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Agreeable Neutrality: Russia-Central Asia Engagement During the Ukraine War

Western economic leverage aimed at Central Asian economies could spell trouble for the Kremlin. For now, Vladimir Putin as succeeded in creating a positively neutral environment for Russia-Central Asian relations.

Central Asia has become an area of extraordinary importance for the Kremlin since the commencement of the war in Ukraine. At the doctrinal level, this can be seen in the high-level policy documents such as the Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation. The 2016 Concept placed the region comprising Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan below Antarctica and slightly above Southeast Asia in terms of its significance. In 2023, the latest version of the Concept identified Central Asia as a lynchpin of the comprehensive cooperation system operated by Russia, on par with Moscow’s staunchest ally, Belarus.

Russia’s Central Asia policy pursues diplomatic, economic, and strategic objectives in the context of the Ukraine conflict.

Politically, it seeks to secure positive neutrality of regional states regarding the war. Moscow has not pushed its Central Asian partners to join the conflict on its side, nor has it asked them to recognise the annexation of Ukrainian territories by Russia. So long as they refuse to join the anti-Russian coalition led by the West and support Ukraine’s struggle, the Kremlin appears to be satisfied. Such agreeable neutrality was on display during the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Central Asia in February 2023. Despite his best efforts, none of his regional interlocutors condemned Russia’s invasion. Furthermore, Kazakhstan’s foreign minister stressed that his country “does not feel any threats or risks from the Russian Federation,” notwithstanding Blinken’s warnings about the war’s deleterious effects on the global rules-based order.

It is in the economic field where Central Asia has become indispensable to Moscow. Mutual trade grew by 15 percent in 2022 with an even greater expansion anticipated in 2023. Regional producers help fill the consumer void created by Western brands who left Russia. Clothing from Kyrgyzstan and table wines from Uzbekistan are just some examples in this regard. Central Asia also enables Russia to circumvent international sanctions by re-exporting embargoed goods. The extent of the problem has compelled the US, UK, and EU to mull the imposition of secondary sanctions on Central Asian companies and financial institutions. For its part, Moscow has cautioned the region’s leaders that the benefits of compliance with Western restrictive measures might be outweighed by the loss of a privileged economic relationship with Russia. In any event, the Kremlin claims it understands the extraordinary pressure its Central Asian partners face from the West and maintains close contacts with them to devise solutions and minimise risks.

The influx of migrant workers from Central Asia helps Russia cope with labour shortages caused by demographic decline and partial military mobilisation. In the first quarter of 2023 the number of foreign workers arriving in Russia reached 1.3 million, rising 1.6-fold year on year; 89 percent of them came from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. If the trend continues, a record-breaking figure of 5 million labour migrants in Russia may be achieved by the end of the year.

Central Asia features prominently in the Kremlin’s plans to diversify its energy exports and secure access to global markets bypassing Western strictures. The trilateral gas union with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan proposed by Putin in 2022 appears to be on track. In 2023, Kazakhstan’s national oil pipeline operator defied the threat of Western sanctions and agreed to deliver substantial amounts of Russian crude to China over the next ten years. Russia, which bolstered its global nuclear exports by 20 percent in 2022, has acquired control over a quarter of Kazakhstan’s large deposits of uranium in the ground thus ensuring the security of supply for decades to come. After nearly 20 years of prevarication, the Kremlin has allocated serious money to the construction of the North-South international transport corridor which would connect Russia – and Central Asia – to deep water ports in the Indian Ocean. The leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan hailed the project wholeheartedly at a meeting in Moscow in May 2023.

Strategically, Moscow works to incorporate Central Asia into its vision of a multipolar world. The war in Ukraine has enabled it to find common language with Beijing on the best ways to wean the region from Western influence. A joint statement issued by the Russian and Chinese presidents in March 2023 emphasised both sides’ agreement “to strengthen mutual coordination to support Central Asian countries’ efforts to ensure their sovereignty and national development” in the face of foreign interference under the guise of democracy promotion. The May 2023 China-Central Asia summit should be seen in light of this agreement: its final declaration identified “coloured revolutions” as the most salient regional security threat, in a clear reference to Washington’s efforts to expedite regime change. The Kremlin couldn’t agree more. Western and Ukrainian commentators’ assessments that the summit amounted to the marginalisation of Moscow in the region were dismissed by Beijing as “noises attempting to sow discord between the two countries.” Russian analysts opined that the forum took into account the Kremlin’s interests and objectively served Moscow’s aim of weakening the US and EU presence in Central Asia.

Overall, Russia has attained its objectives in Central Asia against the background of the conflict in Ukraine. The region has stayed neutral, contributed to a reasonable performance of the country’s sanctioned economy, and provided it with a safe and stable rear. The attendance of all five Central Asian leaders at the Victory Day parade in Moscow on 9 May 2023 showed that they valued their working relationship with Moscow more than reputational damage in the eyes of Ukraine and its Western allies.

Should the war drag on, the Kremlin’s success may potentially be undermined by two developments. In the unlikely event of blanket nation-wide secondary sanctions imposed by the West, the Central Asian countries could reluctantly turn their back on Russia. In the worst-case scenario for Kazakhstan, it stands to lose US$40 billion. This is the kind of loss that even China wouldn’t be able to compensate.

Another problem could be the groundswell of adverse public opinion that even the authoritarian governments couldn’t ignore. A survey conducted in Kazakhstan in May 2023 showed that a third of respondents had changed their attitude towards Russia for the worse since the war in Ukraine started. Kazakhstan’s citizens also proved to be most sceptical about Russia’s image, with only 58 percent calling it “friendly” according to a December 2022 poll. The residents of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan were much more warmly disposed, with 96 percent, 79 percent and 67 percent identifying Russia as a “friendly” country respectively.

By these accounts, Russia still has a fair way to go before it loses its clout in Central Asia irrevocably.

Source: International Affairs