A Russian Role in Central Asia That America Can Live With

July 17, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Eurasia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: RussiaCentral AsiaISIS

A Russian Role in Central Asia That America Can Live With

"As the U.S. and NATO presence in the area wanes, Russia can act as a pillar of stability."

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.

While Washington maintains important security links with the Central Asian republics, its policy toward the region is primarily a function of the War in Afghanistan. It follows that U.S. security assistance to the Central Asian states is declining as American military operations wind down. Indeed, under the National Defense Authorization Act, Washington provided Tajikistan with $15.4 million in military aid during Fiscal Year 2012. In the first half of FY 2014, Dushanbe received just $1.1 million. Other countries faced even more substantial cuts during the same period. Kazakhstan benefited from $8.7 million in NDAA aid in FY 2012 but received only $187,000 in the first half of FY 2014.

As the U.S. and NATO presence in the area wanes, Russia can act as a pillar of stability. President Barack Obama’s pledge to withdraw all American troops by the end of his term in 2017 adds a sort of time constraint to Moscow’s task of securing the corridor between Russia and Afghanistan.

Of course, some in the West will be prone to see Russian imperialism wherever Moscow acts. Russia’s actions in Georgia and Ukraine lend some merit to this view. However, Russian influence will hardly go unchecked in Central Asia, as Moscow is no longer alone in the region. The United States built strategic partnerships in the area during the War in Afghanistan, while China continues to champion massive economic projects and infrastructure developments. Chinese trade with Central Asia totaled $28 billion in 2010, while Russian trade reached just $15 billion. Beijing has even managed to break Russia’s monopoly on energy transit routes from the region with projects such as the Turkmenistan-China natural gas pipeline. 

In addition to its concrete security concerns, Russia does seek respect as the primary power in Central Asia. However, this objective rests on vague notions of influence and prestige, concepts that can be bent and accommodated by Beijing and Washington. The United States can even pursue low-level cooperation with Russia in Central Asia. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg already endorsed counterterrorism collaboration between Moscow and the Western alliance in the wake of January’s Charlie Hebdo attacks in France. Where political concerns prevent direct coordination, the two countries can undertake intelligence sharing and partnership by proxy through the republics in the region that share strong security relationships with both Russia and the United States.

It is highly unlikely that Moscow desires an extensive presence in Afghanistan itself comparable to the U.S. role after 2001, owing to Russia’s own limitations and memories of the failed Soviet war effort in the 1980s. Still, Russia will strengthen its ties with Kabul and the Central Asian states to Afghanistan’s north. The expansion of Russia’s military presence in Tajikistan, and even the potential return of Russian soldiers to the porous Tajik-Afghan border (Moscow stationed troops there until 2005) in the future, should be met with tacit acceptance and quiet support from the United States as this achieves an American objective—containing terrorist threats—in a region where Washington is reducing its presence. Respecting shared interests in one area may even provide the future basis for the United States and Russia to negotiate where their interests clash.