The Stans Can’t Play Both Sides Anymore

Central Asian countries have always made a strong play for being the master of their own destinies. Policymakers in the region tout their ability to sit in the driver’s seat and navigate international relations through balancing everyone against each other. Yet last month’s high-level engagements with China and Russia have instead served to highlight Central Asia countries’ growing bonds with both powers and the shrinking room for maneuver they have in international relations.

Central Asian countries have always made a strong play for being the master of their own destinies. Policymakers in the region tout their ability to sit in the driver’s seat and navigate international relations through balancing everyone against each other. Yet last month’s high-level engagements with China and Russia have instead served to highlight Central Asia countries’ growing bonds with both powers and the shrinking room for maneuver they have in international relations.

A number of assumptions about the war in Ukraine have not played out as initially expected. Early on, it was assumed by some of the international financial institutions (such as the World Bank) that Central Asia would suffer from the invasion. Its intimate connection to Russia via the Eurasian Economic Union (of which Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are both members) and the fact that so many of its economic, social, and security ties are to Russia meant that many observers expected the region to encounter economic difficulties.

Questions were also raised about security relations. Traditionally, Moscow has been seen as the major external security provider to the region. In the run-up to the collapse of Kabul, it was Russia that rushed arms sales through, as well as undertook joint border training exercises. Similarly, when Kazakhstan was wracked with a violent internal power struggle in early 2022, it was Moscow that the government looked to, requesting a Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization operation to help provide security around key locations. The invasion of Ukraine seemed to presage greater Russian truculence in its immediate neighborhood.

Yet neither economic nor security doom has actually materialized. Money flows from Russia into the region have increased. More companies are moving to the region, as foreign and Russian entities and men seeking to escape the Kremlin’s mobilization drive and find an accommodating environment in Central Asia. The Russian government has also leaned heavily into its relationship with the region, with Russian President Vladimir Putin visiting all five countries and sending numerous high-level delegations to seek business links and opportunities. New schools, equipment, aid, and general rhetorical support have also flowed from Moscow.

The logic from Moscow’s perspective is multifaceted—Central Asia was perceived to be slipping out of the Russian orbit, something that preceded the invasion of Ukraine but had sharpened since February 2022. Russia is in some ways less concerned about Chinese inroads—something it has at this point rationalized as an inescapable reality—than about the region striking a more autonomous path away from Russia. It is also worth noting that Central Asia has served as a useful conduit for sanctions evasion for Moscow in the past.

Going the other way, the flow of Central Asians going to Russia has also increased. Already a well-trodden path, more Central Asians chose to go and work in Russia in the past year rather than less. Even usually Turkey-bound Turkmen are being drawn to the opportunities in Russia, with the Russian migration service recording 1,600 Turkmen seeking work permits in Russia in 2022, up from fewer than 20 in 2021—according to data we saw on a recent trip to Turkmenistan.

There has been a flow of Russians toward Central Asia as people flee the Kremlin’s policies, but this is balanced out in net migration flows by the volume of Central Asians who still see Russia as a lucrative place to work. No doubt the carnage on the battlefield in Ukraine has created lots of job vacancies.

This human connection has also tied itself to the war in Ukraine in a contradictory way. While fewer Central Asians have sought Russian citizenship according to official data, some residents of the region have chosen to align themselves with Moscow and several elected to fight on Russia’s side in Ukraine. Some are former convicts fighting alongside the paramilitary Wagner Group (at least 10 Tajiks are reported to have died doing so), while others may be joining out of a sense of patriotism toward Moscow.

In Kazakhstan’s north, the majority ethnic-Russian community has looked with scorn on the large numbers of Russians moving to Kazakhstan to flee the draft back home. Some are believed to have gone further and chosen to go and fight in Ukraine. And the region is increasingly being seen as a major conduit for trade to Russia as Moscow seeks to evade sanctions.

All this serves to explain the sometimes contradictory views from Central Asia about Russia and Ukraine. At a general public and official level, there is a clear expression of dislike toward the war (Kazakhstan’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rahmon, have made direct statements to Putin in public formats), but when looking at countries’ actions, support has been evident. The appearance of all five Central Asian leaders in Moscow for this year’s Victory Day parade was a clear expression of this.

The Central Asian countries have also sought to cultivate China as an alternative ally. This was most clearly on display in Xian, China, on May 18-19, when all five leaders met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at an event that sought to increase Chinese-Central Asian engagement.

Billion of dollars worth of new deals and trade agreements were announced during the summit and the bilateral engagements that took place on its fringes. And there was even some discussion of China starting to offer itself as a regional security provider. While this is not new—Beijing has long been a player in Central Asian security questions both through direct engagement as well as through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization—the announcements this time had a particular tone given the current conflict in Ukraine.

The invasion of Ukraine has thrown Beijing’s role in Central Asia newly into question, both in terms of Moscow’s bandwidth to play a security provider role in the region while Ukraine consumes its military, and fears about how Moscow’s revanchist eye might turn toward the region.

In Kazakhstan, this fear is acute given the ease with which one can look at the country through Moscow’s eyes and see a very similar history that could justify an incursion as Putin did in Ukraine. The nation shares a long border with Russia and has a large ethnically Russian population that often feels targeted by national policies seeking to advance the Kazakh language. Senior Russian figures (including Putin) have questioned the nation’s statehood. Back in September 2014, after he first pushed an incursion into Ukraine, Putin seemed to deny Kazakh statehood in a speech, saying that then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev had “created a state on a territory that never had a state.”

Consequently, when Xi visited Kazakhstan in September 2022, a lot of public noise was made about his declaration that China would support “Kazakhstan in safeguarding national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Among more optimistic public commentators, this was seen as a clear message to defend Kazakhstan against potential Russian aggression.

In contrast, speaking to officials in Kazakhstan and the wider region, we found a far more sanguine picture. Most of them noted the similarity in what Xi said in Kazakhstan to what China had said about Ukraine before the Russian invasion (and even in the peace plan proposed by China), and China’s lack of action in stopping the conflict there. “We are on our own” was one particularly stark assessment we heard in Kazakhstan.

It is also not clear that China would step in to try to fix any of the regional problems that are on display. Beijing has maintained a high level of engagement with the Taliban, but this has remained narrowly focused on Chinese security concerns around Uyghur militants using Afghanistan as a base to foment trouble in China rather than an effort to stabilize the country.

All this highlights one of the toughest challenges facing Central Asia. The past year has found all five countries strengthening their links to both China and Russia. The ties to Beijing are an effort to balance against Moscow, but the reality is that this balancing act is not going to work very well given how close Russia and China are these days.

Buried toward the bottom of the joint statement that was put out after Xi and Putin met in Moscow earlier this year was a declaration: “The two sides are willing to strengthen cooperation, support Central Asian countries in safeguarding their national sovereignty, guarantee national development, and oppose external forces’ promotion of ‘color revolutions’ and interference in regional affairs.”

This highlights both the fact that China and Russia are eager to coordinate in Central Asia and that their basic aims in the region are the same. This complicates diplomacy for the Central Asian governments that have long sought to play the two countries off each other. And it is a perfect articulation of the shrinking geopolitical space that Central Asia increasingly finds itself within.

Entirely surrounded by powers in some level of conflict with the West, Central Asia finds its options are increasingly limited. This is not to say other options are not available—simultaneous to the Xian summit, Kazakhstan hosted a high-level economic forum with the European Union; the United States is a constant presence; and Turkey has made a great deal of noise about Turkic influence in the region over the past year via the Organization of Turkic States. But as the ties that bind China and Russia thicken, Central Asia will struggle to really balance against them.

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