Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is upsetting the geopolitical calculations of states around the world. The fallout is particularly complex for the post-Soviet states of Central Asia, which maintain extensive economic, political, cultural and other ties with Russia and Ukraine. While Central Asia is far from the front lines of the ongoing war, and therefore less directly affected than states like Moldova or Georgia, its leaders also face tough decisions.
Independent for three decades, Central Asian states remain dependent to varying degrees on Russia as a security provider and economic partner, and as a source of political support. Their peoples and leaders, however, remain wary of Russia’s neo-imperial ambitions, which they fear will remain confined to Ukraine. This combination of dependence and fear limits the freedom of maneuver of Central Asian states. Central Asian elites largely oppose the war, which they say could give Moscow a pretext to turn against them. With Russia likely to face a long period of isolation and sanctions, Central Asian states are likely to attempt to further reduce their economic and political dependence on Russia, without provoking a forceful response.
Despite their dependence and vulnerability on Russia, Central Asian leaders tried to distance themselves from the invasion of Ukraine. Central Asian leaders have either proclaimed neutrality or kept silent about the war. All five states abstained or ensured their absence in UN General Assembly votes condemning the Russian invasion and demanding protection for Ukrainian civilians, although Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan voted against the expulsion of Russia from the United Nations Human Rights Council. The leaders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan also pushed back against Russian claims that they approved of the war during calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
On March 17, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov noted that Uzbekistan supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity and does not recognize the independence of the so-called “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Lugansk. Kazakhstan, whose President Qasym-Jomart Tokayev called for support from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, to deal with violent protests in Almaty last January, also announced that it wouldn’t recognize them. Despite the crackdown on civil society following the January unrest, Tokayev allowed pro-Ukrainian protests and sent humanitarian aid to Kyiv.
One of the most lasting consequences of the war for Central Asia could be the permanent paralysis or collapse of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, or EAEU, whose members include Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and that Tajikistan and Uzbekistan had debated joining before the outbreak of war. Joining the EAEU now risks causing collateral damage to the economies of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as many Western states impose restrictions on trade and investment with Russia.
Despite Russian representations of the EAEU as a consensual and mutually beneficial organization, it has historically caused Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to raise tariffs on non-EAEU imports while lowering barriers to Russian entry into their economies. As a result, membership has increased Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan’s dependence on Russian imports, supply chains and project funding, all of which will be affected by the fallout from the war in Ukraine. Since the start of the war, business and civil society interests in both countries have pressed their governments to leave the UEE, while talks about joining the bloc in Tashkent and Dushanbe have effectively been put on hold.
The leaders and people of Central Asia fear that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is a harbinger of new attempts to seize territory.
Beyond the UEE, the economic impact of the war on Russia will in turn have a direct impact in Central Asia. The World Bank predicts that the Russian economy could contract by 11.2% in 2022. This slowdown will result in a significant drop in remittances sent by Central Asian migrant workers in Russia, who represent more than a quarter of GDP in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, despite pandemic-related declines. Most of these remittances are also transmitted in rubles through Russian-based financial institutions. Sanctions that exacerbate exchange rate volatility and cut Russian banks off from the dollar-denominated financial system represent an additional source of risk across Central Asia.
With sanctions against Russia likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future, Central Asian states are urged to further diversify their economic ties. The easiest option is China, which has pledged billions of dollars in additional investment in a region critical to its Belt and Road Initiative. Yet Beijing faces its own economic and political headwinds. Central Asian leaders are also increasingly worried about their growing dependence on China. The further weakening of Russia through sanctions and military setbacks will also make it harder for Central Asian states to play off Moscow and Beijing against each other, as they have been doing in recent years. decades. This will especially be the case should Beijing decide to fully support Russia’s war effort, something it has so far refrained from doing.
Central Asia would benefit from more Western investment, but many obstacles stand in the way. Central Asian energy could help wean the European Union off Russian oil and gas. Already, Europe’s interest in diversification has helped reinvigorate talk of a long-planned Trans-Caspian gas pipeline from Turkmenistan. However, the political and economic risks that derailed previous efforts to bring gas from Central Asia to Europe remain, and the gas appears more likely to reach European shores from the eastern Mediterranean or Iraq than from Europe. east of the Caspian Sea. The United States is unlikely to be much help to the region. Central Asia’s economic ties with the United States have always been modest, while the American withdrawal from Afghanistan has made the region a strategic priority for Washington.
Depending on the outcome and duration of the war, Central Asia could also find itself facing a geopolitical landscape that is highly altered in other respects. Although Russia has long viewed the former Soviet Union as a region where it maintains “privileged interests”, the invasion of Ukraine represents a sea change, with Moscow departing from attempts to shape the economic direction and policies of its neighbours, including limited territorial revision, such as the annexation of Crimea – to outright conquest. The leaders and people of the former Soviet Union fear that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is a harbinger of new attempts to seize territory, whether out of hubris if its war in Ukraine succeeds. or looking for a consolation prize if she fails.
In Central Asia, such concerns are particularly pronounced in Kazakhstan, which has a large, albeit small, ethnic Russian population in the north, and which Imperial Russian nationalists like the novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn have long referred to as part of their heritage. legitimacy” of Russia. In 2014, Putin claimed that “Kazakhs never had statehood” before the collapse of the Soviet Union – a remark that observers likened to his dismissal of Ukraine’s historic legitimacy. Aggressive statements by Russian politicians since the start of the current war have only heightened concerns about Russia’s intentions towards Kazakhstan. Nor will Moscow forget Tokayev’s proclamation of neutrality, which came just weeks after Russian-led CSTO forces helped secure his grip on power.
Although Russia does not have close ethnic ties or a common border with other Central Asian states, it also remains vulnerable to Russian aggression. Moscow maintains large troop deployments in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan; hundreds of soldiers from the Russian military base in Tajikistan were even sent to the Ukrainian front in February. As recently as 2016, during the war in Afghanistan, Moscow also offered – or threatened – to deploy forces to Turkmenistan when it emerged that Ashgabat was unable to secure the Turkmen-Afghan border. Leaders in the region recognize that whatever happens in Ukraine, Russia will retain the capacity for military coercion and that, should the worst happen, it is unlikely to receive the same outpouring of international support as the Ukraine.
The Russian invasion is a tragedy above all for Ukraine and its people. For Central Asia, the war creates unwanted pressure to take sides, as well as economic consequences that are likely to last longer than the fighting in Ukraine. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the challenge for Central Asian states has focused on consolidating their sovereignty and independence in a volatile region situated between a former imperial hegemon in Russia and an emerging economic titan in China. Having succeeded to varying degrees in this endeavour, the states of Central Asia now face new dangers. As Russia faces isolation and accelerated economic decline, Central Asia has more reason than ever to accelerate its decoupling from Moscow. However, the fear of provoking Russian reprisals, combined with the absence of immediate alternatives, will continue to impose caution in the region.
Jeffrey Mankoff is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the US National Defense University and author of the forthcoming book, “Empires of Eurasia: How Imperial Legacies Shape International Security.”
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not constitute an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.