Experts See Central Asia Emboldened by Russia’s Struggles in Ukraine

washington — Two years ago, as Russia invaded Ukraine’s heartland, Central Asian countries feared they would be next to feel the impact of President Vladimir Putin’s revanchist obsession.  

But as Russia has struggled on the battlefield and suffered massive losses against a determined Ukrainian foe, experts and current and former policymakers in Washington see a more confident and assertive Central Asia that is striving for unity and enjoying greater bargaining power, including with Russia, China and the United States.

Some longtime observers warn that the region may yet fall prey to the Kremlin’s ambitions. They argue that the West must understand its challenges and help expand its opportunities.

In their view, the best outcome for Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan would be to emerge from the Ukraine-Russia conflict as a more independent and consolidated region.


Russian threat in decline

Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, advocates for greater political and economic integration in the region. He observes that the region’s governments have been using “China to balance Russia … and America, to balance them.”

In an interview with VOA, Starr noted that Russian chauvinists have even called for the annexation of Central Asia. “It’s as if they’re announcing to the world that whatever happens in Ukraine, we aren’t done.”

He urges the region to recognize that Putin’s savage attack on Ukraine “has demonstrated, above all, Russia’s weakness.”

“This stripped bare the mask that all those fancy parades in Red Square created, and now we realize that Russia’s military is a farce,” he said. “All it has is numbers and brutal leaders who are willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of Russian lives for an objective that is unattainable.”

Starr argued that countries in Central Asia should demonstrate to Russia that they live in a big world, “have friends east, west, north and south. Russia can no longer be treated as a single player on a chessboard.”

This sentiment is echoed by many in the region, who note that the things that make Central Asia dependent on Russia, such as energy, trade and labor migration, make Russia dependent on it as well.

Starr also believes younger Central Asians have a broader worldview and don’t care about Russia as much as the older elite, for whom Russia is “a kind of hangover from Soviet times.”

Better Western ties

The Atlantic Council’s John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan and Ukraine, says Central Asians are interested in a closer relationship with the West “because they are pretty good at geopolitics. Their neighborhood demands nothing less.”

“Given [the region’s] adjacency to China and Russia, the West needs to be far more active in Central Asia than it is,” he said in an address to foreign diplomats, U.S. officials and scholars at George Washington University in Washington. “Russia’s revisionist agenda extends to Central Asia.”

According to Herbst, the most important development in the region is that Central Asia has maintained its independence and stability since the breakup of the Soviet Union, despite internal tensions and the threat of terrorism.

“You need to find ways to make our role in Central Asia more inviting,” Herbst said, appealing to the region. “You will have friends here, who will be making the case publicly along with you and privately.”

Sanctions vs. geopolitical interests

Russian scholar Vladislav Inozemtsev, speaking at the same conference, argued that transport corridors bypassing Russia will increase the strategic importance of Central Asia at a time when the West is seeking ways to minimize Moscow’s economic options.

But Inozemtsev warned that Western sanctions on Russia can have a negative spillover effect on its Central Asia neighbors. “Russians will still find ways to evade them,” he said. “This issue disturbs Central Asian governments and prevents much more fruitful cooperation with the Europeans and Americans.”

His suggestion: “Maybe it’s better not to focus on sanctions and, sorry to say, even on the human rights issues, but fostering just geopolitical goals in the region when we are in times of war.”


Diminished Russian threat?

Allan Mustard, Washington’s former ambassador to Turkmenistan, emphasizes the “discreditation” of Russia as a military threat to its neighbors.

“A few years ago, I talked to some friends in Kazakhstan and asked them what the position was of Kazakh people writ large towards Russia as a security guarantor for Central Asia,” he said at the GWU forum.

“And they said, ‘We’ve never viewed Russia as a security guarantor. We have always viewed Russia as a security threat to Central Asia.’ But that threat is diminishing because we can see what even the Ukrainians can do in terms of destroying the Russian military machine,” he said.

The region has a collective capacity to expand trade, Mustard said. He foresees a bolder Central Asia in the near term, especially with the expansion of a Middle Corridor trade route via the Caspian Sea, which would reduce Russia’s leverage over the region.

Jamestown Foundation’s Margarita Assenova agrees, saying “the primary challenge” for Central Asia and its Western partners is to improve connectivity through the region. But she is optimistic about the prospects for greater collaboration among Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Russia’s war on Ukraine has strengthened Central Asia, Assenova said, “accelerating the original integration and seeking greater Western engagement.” 

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