emerge from the Samarkand summit.

Attendees are expected to include the leaders of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Mongolia, Iran and Belarus, which are each seeking to highlight their inclusion and links to the SCO. Rumors suggest Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may appear too.

In joining with the leaders of existing members Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, India, Pakistan and China, they will be part of a constellation of powers that for various reasons, and to different degrees, have tensions with the West.

For all of these powers, there is a pleasing visual utility to being present at a colloquium of such stature, representing at least a third of the world’s population and with no Westerners present. They can all show that notwithstanding the sanctions or sanctimony thrown at them by the West, they have allies of substance who welcome them with open arms.

There is no doubt that the SCO is nowhere near capable of competing with entities like the Group of Seven, NATO or the EU, but this is not the point. The organization is one that marches to its own beat, has only grown in its 20-plus years and continues to enlarge the volume of topics that it engages on.

It has helped normalize China’s role as a major player on the Eurasian continent while also providing an opportunity for Chinese diplomats, officials and business executives to engage regularly at multiple levels with their neighbors and a growing range of countries. Even supposed Western allies like India and Turkey see value in showing up for the meetings to soak in a non-Western-led order that they can appreciate being involved in.

There is no doubt that the members have little trust in one another, and the international order they are building is flawed. But at the same time, the interesting question is whether this matters to them.

The optics are good enough as the summitry gets positive play in other parts of the world. The event presents the impression, with some apparent foundation, that the democratic order advanced by the West is not the only achievable structure out there.

A short piece for the Financial Times looking forwards on how terrorism might evolve and melt into the wider greater great power conflict that currently consumes international affairs.

Terrorism fused with great power conflict may be the west’s next challenge

Some countries such as Iran persist in using armed proxies to advance their goals

Veteran al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed by a drone strike on a safe house in Kabul

The writer is senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies

Terrorism is the past and the future is great power conflict. In a moment of nearly perfect public narrative, the death of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was almost entirely overshadowed by the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan. Yet the risk is that we miss how the two problems can become entangled and make each one worse.

As national security agencies turn their focus to states, they will inevitably deprioritise terrorist threats. Yet the shift is unlikely to be as tidy as this suggests. Even more worrying than the risk of paying less attention to terrorist groups is the potential for the two threats to interact with each other. In a worst-case scenario, great power conflict might make global terrorism worse.

The use by states of terrorist groups as proxies is not new. Iran has a long history in this regard. Hizbollah in Lebanon is the largest of numerous proxies that Iran has used to attack its adversaries. In recent years, Tehran has become more overt about using terrorist tactics directly itself.

In July 2018, an Iranian diplomat was arrested in Germany alongside a pair of Iranians in Belgium for planning to bomb a high-profile dissident rally in Paris. Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump’s former lawyer, and several British MPs were due to attend the event. This month, the US Department of Justice charged a member of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards with directing agents in the US to murder John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser.

Tehran may be the most blatant about it, but it is not the only power to use such groups or engage in such plots. Moscow’s hand can be seen behind some extreme-right terrorist networks in

Europe. India detects Chinese intelligence playing in the shadows of some of its domestic conflicts. India and Pakistan have honed the art of manipulating such groups against each other, and sufunderlying fered the blowback as a result. Furthermore, all these powers see supposedly all-powerful western intelligence agencies lurking behind various networks and plots that they perceive as threats.

The second risk comes from how the war on terrorism has been pursued around the world. As the west grows frustrated with longstanding counterterrorism campaigns in distant places, resources have been pulled back or withheld. Clearly, some capability is retained, but in certain places a vacuum has emerged and Russia has frequently filled it. Private security group Wagner has stepped in to bolster local authorities and launch offensives in the name of counter-terrorism. It is questionable how much this helps. It often appears as though these campaigns exacerbate the anger that creates the terrorist groups in the first place.

Mali is the most obvious example, with the situation escalating to the point that the country’s government is now accusing France – a previous leader in providing counter-terrorism support – of working with jihadis. At the same time, Wagner is celebrated in the streets of Bamako, the capital. But Wagner forces have also been deployed in the Central African Republic, Libya and Mozambique, all places suffering from terrorism that the west has failed to address or is not focusing on.

According to one view, it is a relief to have someone else deal with such problems. But the risk is that they are only making the situation worse, or that they may try to manipulate groups on the ground to their own ends, with little regard for any backlash that might strike the west. Or, this could be their intention.

The other side to this shift in attention is that taking pressure off terrorist groups may end up with no one focusing on them. We do not really know whether the reason we are now seeing a lowered terrorist threat is because the threat has gone down or because of the pressure that was on it.

The exact nature of how threat and response play off against each other is poorly understood. But just because we have stopped worrying about a problem does not mean it no longer exists. It is hard to say with confidence that any of the underlying issues that spawned the international terrorist threat have been resolved. Some analysts think they have grown worse.

Twenty years of conflict have changed the international terrorist threat that we face. But it has not gone away, and in a nightmarish twist it may start to fuse with the great power conflict we find ourselves locked into. The world has a habit of throwing multiple problems at us. In a growing world of threat, disinformation, proxies and opacity, terrorist groups offer a perfect tool. The west may one day rue the fact that it no longer has the relative clarity of the early years of the war on terror.

This report was a long time in the making and in fact completed initially prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but needed a lot of tidying up afterwards. Thanks to RUSI for publishing it, and to my excellent co-author Eleonora for bearing with the lengthy process to get it over the finish line. Am not going to republish it all here, as you can see it in its splendid PDF form for free online here.

Russian and Chinese influence in Italy

By examining political, security, economic and cultural ties, this paper explores Russian and Chinese influence in Italy.

Italy has been one of the leading advocates in the EU of dialogue and cooperation with both Russia and China, and its longstanding political tradition of ‘trying to sit in the middle’ sometimes faces other EU states’ criticism. This paper seeks to explore the dynamics between Italy and Russia, and Italy and China, through an examination of political, security, economic and cultural ties. It also attempts to understand the degree to which Rome’s policy positions are shaped by external influences or internal choices.

While it is inherently difficult to demonstrate influence, this paper stresses Italy’s agency in driving the relationships forwards, though it is clear that interference attempts and the economic connections that exist between the three powers play a role in influencing Italian planning. Even if Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 is heavily impacting the relationship between Rome and Moscow, how this will play out in the longer term is hard to predict.

More delayed posting, this time a piece for Nikkei Asian Review which seeks to tie together some of the strands of trouble that have been brewing in Central Asia since the beginning of the year.

The Perils of Ignoring Eurasian Instability

Volatile region has historically caused problems for the rest of the world

A Kyrgyz policeman looks at a burnt armored personnel carrier outside the village of Kok-Tash near the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border in southwestern Kyrgyzstan in May 2021: Exchanges of fire continue to take place with casualties on both sides.   © AP

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

As the world focuses on a possible clash between China and the West over Taiwan and war in Europe on the other, the parts in between are going up in flames.

In the past, Russia or the United States could be relied upon to step in and settle the situation, but both are now otherwise engaged. With Beijing showing a reluctance about stepping into the role, this leaves a region that has historically caused problems for the rest of the world without a security blanket.

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last year marked a turning point.

While Afghanistan itself has seen violence go down, tensions have moved north into Central Asia, with the Islamic State in Khorasan Province launching several rocket attacks into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as increasing the propaganda it publishes in Central Asian languages.

In Pakistan, Balochi separatist groups have continued to grow the volume and ambition of their attacks, as has the Tehreek-E-Taliban Pakistan. Worryingly for Islamabad, there are signs that Balochi and Islamist groups are cooperating.

In Afghanistan, while the Taliban has repeatedly stated that it will not lets its territory be used to plot terrorism against others, it has done little to stop it. In one recent and particularly galling display, the previously reported dead leader of the Uighur militant group Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) released a video showing him celebrating Eid al-Fitr festival this year in Afghanistan.

This is despite repeated calls by China for the Taliban to not allow Uighur militants to use Afghanistan as a base. Left-behind American weapons have already appeared in attacks in Pakistan and even as far away as their border with India.

Looking beyond Afghanistan, the situation in Central Asia has become markedly more violent over the past year.

There has been trouble in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region as locals push back against Dushanbe in clashes that recall the country’s brutal Civil War from the 1990s. An attempt to re-write the constitution in Uzbekistan led to large-scale violence in Karakalpakstan whose costs are still being counted. On Tajikistan’s messy border with Kyrgyzstan, exchanges of fire continue to take place, with casualties on both sides.

Add to that the chaos in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year, which led many to question their assumptions about the stability of Central Asia.

Long Seen As Central Asia’s Wealthy Bulwark, The Instability In Kazakhstan Has Been Driven By A Combination Of Unhappiness With The Government Of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev And An Internal Power Struggle That Has Shown How Fragile The Country Actually Is. And If Seemingly Stable Kazakhstan Can Unravel So Quickly, What Is Really Going On Elsewhere In The Region? Recent Events In Uzbekistan Serve To Only Strengthen This Narrative.

Long seen as Central Asia’s wealthy bulwark, the instability in Kazakhstan has been driven by a combination of unhappiness with the government of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and an internal power struggle that has shown how fragile the country actually is. And if seemingly stable Kazakhstan can unravel so quickly, what is really going on elsewhere in the region? Recent events in Uzbekistan only serve to strengthen this narrative.

President Tokayev’s decision in January to call for help from Russia and the other four members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization highlighted Moscow’s continuing role as a security guarantor in the region.

At the same time, Russia’s subsequent decision to invade Ukraine has resonated across Central Asia, in part over concerns that President Vladimir Putin’s revanchist fantasies might swing in Central Asia’s direction.

Kazakhstan, in particular, continues to find itself targeted by Russian Nationalists, and there is a wider concern about the knock-on damage that each country is likely to feel from the crashing Russian economy and the degree to which Moscow might be able to continue to play a stabilising role.

President Putin’s visit to Tajikistan this past week was a clear demonstration of the role Russia can still play and a reminder or Moscow’s importance. His visit focused attention on Russian forces in Tajikistan and their supposed focus in Afghanistan, but aside from likely celebrating the fact that they have not been sent to Ukraine, it is not clear what they are doing there.

Vladimir Putin listens to Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon during a meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on June 28: a clear demonstration of the role Russia can still play and a reminder of Moscow’s importance.   © Reuters

While Washington stepped back from the region following its withdrawal from Afghanistan, it has recently taken quiet steps back into Central Asia with a focus on shoring up regional security.

The region doubtless welcomes this attention, but given prior American fickleness and the light touch being applied, it remains to be seen how far the US will, or can, go when it comes to security. Central Asia is ultimately bordered by powers with which the US is locked in geopolitical struggle, while Washington’s relations with Islamabad continue to be complicated.

Throughout all of this, Beijing has taken a watching brief. In Afghanistan, this has taken the odd form of China being the most prominent external interlocutor on the ground with the Taliban government while still hedging its bets.

Beijing’s anger at Pakistan has grown as the violence being directed at Chinese nationals there continues to get worse. There are persistent rumours of Chinese involvement in helping Tajik authorities stabilize the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region, but the details are unclear.

There is a narrative in some western capitals suggesting that none of this really matters because the Eurasian heartland is far away and more likely to cause trouble for its neighbours than the west. But this neglects the fact trouble in this region has a tendency to spread.

South Asia has human connections around the world, as well as three nuclear powers will ill-defined borders and histories of enmity, while Central Asian militants have been showing up increasingly further afield.

Afghanistan has long been a major source of narcotics, and it is always useful to remember that this is the battlefield that forged Al Qaida and from which the Sept. 11 attacks were launched.

It may seem unlikely that such a terrorist catastrophe could happen again, but this remains a region that has the ability to shock the world. Failing to take note of instability there could prove very costly for us all.

Back to more book promotion for Sinostan, this time an edited extract that was published by Prospect magazine, focusing in particular on the China-Russia dynamics articulated in the book.

The rising tension between China and Russia

The war in Ukraine and Beijing’s growing military assertiveness are testing relations with Moscow

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen 

June 24, 2022

Tensions: Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meeting with President of China Xi Jinping at the opening of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Credit: Alamy

Tensions: Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meeting with President of China Xi Jinping at the opening of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Credit: Alamy

The war in Ukraine has brought the China-Russia relationship into sharp relief. China’s seeming willingness to tolerate behaviour which directly contradicts a series of principles that Beijing has sought to advance in international relations has left everyone scratching their heads about the nature of the partnership. The old assumption, often described as playing out in Central Asia, was that China was doing the economics and Russia the security. Yet, travelling around Central Asia my co-author and I Alexandros Petersen found that the dynamic is far more complicated, with Beijing increasingly making its presence felt in the security domain while continuing to value the geostrategic relationship it has with Moscow. The relationship is one that defies the simple narrative often painted in the west, and we found this repeatedly on the ground in the Eurasian heartland that binds the two powers together.

A trip from Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek to Dushanbe, Tajikistan in 2013 illustrated the reality of this dynamic vividly. We had noticed the Chinese businessman in the queue for the plane. Stuck in Bishkek’s underwhelming waiting lounge with little else to do, we wandered over to strike up a conversation. Intrigued to find a foreigner who spoke some Mandarin, he told us about his work as a manager/engineer for the China Rail company. While he was vague about exactly what project he was working on, he was very keen to impress us with how well connected he was where we were going in Dushanbe. He showed us pictures on his phone in which he was standing next to a tall and severe-looking Tajik security official in his full dress uniform. Then a young Kyrgyz man in army fatigues came over and started speaking Chinese, saying he appreciated the opportunity to practice. He told us he recognised the severe-looking officer in the pictures.

The Kyrgyz officer had learned his atonal but fluent Mandarin on an 11-month training course in Nanjing. He was particularly keen to tell us about the brothels and night markets he had found. He had been sent on the course along with several mid-ranking officers in his border guard unit—the whole programme was sponsored by the Chinese government. The Chinese businessman chuckled at this strange encounter with all these Mandarin-speaking foreigners, and we separated to board the plane, though of course not before the obligatory selfies were taken.

The encounter was one of our earliest insights into the depth and complexity of China’s security relationship with Central Asia. When we started researching the country’s role in Central Asia, the abiding narrative (that has only recently started to change) was that the Chinese were all about economics and trade. With the advent of the Belt and Road Initiative, this was redefined as being principally about infrastructure and extractives—getting the region’s rich hydrocarbon and other resources back to China. But at no point did we get much of a sense that security was a part of the story. Rather, most analysis pointed to a bargain—unspoken or not—between Beijing and Moscow whereby China did the economics and Russia the security. But this seemed an odd conclusion. In the first instance, our entire sense of why China was interested in Central Asia was predicated on a domestic security concern. China wanted Central Asia to be secure, open, connected and prosperous, so that its own part of Central Asia, Xinjiang, would also be prosperous and therefore stable. Ultimately, China’s thinking about Central Asia was based on the goal of security at home.

There was also a very hard edge to this concern. China is concerned about militancy, both within Xinjiang and across the border in Central Asia. Chinese diplomats, businesspeople, and visiting dignitaries had been targeted over the years in Kyrgyzstan by groups it assessed—in some cases correctly—as being linked to militant Uyghurs. In 2016 the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek was targeted by a car bomb. The subsequent investigation revealed a network with links to Uyghur groups in Syria. When we pressed Kyrgyz security officials for answers about the attack, they dismissed it as not having links to international terrorism, pointing to it as an instance of local “political” violence linked to a specific grievance against the Chinese rather than anything else (earlier this year, the US government linked it to a larger Central Asian militant group with a footprint in both Afghanistan and Syria).

While there was little evidence back then of similar networks in other countries, China was nevertheless concerned about the possibility of such threats as well as about other groups that might emanate from Central Asia to threaten Xinjiang or China directly. In the wake of the attack, there was considerable concern from the security community in China around the potential for similar incidents in Tajikistan as they surveyed the security environment in Central Asia, both from the perspective of threats as well as local capability to manage them.

Second, as we uncovered the deep levels of distrust that existed between China and Russia in Central Asia in particular, it seemed very unlikely that Beijing would simply abrogate its security interests in Central Asia to Moscow. The Chinese officials and experts we met repeatedly expressed their disdain for Russia, while at the same time maintaining a convivial public demeanour. Moscow’s management of the post-Cold War collapse of the Soviet Union was treated in Beijing as a textbook case of how not to manage such a change. In Moscow we looked on as, at a prominent event in 2017, one of China’s top Russia watchers wowed an audience of cynical Muscovites with his fluent Russian, peppered with humour and Dostoevsky quotes, as he talked about the relations between the two great powers.

Over lunch afterwards, a Russian friend praised the Chinese academic’s linguistic skills, joking it was better than theirs. Yet, a short year later we saw the same academic in Beijing before an audience of European experts in which he lambasted Russia and complained about how difficult they were to work with. He said China felt forced into a relationship with Russia because it was rejected by the west. Beijing would far prefer to be close to Europe. We heard the converse repeatedly in Moscow over the years. Both were clearly playing to their audiences, but it nevertheless highlighted a deep underlying mistrust.

The Sino-Russian relationship may be strategically important to both, and it has grown closer in recent years through collective confrontation against the west, but they do not trust each other. The Sino-Soviet split in earlier times casts a long shadow. “Frenemies” is the best characterisation we were able to come up with at the time (though it still feels unsatisfactory), where the two see themselves as important strategic allies, but fundamentally worry things may one day turn adversarial. This was repeatedly reflected in discussions we had where it did not take long, in any bilateral engagement, to find that the counterpart in front of us would complain about the other who was not present. Russians were always quick to complain about the Chinese, and after a little prodding the Chinese would reciprocate.

This tension was visible in our various engagements as well as publicly. Discussions around bilateral deals were always contentious and occasional spy dramas would play out in the press. In 2020, a story emerged of the Russian FSB arresting prominent academic Professor Valery Mitko, president of St Petersburg Arctic Social Science Academy. A former navy captain, he was accused of selling secrets about Russia’s submarine fleet to Beijing. A year or so earlier, a similar story had played out in Kazakhstan, where a prominent academic sinologist who had advised the new President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in his dealings with China was arrested for selling state secrets to Beijing. A former KGB officer, Konstantin Syroyezhkin was given a ten-year sentence and stripped of his citizenship, meaning he faces deportation to Russia upon completion of his time in prison. All this merely serves to illustrate once again the close relationship that Russia has with the region, and how this competition can sometimes hit up against China.

The debate about Huawei and whether Russia should use the company in the construction of its own 5G network was a good articulation of the tension at the heart of the relationship for Moscow. On the one hand, Russia (and its intelligence agencies) feared letting China into their digital and tech infrastructure, but on the other hand, they felt somewhat limited in their options. As we were told in Moscow, “look who is actually sanctioning us.” They might not trust the Chinese, but they recognized at a strategic level that they are on the same page as Beijing rather than the western capitals producing the alternatives to Huawei, meaning Moscow would have to go with the Chinese option.

It seems illogical that Beijing would, in turn, rely on Moscow to guarantee the security of its growing assets and interests in Central Asia. Given Beijing’s particular concerns around Xinjiang and the importance of this to the Chinese Communist Party and their control over China, this logic seems even more flawed, illustrating why the simplistic assumption that China does economics while Russia does security does not work. Nor is it visible on the ground in Central Asia. The reality was articulated perfectly to us during a visit to Bishkek where, as we were doing the rounds of the think tanks and ministries, we were repeatedly given the line that China did the economics while Russia did security, only for an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to turn to us and say, “well, in fact, the Chinese did just build a new headquarters for our border guards.”

It has been fascinating to watch Chinese assertiveness, particularly in the military domain, grow over time. From a power that was largely passive in security matters, it became a power increasingly flexing its muscles, developing a security footprint that not only served to advance China’s direct and narrow interests but increasingly seemed to be aimed at embedding China within the region’s security apparatus in the long run. What officials in Moscow had assumed was solely theirs has been eroded over time. Afghanistan notably lurks like a menacing shadow for Beijing in the background of their concerns about Central Asian stability. From providing border support and equipment, to language training and Covid-19 aid—China’s military relationship with Central Asia is as ascendant as in every other area. The old implicit bargains between Beijing and Moscow are increasingly being tested, with events in Ukraine likely placing even greater pressure on them.

Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen are the authors of Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (OUP)

Still catching up on myself, this time a longer piece for the Straits Times about the how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is seen in parts of its former Soviet dominions. Varied and worried views.

Living Dangerously in Russia’s backyard

From the Baltics to countries in Central Asia, the war in Ukraine is a reminder of their precarious position amid questions about how far Putin will go in pursuit of his revanchist dreams.

Russian troops stand guard at the entrance to the village of Varnita, in Transnistria, a breakaway region in eastern Moldova, on March 4, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

There are many unanswered questions to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Key among them is whether Ukraine is the extent of President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions, or part of a longer and more ambitious path towards European dominance.

Or, placing this within a wider context, is Russian activity abroad all about meddling for the sake of continued relevance or aimed at some actual imperial gain.

This is a difficult question to entirely answer, as ultimately the only person who knows is President Vladimir Putin and he is keeping the answer to himself. But in reading his actions and how they are seen in the former Soviet space, a part of the world that has long had to live with Russia, it is possible to start to divine something of an answer.

It is worth starting by looking back at when Mr Putin came to power. When he was appointed as president of the Russian Federation in 2000, he inherited a mess from an often inebriated Boris Yeltsin, who oversaw the final collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia – the heart of the once mighty USSR-was plundered by gangsters and oligarchs while ravaged by Chechen terrorists.

Mr Putin set about undoing much of the damage left by Mr Yeltsin. The terrorism menace in the North Caucasus was quelled, the treasury put in order, and the military rebuilt. The stabilising of the country in the early part of his two decades in power was popular among Russians who remember the 1990s when the country tried Western liberal economic approaches and was rewarded with penury and oligarchs.

But that was not the end of it for Mr Putin. Having turned it around, he then went on to start to “grow” the country he inherited, with territory “liberated” from Georgia in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, and Ukraine in Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region, as well as the full seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

The so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region have joined Abkhazia and South Ossetia as vassal statelets dependent (and loyal) to Moscow. Belarus is a vassal state in all but name, while the Eurasian Economic Union gives Russia a say in the economic affairs of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.

The old idea of revanchist Russian nationalism is a key driver of this expansion. The notion of Mother Russia as the home of all of the Slavic peoples is something that has long been seen as a goal by successive leaders in Russia. Russian nationalism, however, is something that those living in the states adjacent to Russia have also long worried about.

THE VIEW FROM CENTRAL ASIA

Its resurgence has stirred unease not only in the Baltic states and Russia’s central European neighbours but also in Central Asia.

In the early days of the invasion of Ukraine, an old video popped up on Uzbek social media. In it, first president (and former Soviet apparatchik) Islam Karimov spoke of his concerns about Russian nationalism, suggesting it was a greater threat than whatever might emerge from Afghanistan. The interview was from the late 1990s, a moment when the former Soviet space was wracked by various conflicts. But Mr Karimov was particularly worried about what might emerge from Moscow, something contemporary Uzbeks saw now rearing its head in Ukraine.

But while Uzbekistan has always had a somewhat prickly relationship with Moscow, it is Kazakhstan that has been particularly fearful of revanchist Russian nationalism.

Northern Kazakhstan is home to an ethnic Russian community that makes up around a fifth of the country’s population. In the past few years, the government in Kazakhstan has sought to encourage greater Kazakh national identity, rejecting Cyrillic script and encouraging more use of Kazakh language rather than Russian.

If Russia’s actions in Ukraine were not bad enough, comments by Russian nationalists have added to Kazakhstan’s fears. For instance, Mr Vyacheslav Nikonov, a member of the United Russia party in the Duma, once raised doubts about Kazakhstan’s sovereign status on the grounds that the “territory of Kazakhstan was a great gift from Russia and the Soviet Union”. His remarks prompted other like minded politicians to call for the return of parts of northern Kazakhstan to the Russian Federation.

Worryingly for Kazakhs, a few years ago, Mr Putin made similar comments in public which appeared to question Kazakh statehood. He praised the then Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev for building something out of nothing. Praise on the one hand, but also undermining the logic of an independent Kazakh state, one with a history and existence not contingent on Russia.

The parallels with Russia’s dismissal of Ukrainian statehood are inescapable to Kazakhs who worry about Moscow’s revanchist intentions.

Tellingly, even though Kazakhstan abstained on the United Nations General Assembly’s resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it would not recognise the separatist republics of Donetsk or Luhansk. The authorities also turned a blind eye to some public rallies supporting Ukraine.

However, for all their fears of Russian nationalism, the Central Asia states still look up to Russia as their ultimate security guarantor. As the Taliban surged in Afghanistan last year, it was Moscow that dispatched forces to undertake border training exercises with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as well as rushing through arms sales across the region. Similarly, when Kazakhstan was wracked with domestic strife earlier this year, it was Moscow that President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev turned to to help restore order.

Kyrgyzstan, the most democratic of the five states in the region, has also been the most unstable. Internal tensions are often fanned by Russian media or stoked by Moscow. Russia is able to make its displeasure known and continues to exert influence when it needs to – through powerful oligarchs close to Mr Putin or hard military power or its intelligence services. The Central Asians all recognise this, and are fearful of the mighty Russian bear turning on them.

At the same time, they are certainly not happy about the pattern of Moscow’s behaviour. They condemned the assault on Georgia in 2008, expressed concern about the 2014 incursions into Ukraine and have shown their unwillingness to completely toe Moscow’s line in the wake of this year’s invasion.

But there is a limit to their push back against Russia, given the precarious position they are in.

OTHER NEIGHBOURS

The Baltic and eastern European countries are in a far more secure position, given their membership in institutions like the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, with its pledge of collective defence. It offers them a level of deterrence against Russian aggression that is also not available to Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova.

Moldova, nestled between Ukraine and Romania, sits on just the other side of the EU’s outer border and has a small ethnic Russian enclave in Transnistria, complete with Russian soldiers. Recent comments by Russian General Rustam Minnekayev that Moscow’s goal was to secure a corridor across Ukraine connecting to the enclave, as well as explosions targeting infrastructure in the region, has set alarm bells off in Chisinau.

While Mr Putin may no longer have sway over the Baltics and their ethnic Russian populations, he does have other cards to play, such as Kaliningrad, an isolated Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania. Largely known for smuggling, it is a Russian foothold which Mr Putin’s administration have threatened to use as a base for nuclear weapons should Nato expand further.

All of this adds up to a Russia which is basically interested in maintaining influence in what it perceives as its backyard, with the option of claiming them back if the context permits (or is fabricated).

From Mr Putin’s perspective, the countries of the former Soviet Union are only permitted to be independent states insomuch as he allows it. And where he has grey lines or borders, he has a space in which he can operate.

While it remains to be seen whether he is eager to court the danger that would follow invading an EU or Nato country, he certainly sees no issue in stirring trouble in any of the other countries in this space. And every so often, lash out violently to remind them about staying in line.

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

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.

Almost caught up, but then will invariably get behind, another short piece for the South China Morning Post inspired by events in Ukraine, this time trying to tackle the obsession in the west about China’s support for Russia.

How the West’s focus on China’s ties with Russia misses the bigger geopolitical picture

  • The US and EU’s condemnation of Russia and repeated calls for their allies to do the same reflects a world view in which democracies stand united against autocracies
  • In reality, drawing battle lines is far more difficult when interests and values rarely align
Illustration: Stephen Case, South China Morning Post

The single-minded focus on China’s friendship with Russia misses the far wider range of supporters around the world that Moscow has been able to muster. It is this wider web that really highlights the difficulty the US and Europe will have in marshalling international support to condemn Moscow’s actions.

The myopia reflects the difficulty in playing the complicated game of three-dimensional chess that is international geopolitics, where relationships are coloured by shades of grey and focus on interests rather than values.

There is no doubt China has chosen to side with Moscow over the conflict in Ukraine. But it is important to note that this choice has been carefully couched as not being against Kyiv, but in opposition to the US and Nato’s missteps in causing the problem in the first place by antagonising Moscow.

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Beijing’s choice is also the result of a calculation that Russia remains a critical ally in China’s wider confrontation with the West.

This framing may anger the West, but it is one that Ukraine seems willing to (at least in public) accept. In recent comments, the head of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office, Andriy Yermak, described China’s position as “neutral”, while saying that Ukraine’s leader was expected to talk to President Xi Jinping soon.

China was Ukraine’s largest trading partner before the invasion, and there is every chance that this economic relationship will pick up where it left off should stability ever return to the country.

Such commentary stands in contrast to Kyiv’s views on India, the other Asian giant that has stood behind Moscow. As the invasion unfolded, Western leaders called on New Delhi to stand behind them in condemning Russia.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government declined, leading Ukraine’s Ambassador to India Igor Polikha to declare he was “deeply dissatisfied” with India’s stance, calling on New Delhi to be “much more actively engaged, given the privileged relations India has with Russia”.

Few who had been paying attention would be surprised by India’s position. The country’s military-industrial relationship with Russia is a long-standing sore in US-India relations, fuelling concerns about defence and intelligence transfers.

Neither New Delhi nor Beijing, however, are outliers. Both have chosen to abstain in United Nations Security Council votes. And, in the wider UN General Assembly vote demanding humanitarian access to Ukraine and condemning Russia’s actions, they stood alongside South Africa, Pakistan, Iran, Vietnam, a range of African powers and much of Central Asia in abstaining (only a few predictable powers like North Korea, Syria, Belarus and Eritrea joined Russia in voting against the resolution).

South Africa even sought to follow up on the vote with another focused solely on the humanitarian disaster in Ukraine, omitting any refence to Russian action.

But there is further complexity within these positions. While Central Asian powers chose to abstain from the UN vote, both the Uzbek and Kazakh governments have chosen to openly reject recognition of the breakaway territories of Luhansk and Donetsk that Moscow has recognised, while also appearing to more actively reach out to Ukraine.

This seeming stand against Russia is one that flies in the face of Kazakhstan’s decision early this year to call on Russian forces to support the government in the face of mass protests, and the Uzbekistan government’s reliance on Russian security to help bolster their border with Afghanistan as the republic’s government collapsed last year.

Looking beyond UN voting, Russia also appears to have a number of friends in the Middle East. On the one hand, Iran has openly sought a closer relationship with Moscow, in large part for the same reason as Beijing – as a bolster against a confrontational relationship with Washington.

But, on the other hand, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have both also shown support for Russia while snubbing Washington – a choice that is driven by a concern about reliability of US alliances and irritation at condemnation of their own actions (their conflict in Yemen) by the West.

The reality is that international relations are grey. Countries are driven by interests that are both short and long term. An adversary today can become an ally tomorrow. The one immutable truth in international relations is that nothing is permanent.

But this is a critical problem for a West that is seeking to build a binary world of autocracies versus democracies, painting this as the defining struggle of our time. It also reflects a core tension within the approach being driven by Washington, where there appears to be a desire to create an alliance of democracies alongside a shifting constellation of coalitions focused on outcomes.

While, in theory, this is not impossible – countries are often willing to maintain contradictory policies while focusing on interests – it becomes difficult when a single-minded obsession with one adversary clouds everything else.

While American and Chinese strategic thinking may be centred on a world in which the other is the main adversary, to the rest of the world, this narrative is more complicated. And these complications do not always hold across interests, and may in fact undermine each other in crucial ways.

There is no easy way to thread this needle. But maintaining a resolute focus on interests rather than values is a disappointing place to start. This is not going to be appealing to those who want to see a world of like-minded allies or democracies ruling the waves, but is more likely to reflect the brutal reality of geopolitics, where values are not as transcendental as we might like to believe.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London and a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore. He is co-author, with Alexandros Petersen, of “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire”

More updating from last month, this time a piece for the South China Morning Post which attracted a certain ire online at the time looking at China’s broadly passive approach to all of the trouble on its periphery of late. My point was maybe not as strongly put as the headline, but as ever headline writers are focused on clarity and not subtlety.

Eurasia in turmoil: how China’s passivity foments the chaos

  • From Afghanistan to Kazakhstan and now Ukraine, the Eurasian heartland has fallen prey to three forces: authoritarian incompetence, Russian adventurism and Chinese passivity
  • Beijing may be happy to sit out the chaos for now but it will ultimately spill over and create problems it cannot ignore
A sign outside the the Canadian embassy in Beijing on March 3 in support of Ukraine. Photo: AFP

It has been a tumultuous six months for Eurasia. The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan last August was followed by widespread civil unrest in Kazakhstan at the turn of the year and now a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

While Russia has had a prominent role in each context, it is China’s perspective that people most frequently ask about. Yet Beijing has stayed broadly passive, highlighting the role that China sees for itself in the world.

China may be the new superpower on the international stage, but it appears to have little interest in committing itself to resolving any problems that emerge in its neighbourhood or beyond.

The attention on China can sometimes seem exaggerated. We look for Beijing’s view on everything nowadays, sometimes where it is unlikely to be relevant. Yet the truth is that Beijing is a significant actor in all three Eurasian contexts.

China remains the putative largest single external investor in Afghanistan, is Kazakhstan’s second-largest trading partner (and fastest-growing investor), and since 2019 has been Ukraine’s largest trading partner.

China has undertaken or signed contracts for large-scale investments in all three countries, is an important trading partner and (in Afghanistan and Kazakhstan) has a particular interest given the shared borders.

So it is not entirely surprising that people look for China’s views in these contexts, and expect Beijing to want to step in when things turn bad. Yet, in each situation, China has instead stood by to let others try to fix the problems.

A similar playbook can be observed in all three cases. In the first instance, Beijing apportions blame – often finding the United States culpable for the situation.

In Afghanistan, the American withdrawal precipitated the Taliban takeover, making it an easy connection. In Kazakhstan, mutterings of “colour revolutions” started in Moscow and Nur-Sultan, giving Beijing ample fuel to point towards the US. And in Ukraine, China has continued to point to US-driven Nato expansion as a key underlying reason for the conflict.

Having blamed the US, the next step is to try to embrace tightly. In Afghanistan, this has led to a surge in Chinese activity on the ground, regular aid, close engagement with the Taliban authorities, regular championing of their interests at the United Nations and the constant promise (that has yet to materialise) of larger-scale investment.

In Kazakhstan, Beijing picked up seamlessly from where it left off before the trouble in January, while in Ukraine it is trying to sell itself as an impartial supporter of both sides.

Yet in all of this, Beijing commits very little. The constant presentation of multiple-point plans to resolve situations are largely empty declarations which appear well meaning but are not followed by any real evidence of effort to resolve the situations. Instead, they largely state the obvious and seem to suggest that Beijing is somewhat above the situation as a benign observer.

There is no doubt some element of Beijing’s stasis is not really knowing what to do. China’s offers to act as a peace broker have tended to be hollow, usually offering a table around which the various parties can sit.

While this is a useful role, a proper negotiator will need to work the various groups, understand their interests and force heads together. This is also likely to mean telling people what they do not want to hear, something Beijing is never very interested in doing as it potentially creates adversaries.

But so far, by sitting and watching, Beijing has not done itself much ill. While its international standing may be damaged among those who would like to see it take a more active role, by not doing so, China is leaving itself in a position where it can continue its relations with whichever party comes out on top.

And given Beijing’s strong economic interests in every situation, all the parties involved will usually have a strong incentive to continue to engage with Beijing after the chaos subsides.

But there is a longer-term problem here, which may eventually cause China some regret. The result of this passivity has been a Eurasia increasingly in tumult.

As Washington leads the West in a mostly seaborne crusade in the Indo-Pacific against China, we see the Eurasian heartland fall prey to three forces. Authoritarian incompetence, Russian adventurism and Chinese passivity. The result has been large-scale loss of life, and growing constraints on people’s liberties.

This is the net result of a Eurasian heartland abandoned to local forces, and increasingly overseen by superpowers who see value only in shaping history when they deem it important to their grandeur, and otherwise seem content to simply let things play out, no matter the consequences on the ground.

For now, China might be happy to watch things play out. But, unfettered, these forces are likely to create nothing but misery and a Eurasian backyard in which China will find itself the dominant power watching over chaos.

And while in the short term it might be possible to find some benefit from this situation, in the longer term, it will spill over and ultimately create problems that Beijing cannot just watch from the sidelines.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

More catch up posting from last month, this time a short piece for the wonderful Nikkei Asian Review looking at how Central Asia is likely to suffer from the chaos generated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Have a few more since this which make similar points but through different lenses, but for now enjoy this.

Central Asia braces for economic catastrophe

Sanctions aimed at Russia will have serious knock-on effects

Migrant workers from Uzbekistan collect potatoes at an agrarian field in Beryozovka near Russia’s Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk: their remittances to their families back home are a crucial source of income.   © 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).

Across what is still referred to as the former Soviet space, there has been a sharp intake of breath. While many have grown accustomed to overbearing Russian behavior, few expected the dismemberment of Ukraine.

For Central Asia, the consequences go deeper than worrying whether they might be next. The intertwining of their economies with Russia means the drastic sanctions being imposed on Moscow will likely hit them too. And for a region that is increasingly being targeted by the West, this will further exacerbate economic suffering.

It is not so long ago that Central Asia was actively calling for greater Russian military support. Following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last August, Russian forces rushed in to undertake joint training exercises with Tajik and Uzbek forces, while Moscow sped through military sales to customers across the region.

In January, Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called on Russian forces, under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, to help reestablish control in the wake of violent protests wracking his country.

For Central Asians, Russia remains an essential security partner. While China is seen as ascendant, it is Russia that remains hugely significant in political, economic and security terms.

The truth is that while Beijing may be the rising power, China tends to be quite passive, as its responses to the crises in Kazakhstan and Afghanistan have shown. Similarly now with Ukraine, Beijing appears largely content to talk rather than actually try to do something on the ground.

While China sees Central Asia as five nations it wants to do business with, Russia takes a more paternalistic view, in some cases even questioning their viability as states. Vladimir Putin has on occasion questioned Kazakhstan’s nation status, just as he has with Ukraine. This worries Central Asians.

Take Kazakhstan, which has a population of around 3.5 million ethnic Russians, nearly 20% of its population, concentrated near its border with Russia. It is very easy to envisage a scenario where Moscow stakes a claim to these people back in much the same way as in Ukraine.

Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 first crystallized this concern. At the time, Moscow not only sought regional endorsement through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but recognition of the two breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that Moscow claimed it had gone in to defend. This appeal was roundly rejected, with China in particular horrified by the precedent that Moscow was setting.

Fast forward to today, and while it is clear that Central Asians are uneasy, there is a lot less condemnation. In fact, in a conversation with President Putin, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov appeared to support Russia’s position, prompting Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to withdraw his ambassador from the capital Bishkek.

Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Sadyr Japarov during a meeting in Strelna on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg, in December 2021: the Kyrgyz President appeared to support Russia’s position. (Handout photo from Kremlin Press Office)    © Reuters

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan both found themselves pulled into the information war, with both being forced to deny that they supported Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Kazakhstan that they had been asked to participate in the fighting by Moscow. In Uzbekistan, the government issued a statement pointing out that any national who was found to be fighting for a foreign army would be prosecuted upon return home.

Ultimately though, it will be economic questions that will dominate minds across Central Asia. Millions of Central Asian citizens work in Russia, and their remittances to their families back home are a crucial source of income, something that will be hit by the abrupt drop in the value of the ruble.

The collapse in the value of the Russian currency has also led to massive knock-on devaluations across Central Asia as markets reflect on the consequences of Russia’s exclusion from the international economy.

Russia is a major investor and partner to all five countries. Russia has reportedly invested around $40 billion in Kazakhstan alone since the fall of the Soviet Union, while Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are bound intimately to the Russian economy as members of the Eurasian Economic Union.

All of this means that when Russia suffers economically, Central Asia feels it. Now, the region is bracing for the worst. Central Asia may have experienced something similar following the 2014 sanctions leveled against Russia, but this time the hit is likely to be exponentially harder.

All of which comes at a moment of great flux in a region still suffering from the fallout from COVID. Add to that, Kazakhstan is still recovering from the national unrest that rocked the country in January, Turkmenistan is in the midst of a leadership transition, and Tajikistan appears to be on the cusp of something similar.

Many geostrategists may be tempted to conclude that Beijing is likely to benefit. And there is no doubt that this will strengthen Chinese options in the region. But the reality is that Central Asia will still be very much tied to Russia, with all the consequent loss of income that will entail. Central Asian migrant labor will struggle to find the same opportunities in other countries.

Now entirely encircled by countries that are being targeted by escalating Western sanctions — Afghanistan, Iran, China and Russia — Central Asia is increasingly finding itself between an economic hard place and a politically precarious one.

Pushed into a corner not of its choosing, the collateral damage to Central Asia from Putin’s Ukrainian invasion is likely to be considerable.