The flags of Kazahkstan, Ukraine and Russia on a signpost in nature. © Jon Anders Wiken – stock.adobe.com

War in Ukraine: Central Asia’s Pragmatic Dealings with Russia

One year after the invasion of Ukraine, the five Central Asian nations have differed in their responses to Russia. Above all, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, seek to safeguard themselves from future exogenous shocks, regardless of whether they originate from Russia, China or the West.

In January, a “yurt of invincibility” was erected in the war-torn Ukrainian city of Bucha. The traditional Kazakh tent symbolizes safety and warmth – and provides local Ukrainians with heat, refreshments and electricity. Later, two more yurts were brought to Kyiv and Kharkiv.

Moscow was quick to criticize the move as “damaging the Russia-Kazakhstan strategic partnership.” However, the Kazakh ministry spokesperson Aibek Smadiyarov stood firm, saying he has nothing to explain. Significantly, the exchange highlighted what western analysis of the Central Asia-Russia relations often lacks; a closer look at a region that is often lumped together from a European standpoint.

Central Asian states are known for their historically close ties to Russia, which remains the region’s largest source of imports, except for in Kyrgyzstan, where Russia ranks second behind China, according to the OECD. If the sanctions persist for a long time, trade patterns will be hit; financial market developments could impinge on the sustainability of public finances, while labor migration earnings may decline.

However, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, prioritize domestic affairs and regime stability is essential for every autocratic state. Except for Kyrgyzstan, these nations are witnessing a domestic transition or a stabilization of the existing regime, meaning that they don’t want to be disrupted by broader regional instability and economic turbulence. Since the Soviet Union dissolved, the states have a history of seeking insurance-backing through diversifying their economic and political partnerships, for example, dealing with China, Turkey, the Gulf states, and the West. They are part of non-Russian initiatives such as The Organization of Turkic States, as well as the Chinese Belt&Road project.

The EU and the United States have also started paying more attention to Central Asia. Common interests ranging from connectivity over security to climate have been on the table for a while, but the Russian invasion gave them a more decisive impetus.

Spotlight on Kazakhstan after invasion

Kazakhstan, the only one of the five nations that directly borders Russia, was swung into the international limelight following last February’s invasion. Among its Central Asian peers, Kazakhstan is the largest by size, the richest by GDP, and is deeply intertwined with Russia’s economy. Oil, the main Kazakh export, flows largely through pipelines on Russian territory (operated by the CPC consortium, co-owned by Russia’s Transneft, Kazakh KazMunayGas and Chevron). Meanwhile, just a month before the invasion, Moscow-led military forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) intervened in Kazakhstan, supporting President Kassym-Jomart Kemeluly Toqayev during the bloody nationwide unrest, caused by lengthy economic stagnation, especially in the country’s western regions, widespread corruption, and general dissatisfaction with then-president Nursultan Nazarbayev after three decades in office.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan has long had a policy of casting a wide net, strengthening ties in the region and further afield. This is described in the 2022 Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) Country Report for Kazakhstan which states: “Kazakhstan has long advocated for closer diplomatic, trade, cultural, scientific and security ties among Central Asian countries. Multi-vector foreign policy is a hallmark of Kazakhstan’s relations with its Russian and Chinese neighbors as well as with remote partners in Europe, North America, the Near and Middle East and Southeast Asia”.

It’s neighbor, Uzbekistan, is the largest regional country in terms of its population. The fallout of the war in Ukraine caught the regime at a time it was reforming and rebuilding its economy following the lengthy isolationist rule of the first President, Islam Karimov. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev seeks to attract foreign investors and improve regional connectivity, both vulnerable to economic and political shocks caused by the war. This backdrop puts him in a similar position to his Kazakh counterpart.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are the poorer and smaller and both are heavily dependent on labor migration to Russia, which makes up about one-third of their GDP. Both states are further weakened by their protracted conflict over non-demarcated borders.

Finally, Turkmenistan, a super-isolationist autocracy, has had exceptional diplomatic attention from Moscow since the outbreak of war, providing Putin an opportunity to demonstratively break its current diplomatic isolation, as well as to meddle with the Turkmen natural gas business.

Central Asia has not had any reason to support Russia’s military adventurism, which disrupts regional stability and development. Despite cautious official rhetoric, not one of the nations supported Crimea’s annexation or the latest development in eastern Ukraine, referring to international law and United Nations principles instead. This way, Astana, together with other regional capitals, tries to balance external pressures with limited economic options. Given the landlocked nature of the region, losing any neighboring partner means losing transit routes and risking broader destabilization; hence, they do their best never to be forced to formally “choose a side”.

Future with Moscow, future with the West

Looking ahead, much depends on when and how the war in Ukraine ends. After all, Russia still represents an economic, political, and security actor too large and too close to avoid. Kazakhstan, together with Armenia and Turkey, were singled out for not adhering to sanctions and allowing private companies to send restricted goods to Russia in a recent statement of the Latvia’s PM Krisjanis Karins. However, pragmatism rules supreme. While these states explore alternatives, they only cut ties where it is essential. For example, the “Middle corridor,” a transport route through Central Asia and the Caspian Sea to the West, doesn’t mean the routes through the Russian territory won’t be used when the war is over and sanctions are lifted.

Russia’s switch from stable security provider to unpredictable security threat will likely incentivize Central Asian presidents to invest more in domestic security. While cooperation with Moscow against some external radical armed groups (for example, the so-called ISIS-Khorasan) will continue, it is unlikely that the presidents ask Russia to help to deal with domestic protests or other challenges.

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (and other central Asian states) are using the current opportunities to retain and strengthen control over internal decision-making and regime autonomy, effectively limiting space for any outside influence, be it domestic opposition or a foreign entity.

If the European actors understand and respect the logic and limitations of the new Central Asian pragmatism, they can create a solid foundation for a stable and prosperous relationship.

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