Download PDF Although Russia can no longer exercise hegemonic power or demand exclusive rights of engagement, it is still the preponderant regional player in Central Asia.

Conventional wisdom holds that China and Russia have managed to reach a tacit understanding over their respective roles in Central Asia. Some argue that, with Beijing effectively conceding to Russia the leading role in an emerging security architecture, the threat of a renewed Great Game in the region has been deferred.1 Others concur that, to many observers’ surprise, Central Asia’s independent states have not become objects of rivalry between Moscow and Beijing, but rather a major unifying element in Sino-Russian relations.2 The two governments, they underscore, cooperate more closely in Central Asia than in any other world region. A third group suggests that based on the evidence available thus far, Russia and China have upended predictions of greater competition and succeeded in transforming a potential source of tension into a means of greater cooperation and mutual reassurance.3 More recently, thanks to Russia’s involvement in the Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts, and internal economic woes caused by the imposition of Western sanctions and the decline in the price of oil, many leading observers believe Russia is neglecting its ‘soft underbelly’ – Central Asia – and losing ground in the region.4

In fact, there is neither a strong Sino-Russian confrontation nor a clear ‘division of labour’ in Central Asia. In both security and cultural diplomacy, Russian President Vladimir Putin has presided over a more proactive, assertive and, ultimately, effective policy in Central Asia. Although this policy is still constrained significantly by Russia’s limited financial and economic means, Moscow has strengthened its influence, for the most part thanks to amiable relations with the Central Asian strongmen who still almost completely dominate politics in their respective countries.

Given the current power transition under way between Russia and China, a significant question is whether Beijing has challenged, or is likely to challenge, Moscow’s preponderance in Central Asia. In the short run this is unlikely. It is all too easy to lapse into clichés about the inevitable decline of Russia, the inexorable rise of China and the global retreat of the West as a public-goods provider. Whereas China tends to avoid direct involvement in local politics, Russia’s preponderant strategic and cultural involvement in Central Asia has a direct bearing on the political stability of the local regimes.5

The Central Asian domestic political environment is affected by the larger context of Russian politics and foreign policy. In fact, as the scholars Rajan Menon and Hendrik Spruyt have observed, the domestic stability of Central Asian states is affected by a combination of the type of nationalism that prevails in political culture, the robustness of local political institutions – and the effects of economic reform in Russia itself.6 Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, for example, has been careful to make sure that Kazakhstan’s economic reforms proceed in step with Russia’s, often sending to his legislature for minor modification bills previously passed by the Russian parliament.7 Although Russia is no longer in a position to exercise hegemonic power or demand exclusive rights of engagement, it is still the preponderant regional player in Central Asia, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Russia remains the most important external actor, exercising leadership in the management of regional security and skilful influence over Central Asian political elites.

Islamism and Russia’s strategic reassertion

The implosion of the Soviet Union triggered the steepest decline not associated with military defeat of any major power in modern history. In the early 1990s, Moscow had difficulty defining its national interests in relation to the newly independent states. With Russia facing the challenges of post-Soviet unravelling and president Boris Yeltsin’s erratic conduct of foreign policy, as John Berryman has observed, Central Asia was not clearly delineated as ‘abroad’ in Russian strategy.8 By the mid-1990s, however, Yevgeny Primakov argued that unless the Russian Federation was able to exercise leadership in its own part of the world, it could not reasonably expect to become a power broker of truly global stature.9 In the early 2000s, in contrast to the somewhat condescending tone that Yeltsin had adopted in his meetings with Central Asian leaders,10 Putin assumed a brisk and straightforward approach. The most immediate concern was the potential for serious instability in what was traditionally defined as Russia’s near abroad (blizhnii zarubezh). The deployment of US and coalition forces in Central Asia after 9/11, coupled with mounting Chinese military-security activity in the region, triggered a reinvigoration of Moscow’s preferred regional-security system, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). Initially, despite remaining acutely uncomfortable with the involvement of outside powers in Russia’s historic sphere of influence, Putin backed the Washington-led coalition against international terrorism and endorsed the American military presence in Central Asia, on the basis that US forces could fight local Islamic extremists more effectively than Russia and its local allies could. Yet after the US invasion of Iraq and the ‘colour revolutions’ that deposed pro-Moscow governments in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, influential Russians started to view the continued US presence as a major source of instability and began to advocate policies that sought to contain it. Since then, Russia’s state-dominated media has repeatedly urged Central Asian governments to crack down on US-supported civil-liberties groups.11

The development of a new multilateral framework for inter-state cooperation in the region – the ‘Shanghai Five’ – was largely a Chinese initiative. In the summer of 2001, the formal institutionalisation of that grouping into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was inspired by the mutually perceived threat of the new ‘isms’ – terrorism, separatism and religious extremism. It also offered Moscow the opportunity to establish a measure of shared responsibility with Beijing for the maintenance of the stability and security of Central Asia. It was an opportunity Russia seized in a calculated gamble, embarking on a radically new course by allowing and even encouraging Chinese involvement in the region.12 Through the SCO and close bilateral dialogue, Russian officials now acknowledge China’s legitimate interests in Central Asia.

Meanwhile, the mounting assumption among Central Asian regimes was that Islamism was inherently dangerous and needed to be contained, thus fuelling authoritarianism and repression throughout the region. The repression of Islamic groups and civil society at large was most pronounced in Uzbekistan, under the late president Islam Karimov. Some observers argue that the wholesale repression there of Islamic groups – fundamentalist, modernist, conservative and otherwise – has significantly contributed to their radicalisation.13 It is by now the received wisdom of Western policy that Central Asia is a source and site of particular dangers.14 What had once been the ‘land of a thousand cities’, home to some of the world’s most renowned scientists, poets and philosophers, is seen today mostly as a harsh, ominous backwater.15 As a consequence of this widespread belief, Central Asia has become embedded in Western public consciousness (to the extent that it is noticed at all) as a place of great insecurity, terrorism and radical Islamism, where violent political conflict is ready to erupt. This preconception has only increased in the wake of the Syria crisis and the prospect of Central Asian foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria returning home.

Moscow sets great store by military diplomacy

No state has exploited the discourse of fear better than Russia in order to maintain its preponderance as a security provider in Central Asia. Due to the threats looming larger on the Central Asian land mass, Moscow continues to set great store by military diplomacy. The discourse of danger plays into Russian hands: an apparent quest for external protection by Central Asian states is being fomented by Russia itself. Russian officials have often stressed that the Islamist threat to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which do not host Russian troops, is particularly acute. For example, the nationalist-leaning publication Rosbalt recently reported that the strengthening of Russian bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan was based on Russia’s increasing certainty that Islamist militants could begin to penetrate the soft underbelly of Central Asia as part of a larger mission to infiltrate Russia. The publication suggests that the smaller Central Asian states will come to rely ever more significantly on Russian arms. Moscow has repeatedly warned that many fighters from countries in Central Asia may return home from Syria and Iraq and trigger instability in the region, which could also pose a security threat to Russia.16

In that respect, Russia has reasserted itself as a key counter-terrorism player in the region by upgrading its ties with the Central Asian states. The Russian military and Russia’s internal security service, the FSB, have forged close, and incomparable, ties with Central Asian counterparts.17 Islamic radicalism appears to be an increasingly prominent topic of their bilateral meetings, suiting both the republics’ leaderships (and their massive security apparatuses) and the Russians, the ‘guarantors of stability’. Ruling groups in Central Asia, especially in Uzbekistan, have increasingly exploited the politics of Islamophobia to consolidate their power and portray themselves as the guardians of stability. The security apparatus is constantly underlining its prowess in preventing more attacks in the region, repressing militant extremists and safeguarding secularism. A lack of transparency about the number and nature of these threats makes it hard to tell whether there is a real danger in the making, or whether the security services are rather finding ways to justify their extraordinarily large budgets.18

The flourishing drug trade that fills terrorist coffers makes its way across Central Asia from Afghanistan, nourishing corruption and organised crime, and, in a vicious cycle, creating fertile soil for extremism. The drawdown of American forces and the concomitant withdrawal of NATO combat troops from Afghanistan has combined with an increase in the spread of Islamist extremism and the mounting cost of narcotics trafficking to create a compelling rationale for increased engagement by Russian security forces.19 In turn, it provides the pretext for strengthening inter-service ties and Russian encroachment on the national sovereignty of neighbour states. While indulging in its inclination to broaden the category of terrorism to serve its own great-power aspirations, Moscow also covertly helps Central Asian autocrats to preserve regime-friendly definitions of national stability. Russia has successfully nurtured the narrative that the rise of radical Islamism in Central Asia, particularly if Pakistan becomes a failed state and the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorates following the withdrawal of American combat troops, would mean a perfect storm of domestic instability in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, thereby escalating geopolitical rivalries, Islamist extremism and terrorism. And while Kazakhstan is better equipped than other Central Asian republics to deal with these challenges, the extent of such disorder could be beyond its managerial capacity. Russia has successfully convinced the local authoritarian leaders that their interests are best served in a scenario where Russia remains the key regional-security player.20 There is a causal relationship between the region’s authoritarian stability and the nature of Russia as a key security provider. As long as the threat, perceived and actual, of Islamic radicalism persists, Russia’s position in Central Asia is strengthened, and as long as terrorism remains among the principal domestic challenges of the region’s governments, neither side will seek substantial adjustments.

The Syria crisis represents something of a turning point, in that it has cemented Russia’s role. Aside from being a testing ground for Russia’s new weapons, private military companies and operational tactics, the war in Syria illustrates that in the domain of traditional military might, Russian power is still formidable.21 As the result of wide-scale military reforms launched after the Georgian war, the Russian armed forces are now able to conduct operations in complex environments far from home. Russia’s military supremacy against regional allies has been manifested now on an increasingly complex battlefield, and not only at regular CSTO or SCO military exercises in neighbouring countries. In this respect, an iron fist in Syria, whatever its flaws, cannot but impress other friendly tyrannies, especially Central Asian governments.22 And whereas Russia’s confrontations with Georgia and Ukraine were received with caution by many of its closest partners, Moscow’s Syria adventure finds enormous support from Central Asian states, given that the region is the third-largest source of foreign fighters for the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and other terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq.23

Aside from military diplomacy, it is through organs such as the FSB and strategic companies (such as Rosatom in Kazakhstan) that Russia exerts crucial strategic influence on the Central Asian republics.24 As one observer in Kazakhstan put it, ‘some people feel like they are governed by Russia, especially when it comes to the secret service operations. The Russians still control the “right people” within our siloviki [securocrats, high-level security officials] and derzhavniki [great-power nationalist] establishment.’25 Most of the current local leadership have maintained their positions for decades, particularly in the two most powerful Central Asian states, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, where the founding fathers inherited a continuous link to the old Soviet nomenklatura.26 Most of the professional diplomatic corps worked previously in the foreign ministry of the Soviet Union. They share with Russia a similar logic of appropriateness – that is, an internalised understanding of how to behave – and a top-down, opaque political culture.27

In the face of terrorism, the vicious circle of government repression and societal radicalisation is self-perpetuating, and it is exacerbated by development strategies that lead to pervasive corruption and collusion with Russian counterparts. Russia’s geopolitical, security and energy-policy goals are strongly bound up with incumbent Central Asian leaders, and it has sought to advance its interests so far through working with current elites in Central Asia, which has meant largely overlooking the slide towards autocracy.28 On the other hand, the recent peaceful power transition in Uzbekistan – favourable to Moscow – shows that even when a peaceful power transition takes place, Russia still has powerful channels through which to influence the process. After the passing of Karimov, the political elite was eager to engage Russia as a partner in the process of succession that resulted in the appointment and eventual election of Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Uzbekistan gambled that Russia would offer unconditional support and a veneer of legitimacy, and refrain from questioning the fairness of staged elections.29

Russia has powerful channels

This is not to say that the Kremlin was able to influence the naming of the eventual successor directly; instead it reflects the role of Moscow’s support in the process of continuing domestic consolidation in post-Soviet regimes.30 The Russian leadership is aided in its ability to remove individuals it distrusts both by the amount of corruption tolerated by local ruling elites and by the existence of rivalries within their ranks, allowing the Russians to play divide and conquer. These traditional patron–client mechanisms are based on corporate mentalities, private interests and individual loyalties, as well as on a hybrid use of formal and informal power.31 Such patronage systems have been stable over a long period of time.32

The relationship between Russia and the Central Asian governments thus not only reflects their concerns about security and regime stability, but is also a rejection of the policies towards which other interested actors – especially the US and the EU – have hoped to steer Central Eurasia.33 China, for its part, has no intention of challenging Russia’s role as the primary regional security provider. Moreover, some observers argue that Russia has tried to monopolise security through the CSTO and bilateral arrangements, thus limiting China’s role to counter-terrorism in opposition to Islamic separatists.34

Economic regionalism and energy trade

In keeping with the general resurgence of regionalism in the post-Cold War international order,35 since the early 1990s there has been a proliferation of regional and sub-regional groupings involving Central Asian states.36 Far from engendering a new regional order in Central Asia, however, the multiple economic and security-architecture projects have served to entrench previously existing patterns of cooperation.

The Unites States, for one, has failed to make a lasting impact, engaging in regionalist projects only sporadically and preferring to engage the Central Asian states on a bilateral basis.37 The SCO, by contrast, takes the multilateral approach – but its operation capacity is limited. China has compensated by increasing bilateral ties, and establishing the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB).

Other initiatives sponsored directly by the Central Asian governments have not amounted to much. The weakness of the individual Central Asian states has pushed them to establish regional organisations, but weak states make for weak partners. As Central Asia expert Boris Rumer has noted, the Central Asian states have neither a shared interest in a single market, as in the European Union, nor a large investment of resources from one of the member states, as in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).38 Political scientist Annette Bohr, moreover, notes that the countries’ economies are more competing than complementary, with the exception of certain specific resource complementarities (such as oil and coal in Kazakhstan, natural gas and cotton in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and hydropower resources in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). Even in the sphere of energy, the Central Asian states have focused on import-substitution strategies at the expense of regional trade.39

The SREB, the largest terrestrial component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is the result of China’s startling growth. It is a hugely ambitious programme, to invest as much as $1 trillion in new transport and trade infrastructure (including railroads, pipelines, highways and power plants) between China and the rest of the world.40 China aspires to be the key trading and investment partner for states across the Eurasian continent and to open up new routes for trade. Both Russia and the United States have publicly endorsed Chinese plans in Central Asia, though for opposite reasons: US policymakers engaged with Eurasia and Central Asia view the BRI as promoting connectivity across Central Asia and offering alternatives to Russian-led initiatives, while Russian officials continue to cultivate a strategic partnership with Beijing against Western influence and have reconciled themselves to trying to shape China’s regional plans rather than oppose them.41 In May 2017, President Donald Trump agreed to send a top Asia specialist to the Belt and Road Forum, nodding to China’s political and economic power and welcoming China’s initiative as a counterbalance to Russia’s regional influence.42

During а presidential summit in May 2015, Russia and China committed to cooperation between the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the BRI.43 This significant political gesture was proposed by Moscow for obvious reasons: it was a way to recognise its own relative economic weakness without losing face. The discrepancies between public face and policy reality are, indeed, increasingly evident in relation to Russian perspectives on China’s astonishing economic influence. Russia simply cannot build the kind of Central Asian connectivity infrastructure on the scale that China is planning as part of the SREB. Nor can it match the foreign direct investment that China seems prepared to offer to Russia’s neighbours.44 For Moscow, the shifting balance of power between Russia and China provides a good reason to adopt a non-confrontational approach, but Russia watches the deepening Chinese presence in this region with some unease.45

Moscow, in response, has promoted the notion of ‘Greater Eurasia’, a vague project that would link China, Russia and Central Asia in a new economic and political bloc, and sees cooperation with China as intrinsic to this.46 According to the Russian policy analyst Timofei Bordachev, in a world made of economic and security macro-blocs, Moscow could serve as a key pivot ‘for creating an economic and political Greater Eurasian Community’,47 a region stretching from Eastern Europe to East Asia. There has been little follow-up, however, and it seems likely the two projects will largely run in parallel with the SREB to prioritise bilateral trade, investment and infrastructure, while the EEU focuses on internal cooperation among its members, a sign that Russia still has reservations. Despite their reluctance to say so publicly, many Russian officials see China’s growing power and assertiveness as a potential threat, notwithstanding the growing confrontation between Russia and the West. But how the Kremlin will deal with China’s undeniable economic advantages very much depends on what happens in Russia itself.

China is the leading energy player

Energy politics, a field in which Russia used to have a clear advantage, is putting a further dent in Russia’s regional economic clout.48 During the 1990s, Russia maintained its long-time primacy in energy relations with Central Asian countries.49 Thanks to the legacy of the integrated Soviet economy, Gazprom moved quickly to lock both Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan into new production agreements for the Russian distribution network,50 offering significantly higher prices to deter potential competitors from outside the region.51 Russian firms and business groups still have a stake in much of the transportation infrastructure for Central Asia’s oil, gas and electricity. Moscow thus has the advantage of path dependency, especially via its vast export-pipeline system. But this is not enough to prevent change, and today, China is the leading energy player in the region.

In 2009, the presidents of China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan celebrated the inauguration of the Central Asia–China pipeline, which runs approximately 2,000 kilometres through the four countries, and has a planned total capacity of 40 billion cubic metres (bcm).52 This marks the first major diversion (save for Turkmenistan’s exports of gas to Iran beginning in 1998) of former Soviet Union gas resources outside the Soviet-legacy Gazprom pipeline network.53 Turkmenistan delivered 125bcm of natural gas to China from 2009 to August 2015.54 In 2016, Turkmenistan stopped exporting gas to Russia entirely; at the same time, Uzbek yearly gas exports to Russia dropped to 1bcm. As a replacement for past energy trade with Russia, rent-seeking elites from Central Asia have become almost completely dependent on energy revenues from China. China’s growing energy needs represent perhaps the most serious blow to Russia’s influence over Central Asian states.

While Russia has reluctantly accepted the inevitability of Central Asia’s continued integration with Chinese distribution arteries for the delivery of oil and gas, it has taken great care to ward off any Central Asian gas competition with its own sales in Europe – especially with regard to the proposed Nabucco pipeline project, which planned to bypass Russia as an alternative route for bringing natural gas from the Caspian to Europe.55 Expanding trade and the resulting economic reorientation of post-Soviet Central Asia towards China is nevertheless a source of concern, not least because it has allowed Beijing to drive a hard bargain with Moscow over its own gas sales. Moscow is now a competitor in economic relations with Central Asia, rather than a neo-imperial conqueror.56 China needs significant volumes of Russian gas, but it can use its growing energy diversification as leverage, if need be, with Central Asia as a primary site of contestation. The availability of cheap Central Asian gas was a principal reason Beijing could hold out for a lower price in its gas talks with Moscow. Russia, for its part, was concerned about putting all its eggs in the Chinese basket, especially given the strategic importance of natural gas as a pre-eminent Russian foreign-policy tool. On the other hand, there were increasing domestic demands that Russia open up to China to invigorate economic growth. Worries about strategic independence in Asia prevailed and made Gazprom wait too long, only to realise in 2014, in extremis, that the longer it waited, the worse a deal it was ultimately going to receive.57

In September 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a highly publicised tour through Central Asia, signing over $50bn in bilateral deals.58 China is now far and away the biggest trade and investment partner for Central Asia and, gradually, is translating its powerful economic influence into a broader strategic presence. Xi’s tour was notable not only for several huge commercial deals, but also significant arms sales to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.59

Neither Russia nor China is content, however, to permit a division of labour, in which Moscow plays security provider and political influencer, while Beijing increases trade and injects financial capital. Russia, for its part, is the main export destination for Central Asian labour resources and will maintain this role for the foreseeable future. Moscow has blocked Beijing’s efforts to establish an SCO Free Trade Zone, and objected to Chinese initiatives to create a development bank under the auspices of the SCO, because of fears that Beijing would dominate these arrangements. The SREB is therefore an alternative framework for Chinese influence, albeit one with which Russia has been forced to make its peace in face of its own economic troubles.60

Moscow has sought to compensate for its own economic decline by broadening the normative and political appeal of the multilateral economic organisations it leads. Eurasianism, here, is an attempt to create impetus for integration by playing civilisational politics. In this iteration of political myth-weaving, Moscow rejects the ‘universal values’ of the West and highlights a shared Eurasian heritage, resting on a distant inter-Asian imperial continuity laid during the so-called period of the Russian ‘Tatar-Mongolian Yoke’ lasting from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century. This is a carefully manufactured narrative which assists the larger purpose of a Russian-led political Eurasia.61 There is an element of coercion in such courtship, however, no matter how softly it is articulated.

Whatever its troubles, Russia does retain significant economic instruments in its dalliance with Central Asia. Millions of Central Asian migrants work in Russia. Their remittances make an essential contribution to the gross national products of their countries of origin, help calm potential sources of social strife and give Central Asian governments another reason to stay on Moscow’s good side.62 Though the value of remittances may fluctuate, they are a lifeline to Central Asia’s poorer economies such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.63 In 2015, for instance, remittances from Kyrgyz migrants amounted to $1.7bn and accounted for 25.7% of GDP. Remittances from Tajik migrants amounted to $1.2bn, or 28.8% of GDP.64

Russia also has the advantage of geographical proximity: it is not going away. But, most importantly, Russia possesses another trump card which it continues to play well and vigorously: cultural diplomacy.

Russian cultural diplomacy

In contrast with the imperial years,65 Moscow’s iron hand in the near abroad is dressed in a velvet glove. Central Asian elites remain culturally Russianised, providing leverage over leadership successions;66 use of the Russian language remains widespread, and Russian popular culture and news reach a wide regional audience; and Eurasianist ideas of political convergence and ‘civilisational unity’ have some appeal. These are forms of soft power which China cannot match, despite Beijing’s growing efforts to promote neo-Confucianism.67 The Russian message to Central Asian local masses and local rulers alike is the pride that they may take in not being jostled by either the hypocritical West or their disconcertingly powerful neighbour, China.

The cultural environment is becoming less welcoming for China. Chinese investments have been linked to high-profile cases of corruption in sectors such as energy, telecommunications, mining and road construction. One of the targets of corruption purges in China has been the China National Petroleum Corporation, including officials who worked in Kazakhstan. In 2016, Kyrgyzstan’s then-prime minister departed under a cloud of bribery accusations connected mostly to a road-building contract won by Chinese firm Longhai.68 Side payments to senior officials have led some experts to conclude that without greater checks on local graft, the introduction of high-ticket BRI projects in the region threatens to ratchet up private payments, making it more difficult for companies from other countries to compete for investment opportunities.69 In May 2016, major protests broke out in Kazakhstan over Chinese investments in agriculture,70 fed by negative perceptions of Chinese labour and environmental practices, as well as the perceived danger of the corrupt commercial practices of Chinese corporate monopolies.71 Anti-Chinese sentiment is widespread, and racist stereotypes are often aired publicly.72 Russia has cannily used its media to criticise Chinese regulatory and environmental standards, disseminate rumours about a large influx of Chinese migrants and stoke mounting Sinophobia.73

China, for its part, has hoped to paint an image of itself as a benign regional power, contrasting the EEU’s inward-looking customs union and anti-Western bent with China’s push for free trade across the region and on into Europe.74 Attempts to warm Central Asian public opinion to China’s investments on this basis, however, have had mixed results. The various Central Asian states each have agendas of their own, and Moscow’s old patrimonial approach to bilateral relations has proven much more successful.

The social fabric of these societies is made up from an intermixture of family, clan, tribal, sub-ethnic and regional affiliations and loyalties.75 As Anna Matveeva has observed, for authoritarianism to function effectively under such circumstances the regime needs a vehicle through which to exercise power and implement orders, such as a ‘pragmatic party’ of governance, a reliable military or a co-opted network of regional elites.76 In the absence of developed ‘parties of power’, the Central Asian regimes have relied on Russia’s secret services to crush anyone who might develop a following.

All this, of course, comes with an expectation of reciprocal political loyalty. This means Moscow can rely on an expectation of brotherhood, rather than direct coercion. The post-Karimov succession is an excellent example, and has been followed by Russian military plans to hold joint military exercises with Uzbekistan in October 2017.77 That said, Kazakhstan, the wealthiest country in the region, lacks a clear succession process, and the centrality of Nazarbayev’s personal role in maintaining good order in Russia–Kazakhstan relations represents a source of vulnerability for Moscow.78 We should expect Russia to work hard to shore up its influence when a transition eventually comes.

* * *

Central Asian states lament the void left by the Obama administration after the US drawdown in Afghanistan, during which the NATO liaison office in Tashkent was closed, a significant score for Moscow.79 Based on the evidence thus far, the Trump administration’s engagement with post-Soviet Eurasia will be even more sporadic. Today, the Central Asian member states are ambivalent about the surging power of Russia and China and would, to a greater or lesser extent, welcome an enduring US military presence in the region, as well as greater Turkish, Iranian and Indian involvement. From the Central Asian perspective, whatever their irritation with the West’s normative preoccupations, the retreat of Western institutions and policies makes it more difficult for them to balance competing interests and leaves them squeezed between the two giants.80 If ‘America First’ means Central Asia commands even less attention in the coming years, the United States will further lose its ability to promote core objectives.81 In turn, the EU’s energy-security agenda and the West’s traditional, values-based foreign policy will be inevitably weakened.

Central Asia lies at the core of many of the new intra-regional corridors and regionalist economic structures planned by Russia and China. Western policymakers should remain mindful that none of the Central Asian states want to become pure client states. The Trump administration has expended little effort on developing a new policy approach towards Central Asia; this might eventually compel America to rely on Russian (or Chinese) judgements in defining its own interests in the region. In the absence of a coordinated Western approach, and given China’s limitations, Russia remains predominant.

Even worse, however, a radically diminished US role in Central Asia could open the way to more unrestrained Russian–Chinese competition in the region. As Russia seeks to reassert its presence, and China attempts to maximise its economic stake, the outcome of their bilateral interactions remains uncertain. In the past, mutual accommodation between Russia and China has been eased by common alignment against the United States. Without that dynamic, the alleged strategic complementarity between the EEU and the BRI is even more likely to turn sour.

Perhaps Russia and China will see their respective projects as beneficial to regional stability in Central Asia. Nor should we exclude the possibility that Russia will act as a benign regional hegemon. For the foreseeable future, however, Washington’s loss of interest in Central Asia seems likely to encourage more assertive and interventionist instincts in Moscow.


1 Bobo Lo, ‘The Long Sunset of Strategic Partnership: Russia’s Evolving China Policy’, International Affairs, vol. 80, no. 2, 2004, p. 297.

2 Richard Weitz, ‘Averting a New Great Game in Central Asia’, Washington Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 3, 2006, pp. 155–67. See also Raffaello Pantucci, ‘China and Russia’s Soft Competition in Central Asia’, Current History, October 2015, pp. 272–7.

3 Samuel Charap, John Drennan and Pierre Noël, ‘Russia and China: A New Model of Great-Power Relations’, Survival, vol. 59, no. 1, February–March 2017, pp. 25–42.

4 See Pantucci, ‘China and Russia’s Soft Competition in Central Asia’; and ‘Rossija terjaet Tsentralnuju Aziju’,, 28 February 2017,

5 For theoretically informed assessments of the development of Russian relations with its former satellites in Central Asia, see Rajan Menon and Hendrik Spruyt, ‘The Limits of Neorealism: Understanding Security in Central Asia’, Review of International Studies, vol. 25, no. 1, January 1999, pp. 87–106.

6 Ibid., pp. 87–8.

7 Martha Brill Olcott, ‘Central Asia’s Catapult to Independence’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 71, no. 3, Summer 1992, pp. 108–30.

8 John Berryman, ‘Russia and China in the New Central Asia: The Security Agenda’, in Roger E. Kanet (ed.), Russia: Re-Emerging Great Power (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), pp. 152–72.

9 Andrei Tsygankov, Russia’s Foreign Policy: Change and Continuity in National Identity (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 4th ed., 2016), p. 97.

10 Olcott, ‘Central Asia’s Catapult to Independence’, p. 115.

11 Weitz, ‘Averting a New Great Game in Central Asia’.

12 Lo, ‘The Long Sunset of Strategic Partnership’.

13 Annette Bohr, ‘Regionalism in Central Asia: New Geopolitics, Old Regional Order’, International Affairs, vol. 80, no. 3, 2004, p. 501. See also Anna Matveeva, ‘Democratization, Legitimacy and Political Change in Central Asia’, International Affairs, vol. 75, no. 1, 1999, p. 41; Pauline Jones Luong and Erika Weinthal, ‘New Friends, New Fears in Central Asia’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 81, no. 2, March–April 2002, pp. 61–70.

14 John Heathershaw and Nick Megoran, ‘Contesting Danger: A New Agenda for Policy and Scholarship on Central Asia’, International Affairs, vol. 87, no. 3, May 2011, pp. 589–612.

15 S. Frederick Starr, ‘Rediscovering Central Asia’, Wilson Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 3, Summer 2009, pp. 33–43.

16 ‘Rossiia sobralas’ voevat’ v Tsentral’noi Azii?’, Rosbalt, 15 June 2017. See also ‘Possible Return of IS Central Asian Fighters a Cause for Concern in Region’, Voice of America, 20 September 2017,

17 Alexander Cooley, ‘Principles in the Pipeline: Managing Transatlantic Values and Interests in Central Asia’, International Affairs, vol. 84, no. 6, 2008, p. 1,183.

18 Author interview with Uzbek policy expert and former government official, Almaty, February 2017. On the same topic, author interview with political expert from Kazakhstan, November 2017.

19 Bobo Lo, ‘Frontiers New and Old: Russia’s Policy
in Central Asia’, IFRI, January 2015, p. 16,

20 Author interview with Kazakh government representative, Astana, November 2016; author interview with Uzbek governmental adviser, Almaty, February 2017; and author interview with Western diplomat, Bishkek, October 2016.

21 See ‘Rossiya prevrashchaet Siriyu v arenu dlya ispytaniya svoego vooruzheniya’, inoSMI, 5 June 2017,; ‘Nemnogo biznesa v siriiskoi voine’, Fontanka, 26 June 2017,; and ‘Assessment: Russian Military Strategy, Operational Tactics and Objective in Syria’, Center for Land Warfare Studies, 23 January 2017,

22 Joseph Nye, Jr, The Future of Power, (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011), p. xiv.

23 See Erlan Karin, ‘Central Asia: Facing Radical Islam’, IFRI, February 2017, p. 9; and Thomas F. Lynch III, Michael Bouffard, Kelsey King and Graham Vickowski, ‘The Return of Foreign Fighters to Central Asia: Implications for U.S. Counterterrorism Policy’, National Defense University Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), 29 October 2016.

24 Author interview with former Kazakh government adviser, Astana, November 2017; author interviews with policy experts, government officials and academics in Almaty, October 2016, Astana, November 2016, and Bishkek, February 2017.

25 Namely, those supporting the assertion of Russia’s status as a great power, and its resorting to military capability to promote its foreign-policy aspirations. Author interview with Kazakh political expert and researcher, Almaty, March 2017.

26 Olcott, ‘Central Asia’s Catapult to Independence’, p. 108.

27 On the concept of the ‘logic of appropriateness’, see James G. March and Johan P. Olsen, ‘The Institutional Dynamics of International Political Orders’, International Organization, no. 52, pp. 943–69.

28 Roy Allison, ‘Strategic Reassertion in Russia’s Central Asia Policy’, International Affairs, vol. 80, no. 2, March 2004, p. 285.

29 Dmitriy Nurullayev, ‘Uzbekistan’s Succession Question Is Russia’s Strategic Opportunity’, Diplomat, 4 September 2016. See also Joshua Kuchera, ‘As Uzbekistan’s Presidential Succession Underway, Putin to Drop By’, EurasiaNet, 5 September 2016.

30 Author telephone interview with OSCE official, April 2017.

31 Henry E. Hale, Great Expectations: Patronal Politics and Regime Dynamics in Eurasia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015). See also Marlene Laruelle, ‘Patronal Politics in Central Asia’, Demokratizatsiya, vol. 20, no. 4, 2012; and Kimberly Marten, ‘Putin’s Choices: Explaining Russian Foreign Policy and Intervention in Ukraine’, Washington Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 2, p. 193.

32 These arrangements date back to Russia’s imperial past. Leaders in every area of Russia’s kinship-driven politics, business and society have an obligation to protect and promote their personal clients in the network, and followers in turn owe a debt of loyalty to the patrons who care for them. See Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001); T.H. Rigby, ‘Political Patronage in the USSR from Lenin to Brezhnev’, Politics, vol. 18, no. 1, May 1983, pp. 84–9; Henry E. Hale, ‘Formal Constitutions in Informal Politics: Institutions and Democratization in Post-Soviet Eurasia’, World Politics, vol. 63, no. 4, October 2011, pp. 581–617; Marlene Laurelle, ‘Discussing Neopatrimonialism and Patronal Presidentialism in the Central Asian Context’, Demokratizatsiya, vol. 20, no. 4, 2012, pp. 301–24; and Hale, Patronal Politics.

33 David Kerr, ‘Central Asian and Russian Perspectives on China’s Strategic Emergence’, International Affairs, vol. 86, no. 1, January 2010, p. 134.

34 Gilbert Rozman, ‘The Russian Pivot to Asia’, ASAN Forum, 1 December 2014, p. 5,

35 Andrej Krickovic, ‘Imperial Nostalgia or Prudent Geopolitics: Russia’s Efforts to Promote Regional Integration in the Post-Soviet Space from a Geopolitical Perspective’, Post-Soviet Affairs, vol. 30, no. 6, November 2014, pp. 503–28.

36 Bohr, ‘Regionalism in Central Asia’, p. 485.

37 For a detailed analysis, see Charles E. Ziegler, ‘Central Asia, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and American Foreign Policy from Indifference to Engagement’, Asian Survey, vol. 53, no. 3, May/June 2013, pp. 484–505.

38 Boris Rumer (ed.), Central Asia and the New Global Economy (London: M. E. Sharpe, 2000), p. 10. Cited in Bohr, ‘Regionalism in Central Asia’, p. 496.

39 Ibid., p. 496. Bohr argues that there is a limit to the scope for the expansion of trade within the narrowly defined Central Asian region. All five countries export primarily a limited range of commodities with substantial overlap among them.

40 For a detailed discussion, see Crisis Group, ‘Central Asia’s Silk Road Rivalries’, Europe and Central Asia Report, no. 245, 27 July 2017, p. 2.

41 Alexander Cooley, ‘The Emerging Political Economy of OBOR: The Challenges of Promoting Connectivity in Central Asia and Beyond’, CSIS, October 2016, p. 8,

42 ‘U.S. to Send Delegation to China’s Belt and Road Summit’, Reuters, 12 May 2017,

43 In May 2015, when Russia officially endorsed EEU–Belt cooperation, it had done so after a period of nearly two years of assessment. Richard Ghiasy and Jiayi Zhou, ‘The Silk Road Economic Belt’, SIPRI, 2017, p. 39.

44 Charap et al., ‘Russia and China: A New Model of Great-Power Relations’, p. 34.

45 Author interview with representative from the Eurasian Development Bank, Astana, November 2016.

46 According to Crisis Group, the concept of Greater Eurasia for now is mostly rhetorical. See Crisis Group, ‘Central Asia’s Silk Road Rivalries’, p. 18. The EEU struggles to find potential members. For instance, leaders in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are implacably opposed, and seem to privilege ties with China.

47 Timofei Bordachev, ‘Russia and China in Central Asia: The Great Win–Win Game’, Russia in Global Affairs, 1 July 2016,

48 Author interview with senior adviser, Ministry of Energy of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Astana, November 2016.

49 Morena Skalamera, ‘Sino-Russian Energy Relations Reversed: A New Little Brother’, Energy Strategy Reviews, vol. 13, no. 14, 2016, pp. 97–108.

50 The transportation and pipeline network in Central Asia was part of the larger Soviet infrastructure, which was geared first and foremost towards Russia. For a detailed discussion, see Bohr, ‘Regionalism in Central Asia’, p. 498.

51 Cooley, ‘Principles in the Pipeline’, p. 1,183.

52 Skalamera, ‘Sino-Russian Energy Relations Reversed: A New Little Brother’.

53 The inauguration of the Central Asia–China gas pipeline (CAGP) in 2009 has enabled China to become Turkmenistan’s number-one energy customer and trading partner. In 2015, moreover, China became Uzbekistan’s main trading partner, taking the top spot from Russia.

54 ‘Turkmenistan Supplied 125 bcm of Gas to China’, Natural Gas Europe, 28 September 2015,

55 Pavel K. Baev and Indcra Øverland, ‘The South Stream Versus Nabucco Pipeline Race: Geopolitical and Economic (Ir)Rationales and Political Stakes in Mega-Projects’, International Affairs, vol. 86, no. 5, 2010, p. 1,077. See also Morena Skalamera, ‘Revisiting the Nabucco Debacle’, Problems of Post-Communism, 2016, pp. 1–19.

56 Matveeva, ‘Democratization, Legitimacy and Political Change in Central Asia’, p. 26.

57 For a more detailed analysis, see Skalamera, ‘Sino-Russian Energy Relations Reversed: A New Little Brother’.

58 Ben Chu, ‘China’s $50bn Spending Spree on New Silk Road’, Independent, 2 October 2013,

59 Ghiasy and Zhou, ‘The Silk Road Economic Belt’, p. 42.

60 Cooley, ‘The Emerging Political Economy of OBOR’, p. 9.

61 Nicole Weygandt and Peter J. Katzenstein, ‘Mapping Eurasia in an Open World: How the Insularity of Russia’s Geopolitical and Civilizational Approaches Limits Its Foreign Policies’, Perspectives on Politics, vol. 15, no. 2, June 2017, pp. 428–42.

62 Weitz, ‘Averting a New Great Game in Central Asia’, p. 157.

63 Crisis Group, ‘Central Asia’s Silk Road Rivalries’, p. 19.

64 ‘Remittance Data Inflows April 2017’, World Bank, April 2017.

65 For an excellent analysis of this, see Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire.

66 Rozman, ‘The Russian Pivot to Asia’, p. 5.

67 Sebastien Peyrouse, ‘Discussing China: Sinophilia and Sinophobia in Central Asia’, Journal of Eurasian Studies, no. 7, 2016, pp. 14–23.

68 Raffaello Pantucci, ‘China’s Place in Central Asia’, Lobelog, 23 June 2016,

69 Cooley, ‘The Emerging Political Economy of OBOR’, p. 13.

70 The protests broke out in several Kazakh cities after a law was amended to allow the lease of land to foreign investors for 25 years.

71 Personal communications with local businessmen and economic analysts, Bishkek and Astana, October and November 2016.

72 Author interview with UNDP representative, Astana, November 2016.

73 Author interview with Ministry of Foreign Affairs official, Astana, November 2016; author interview with opposition leader, Almaty, March 2017; and author conversation with policy expert based in Kazakhstan, March 2017.

74 For more details, see Crisis Group, ‘Central Asia’s Silk Road Rivalries’, p. 23.

75 Kathleen Collins, ‘The Logic of Clan Politics: Evidence from the Central Asian Trajectories’, World Politics, vol. 56, no. 2, January 2004, p. 234.

76 Matveeva, ‘Democratization, Legitimacy and Political Change in Central Asia’, p. 36.

77 As Samuel Ramani notes, Uzbekistan’s acceptance of Russia’s request for joint military drills constitutes a striking shift in the bilateral relationship, as it opens the door for Uzbekistan eventually rejoining the CSTO. Samuel Ramani, ‘Russia and Uzbekistan’s Renewed Security Partnership’, Diplomat, 11 July 2017,

78 Lo, ‘Russia and the New World Disorder’, p. 113.

79 Author interview with Uzbek expert, Astana, November 2016.

80 Author interview with Kazakh academic and policy experts, November 2016.

81 For a detailed discussion, see Paul Stronski, ‘Uncertain Continuity: Central Asia and the Trump Administration’, George Washington University, 14 July 2017,

Morena Skalamera is a research associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, conducting research on the geopolitics of energy.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

December 2017–January 2018

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