Russian intelligence officers revealed last year huge numbers of Islamist fighters were massing up in Afghanistan’s northern border in a move that they said may be the first one for a full assault on Central Asia. Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s intelligence service FSB, said the threat of Taliban or ISIS invading Central Asia was increasing.
The Russian estimate at roughly 5000 to 7000 the number ISIS has recruited from the Commonwealth of Independent States. Consequently, it has already announced increased army and air power in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In October last year, the Moscow Times announced Moscow was considering sending border guards to Tajikistan to fend off ISIS attacks. While a great number of fighters is coming from Russia as well, the figures mean Russia has now a pressing interest in stepping up its military presence in the region.
ISIS is one part of the puzzle. The withdrawal of American troops in Afghanistan may soon crack the porous borders with Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. Meanwhile, the rapprochement between Washington and Iran also means Iran will likely have more flexibility in pursuing the opening of Central Asia’s gas market to the South.
With Turkmenistan growing ever closer with China thanks to in-depth energy integration and Tajikistan stalling on its energy projects, this is Russia’s opportunity to remind China who is in charge of Central Asia. Counter-insurgency gives Russia a perfect narrative in the region to reinforce its footprint and give new impetus to its belated Eurasian Customs Union.
The end of the Afghanistan mission also gives Russia an understandable reason for further troop deployment in the region. One of the main criticisms Russia has pointed out to Washington – ever since the NATO bombing of former Yugoslavia – is leaving a mess in countries where they intervene.
Central Asia was part of the Russian Empire for a century and part of the Soviet Union for 70 years. The fall of the Soviet Union propelled a forced independence which resulted in the rise of a new nationalist discourse and authoritarianism. Due to geographical isolation, overreliance on Soviet infrastructure and lack of capital, regional economies have mostly stalled, safe for oil-rich Kazakhstan. Although the Russian military has remained important (guarding the Tajik border with Afghanistan and intervening during the 1992-1997 Tajik Civil War) its economic presence has suffered several setbacks under President Boris Yeltsin (1989-1999).
Partly due to its hunger for energy, by 2009, Beijing has become the first trade partner with most of the Central Asian countries. While Kazakhstan and Tajikistan remained closer to Russia economically and politically, Turkmenistan had completely disregarded the Russian sphere of influence with the construction of a pipeline leading straight to China.
If Russia has lost its importance for some of the Central Asian leaders, Central Asia has lost none of its importance to Russia. First of all, for the country with the biggest land frontier in the world, Central Asia offers sort of a buffer zone against NATO, an organization Russia sees as exclusively antagonistic. Second, while Russia has plenty of oil and gas, it has been much easier to export gas and oil bought in the former Soviet republics and sell them to Europe, a scheme that was highly prized by Gazprom.
The ISIS narrative is also compelling for other reasons. Millions of migrant workers leave Central Asia every year to send back remittances to their homes. In Tajikistan alone, the remittances represent half of the government revenues. Russia authorities consider these migrants an easy target for ISIS due to their poor economic situation. During the last clampdown on ISIS sympathisers in Uzbekistan, most of the arrested men were returning workers from Europe, Turkey and Russia.
China has made little security commitments to Central Asia making clear it respects Russia’s leadership in the region. Yet, increasingly, Central Asian leaders are turning to Beijing for what they need most: funding for infrastructure, credit lines and investments, a capacity the recent Western sanctions have made more difficult for Russia. But counter-terrorism in Central Asia would be an opportunity for Moscow to remind leaders of the Five Stans of its military capabilities, as opposed to those of China.
This article is a cross-post from our partners at Republic of the East
Pierre-Olivier Bussieres is Editor in Chief of Republic of the East. He holds a graduate degree from the Institute of Eastern European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at Carleton University
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