A Russian Role in Central Asia That America Can Live With
The ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine casts a long shadow over areas of shared American and Russian interest, making the Obama administration’s 2009 “reset” in relations appear a distant memory. However perceptions have shifted in the intervening six years, common concerns still exist between Washington and Moscow; chief among them: terrorism. For this reason, U.S. officials can look with (quiet) approval to Russia’s pursuit of a more robust security presence in Central Asia.
In April, the commander of Russia’s Tajikistan-based 201st Motorized Division indicated that Moscow would increase its deployments in the Central Asian republic from 5,900 troops to 9,000 by 2020.
The announcement proved timely. Just two months later, Tajikistan made international headlines. Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, a senior officer in the country’s national police force left for Syria and defected to the Islamic State (ISIS) in a highly publicized video produced by the extremist group.
Then, on July 16, Kyrgyzstan’s GKNB security services killed six gunmen in two shootout incidents in the capital Bishkek. Kyrgyz police captured seven others in the aftermath. GKNB officials say the militants were ISIS members and believe they were planning attacks in Bishkek’s central square and at the Russian Air Force base in Kant. The impact of Khalimov’s defection and possible Islamic State activity in the region should not be exaggerated. Still, the Central Asian republics, Russia, and the United States should be prepared to contain ISIS before more episodes occur.
It is tempting to view Moscow’s heightened presence in Central Asia in the context of the Russia-West divide and the Ukraine crisis. However, Russia’s security interests in the region are longstanding. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have close relationships with Russia and are all members of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russia’s ties to these states can allow it to play a constructive role in stemming militant activity.
By boosting its military profile in Tajikistan, Russia is aiming to resolve a persistent issue in its post-Soviet security doctrine. For the Kremlin, the border between Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics is a gateway to Russia, even though these countries left Moscow’s control in 1991 and four of them do not even share a direct land border with Russia. This position is not without merit. After all, the Russia-Kazakhstan border was designed as an internal administrative boundary, not an international frontier.
Tajikistan represents a particularly problematic case for Moscow. One million migrant workers from the Central Asian republic live in Russia, according to the Russian Federal Migration Service. Only 10 percent of foreign laborers in Russia are working legally, meaning the number of Tajiks in the country may be even higher. Remittances from these workers totaled $4 billion USD in 2013, or 52 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP. Thus, for Dushanbe, what happens in Russia does not stay in Russia. Likewise, events in Tajikistan can roil the Russian Federation via the large migrant worker community there.
In that regard, it is notable that in his June video recorded by ISIS, Colonel Khalimov spoke in Russian. This is quite telling. The erstwhile security chief targeted his remarks at the regime of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, even though many citizens (especially those born after the Soviet collapse) have at best a loose grasp of the Russian language. But most Tajiks fighting for ISIS are not lifelong residents of the Central Asian republic. Rather, they are migrant workers who have spent time in Russia. Exposed to poor working conditions and pressure from xenophobic elements, these workers become prime targets for recruitment by Islamic fundamentalist causes. In Russia, Central Asian laborers often find themselves involved with North Caucasus-based militant groups or with extremist organizations like Hizb ut-Tahrir.
If instability in Afghanistan spreads to neighboring Tajikistan, Russia will undoubtedly feel the impact. Such an eventuality is hardly unprecedented. From 1992-1997, the Islamist Tajik opposition, backed by Afghan militants, fought a bloody civil war against President Rahmon’s Russian-supported Popular Front. Already home to so many Tajik workers, Russia could make a convenient destination for refugees should violent unrest visit the Central Asian republic once more. Moscow therefore has an interest in containing violence south of the former Soviet frontier.
The United States is likewise concerned about the spread of extremism in Afghanistan and Central Asia, which threatens advances made there by American-led forces at the cost of thousands of lives. The extension of ISIS influence to the post-Soviet space can also come back to haunt the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East.