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Is Central Asia distancing itself from Russia?

The Russia-Ukraine conflict which has been continuing for the last more than seven months has resulted in a huge decline in the standing and prestige of Russia in the world. It was initially thought that Russia would be able to effect a quick regime change in Kiev resulting in an early end to the war. It was with such assumptions that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was offered political asylum both by the then UK PM Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden in the first days of the conflict. Zelensky, however, countered by saying that he wanted, not asylum, but armaments and ammunition to fight the enemy.

Right from the beginning, Zelensky maintained that he was fighting to win. No one believed him. They attributed his statements to misplaced bravado. Both Zelensky and his forces as well as the Ukrainian people however surprised the whole world with the grit and determination with which they withstood the onslaught of the mighty Russian army. Russian President Vladimir Putin might have thought that the Russian forces would be welcomed as liberators in Ukraine but the tenacity and fortitude with which the Ukrainian soldiers and people have defended their country has earned them the admiration and respect of large segments of the global community.

Ukraine’s remarkable successes particularly over the last few weeks by quickly taking over large swathes of land in the north and south of the country earlier annexed by Russia as well as strategically situated towns like Lyman have taken Russia as well as the world by surprise. The wisdom at the start of the war was that Ukraine cannot win because Russia cannot lose. The significant reverses suffered by Russia over the last few weeks have forced the global strategic community to re-examine its assumptions.

In Central Asia, China has been rapidly expanding its footprint over the last many years, not only in the trade and economic fields but also in political, military, and security affairs. This has been evident in the myriad oil and gas pipelines from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan in Central Asia to China over the last two decades. The Belt and Road Initiative launched initially as the One Belt One Road Project in 2013 in Kazakhstan has provided a further impetus to the rapidly expanding China-Central Asia partnership.

Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has been viewed as the security provider of the Central Asia region. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a NATO-like security bloc established under the leadership of the Russian Federation was expected to ensure the security and stability of countries in the region. The CSTO did swing into action to provide a few thousand troops to provide security to Kazakhstan when it was rocked by violent protests and demonstrations at the beginning of this year. Although the CSTO forces stayed in Kazakhstan for barely a few weeks and were not required to fire even a single shot, the fact that they could be mobilized at such short notice was seen as indicative of Russia’s authority in the region.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict since the end of February 2022 has, however, completely transformed the relative equation and standing of Russia and China in Central Asia. This had started becoming evident even since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea by Russia. The ensuing sanctions by the West resulted in pushing Russia increasingly into the embrace of China with Russia emerging as the junior, subordinate partner to China.

The last few months have thrown up many instances which would emphatically suggest that the Central Asian nations viz. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are getting increasingly uneasy and uncomfortable with Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The sway and influence of Russia in Central Asia which it characterizes as it’s ‘near abroad’ is declining and sliding.

Several instances to substantiate the above can be cited. Some of these are:

Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan which are the largest countries of Central Asia in land area and population respectively pursue “multi-vector foreign policies.” Leaders of both countries have stated unequivocally that they will not recognize the independent status of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics.

At the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in June 2022, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan responding to a question in the presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Kazakhstan does not acknowledge the independence of LPR and DPR. He said that if the right of nations to self-determination was recognized, there would be more than 500-600 countries instead of the current 193 members of the UN. For this reason, he said that Kazakhstan inter alia does not recognize the independence of Kosovo, or [the breakaway Georgian regions of] South Ossetia and Abkhazia. And, also quasi-state territories like Luhansk and Donetsk. Kazakh Foreign Ministry stated on 26th September 2022 that it will not recognize the referenda conducted by Russia in the four provinces of Ukraine. It voiced its support for the territorial integrity of States.

During the same visit to St Petersburg, Tokayev, in response to a question from the state-run Rossia-24 television station, about the gratitude that Kazakhstan ought to feel for the support rendered by Russia/CSTO to it in its hour of need in January 2022, stated: “In Russia, some people distort this whole situation asserting that Russia supposedly saved Kazakhstan and Kazakhstan should now eternally serve and bow down at the feet of Russia. I believe that these are totally unjustified arguments that are far from reality.”

The then Foreign Minister of Uzbekistan Abdulaziz Kamilov stated in the Uzbek Senate on 17th March 2022: “Uzbekistan historically has traditional all-round ties with both Ukraine and Russia…Uzbekistan recognizes the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine. We do not recognize the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics.”

Senior Kazakh leaders have stated on several occasions that Kazakhstan will not violate the Western sanctions imposed on Russia as it did not wish to be subjected to secondary sanctions of the western nations.

Timur Suleimenov, the first deputy chief of staff to president Tokayaev said during his visit to Brussels in March 2022: “We have not recognized and do not recognize either the situation with Crimea or the situation with Donbas, because the UN does not recognize them. We will only respect decisions made at the level of the United Nations.”

Kazakhstan’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Roman Vassilenko, in a meeting with the EU in March 2022, emphasized the importance of minimizing or preventing the negative effects of the EU’s sanctions against Russia on trade and economic relations between Kazakhstan and the EU. He added: “European companies are leaving Russia either due to sanctions or due to pressure from the public, from shareholders, and ethical reasons. They want to be somewhere in the neighborhood, and we would like to be that neighbor.” He said in an interview that Kazakhstan did not want to become a collateral victim of politically motivated economic warfare and if “there is a new iron curtain, we do not want to be behind it.”

Both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have expressed keen interest to welcome multinational companies which want to leave Russia as a result of the sanctions imposed by Western nations on Russia. According to reports, several companies have already relocated to these countries.

Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have expressly barred their nationals residing in Russia to join the war effort against Ukraine. It appears that at the beginning of the conflict, but particularly after the announcement of the mobilization of 300,000 troops by Russia last month, Russia offered attractive salaries and also expedited processes to obtain citizenship of the country after having served at the front for one year.

Some sporadic protests and demonstrations against Russia’s war in Ukraine have been allowed and held in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Humanitarian assistance and medical relief supplies to Ukraine have been provided by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

President Putin’s diminished standing amongst Central Asian states was visible when he was received by the Uzbek Prime Minister on his visit to Samarkand, Uzbekistan to participate in the SCO Summit. On the other hand, Chinese President Xi Jinping was received by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev himself at the airport. It has also been reported that Putin was made to wait for his bilateral meetings at the SCO Summit in Samarkand interalia by the Presidents of Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, and Azerbaijan. It has been mentioned that in the past President Putin has often been late for his meetings and has made leaders of other countries wait for him. These reports have not been countered by the Russian foreign office.

Central Asian countries are feeling nervous both at the arguments advanced by Russia to launch its offensive against Ukraine as also the impunity with which President Putin was able to carry out the attack. Some of them, particularly Kazakhstan, are worried that they could be next. Kazakhstan has the world’s longest land border of more than 7,000 km with Russia and also has an 18 percent population of Russian origin and ethnicity. Kazakhstan in particular, but the other Central Asian nations to a much lesser extent, are fearful of Russia’s thinking and plans.

Recently there was a tweet by former Russian President and PM Dmitry Medvedev that Kazakhstan is an “Artificial State”. This tweet was however quickly taken down and it was clarified that Medvedev’s account had been hacked. Putin had himself made a similar assertion some years ago. Several right-wing politicians in Russia have made threatening noises after Tokayev’s Statement in St Petersburg in June 2022 warning Kazakhstan that it should watch its steps as it could be the next after Ukraine. Tokayev had quite clearly made his displeasure and objection evident during that visit.

The disastrous performance of the Russian army in Ukraine over the last few months has forced the Central Asian countries to re-think that if Russia has been found wanting so drastically in Ukraine, how would it be able to provide security to them? The diminishing stature of Russia in the Region has animated China to quickly enhance its influence in the region. This was visible in the recent announcement of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway link which had been lying dormant for the last many years. Also, several far-reaching agreements to further expand partnerships were signed by Xi Jinping during his recent visits to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

While welcoming the flow of investment from China to their countries, the Central Asian nations, particularly the people, if not so much the ruling classes and elite, are anxious and apprehensive about the unduly growing influence and dominance of China. They have hence started looking out for options amongst other countries.

Several countries in the region and beyond are also sensing this opportunity and are keen to strengthen their partnership with these countries. Turkiye has been working in Central Asian countries for the last many years. It shares historical, cultural, linguistic, religious, and civilizational ties with all of whom, except with Tajikistan. The last few years have witnessed frequent meetings between the leadership of Central Asia with the President of Turkey. President Erdogan was also present in person for the first time at the SCO Summit in Samarkand. Iran has also been advancing its partnership with Central Asia. It has just become the newest member of SCO. The US organized a C5+1 meeting with the foreign ministers of all Central Asian states on the margins of the UNGA in New York recently.

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