Ukraine war fallout: Is Russia losing influence in Central Asia?


The Ukraine war has resulted in a significant decline in the influence of Russia in the world. It was initially thought that Russia would be able to impose​ a quick regime change in Kiev resulting in an early end to the war. This has not happened. The war is escalating with no end in sight.

Ukraine’s unexpected successes particularly over the last few weeks by quickly reclaiming large swathes of land in the north and south of the country 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 in recent weeks have forced the global strategic community to re-examine their 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 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 Central Asia. The Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a NATO-like security bloc established under Russian tutelage, was expected to ensure security of countries in the region. This was demonstrated by the CSTO providing a few thousand troops to ensure security in Kazakhstan when it was rocked by violent protests and demonstrations at the beginning of this year. This was seen as indicative of Russia’s sway in the region.

The Ukraine war has, however, radically transformed the equation between Russia and China in Central Asia. This had become evident from 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. The ensuing sanctions by the West pushed Russia into the embrace of China with Moscow emerging as the junior partner to Beijing.

The last few months have thrown up many instances which emphatically suggest that Central Asia is getting increasingly uncomfortable with Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Russia’s influence in Central Asia which it characterises as its “near abroad” is diminishing.

Leaders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the largest countries in the region in area and population respectively, as well as in size of their economies, have stated unequivocally that they will not recognise the independent status of Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics.

At the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in June, 2022, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said in the presence of President Vladimir Putin that Kazakhstan does not acknowledge the independence of LPR and DPR. The Kazakh Foreign Ministry stated on 26 September 2022 that it will not recognise the referenda conducted by Russia in the four provinces of Ukraine in September 2022.

During the same visit to St Petersburg, Tokayev responding to a question about the gratitude that Kazakhstan ought to feel for the support by Russia/CSTO to it in its hour of need in January 2022, stated it would be wrong to suggest that “Russia supposedly saved Kazakhstan and Kazakhstan should now eternally serve and bow down at the feet of Russia”. He said that this argument is “totally unjustified” and “far from reality”.

The then Foreign Minister of Uzbekistan stated in the Uzbek Senate on 17 March 2022 that “Uzbekistan recognises the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine” and does “not recognise the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics”.

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

Both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have expressed their keenness to attract as many foreign companies leaving Russia due to the sanctions as possible. Kazakhstan has stated that if “there is a new iron curtain, we do not want to be behind it”.

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 while the Chinese President Xi Jinping was received by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev himself at the airport. It has been reported that Putin was made to wait for bilateral meetings at the SCO Summit in Samarkand inter alia by presidents of Turkey, Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan. In the past, Putin was often late for his meetings and leaders of other countries would wait for him. These reports have not been countered by the Russian foreign office.

The worst conflict since Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan became independent erupted last month when the SCO Summit was taking place in Samarkand, a few hundred kilometres away. However, Russia was unable or unwilling to restore peace between them. Similarly, Russia has been incapable of stopping clashes which broke out in September 2022 between Armenia and Azerbaijan, both erstwhile constituents of the Soviet Union.

Central Asian countries are feeling nervous both at the arguments advanced by Russia to attack Ukraine as also the impunity with which Putin has carried out the invasion. Some of them, particularly Kazakhstan, are worried. Kazakhstan has the world’s longest land border of more than 7,000 km with Russia. Eighteen per cent of its population is of Russian ethnicity. Some months ago there was a tweet by former Russian president and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev alleging that Kazakhstan is an “artificial State”. This 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 could be next. Tokayev had made his displeasure on these remarks evident during his visit.

The unimpressive performance by the Russian army in Ukraine over the last few months has forced the Central Asian countries to re-consider that if Russia is so inept 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 due to Russia’s perceived objections. Also, several far-reaching agreements to further expand partnerships were signed by Xi Jinping during his recent visits to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Chinese president Xi Jinping. AP

While welcoming the flow of investment from China to their countries, the Central Asian nations, particularly the people, if not so much the elite, are apprehensive about the unduly growing dominance of China.

Central Asia has hence started looking out for options amongst other countries.

Several countries in the region and beyond, sensing this opportunity, are strengthening their partnership with Central Asia. Turkey has been working on Central Asian countries for the last many years. It shares historical, cultural, linguistic, religious and civilisational ties with all of them, except Tajikistan. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was 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 organised a C5+1 meeting with the foreign ministers of all Central Asian states on the margins of the UNGA in New York recently.

The rapidly evolving regional and global security architecture provides a bright opportunity for India to deepen its partnership with Central Asia. This region constitutes a part of India’s “extended neighbourhood”. India has millennia old civilisational relations with these countries. India has not been able to leverage its age-old connection with this region because of the absence of geographic contiguity. India has significantly accelerated its engagement with these countries over the last eight years starting with the visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to all five countries in July 2015

Recent months and years have witnessed a significant uptick in the intensity of bilateral ties. Prime Minister Modi organised a Central Asia+India Summit in a virtual format on 27 January 2022. It was agreed that such Summits would be organised every two years. Prime Minister Modi visited Samarkand, Uzbekistan in September, 2022 and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in June 2019 for the SCO Summits. India and Central launched the India-Central Asia Dialogue at the level of foreign ministers in Samarkand, Uzbekistan in 2019. The last such Dialogue took place in New Delhi in December, 2021. NSA Ajit Doval organised a meeting of regional National Security Advisors to discuss the situation in Afghanistan in November last year. This was attended amongst others by NSAs of all the Central Asian countries. Indian ministers and senior officials from different departments and agencies of the Indian government have inter alia frequently met their counterparts from Central Asia in SCO meetings.

PM Modi

There is considerable similarity of views on most regional and global issues between India and Central Asia. Some of these include peace and stability in Afghanistan; Connectivity (INSTC and Chabahar-all Central Asian countries are land-locked countries, with Uzbekistan being doubly land-locked); counter-terrorism; climate change; trade and investment, etc. India can share its expertise in the areas of IT, Startups, pharmaceuticals and much more with Central Asian countries. There is affinity, warmth and trust between the people of India and Central Asia. There is no fear or threat perceived from India as is the case with some other neighbours in the region.

It would be mutually advantageous for India to collaborate with like-minded countries like the US, Japan, Europe and others to strengthen and deepen engagement with Central Asia.

India has been working pro-actively to substantially augment its ties with Central Asia in recent years. It could identify further avenues and opportunities in areas spanning political, security, strategic and business to academic, culture, tourism, sports and people-to-people connect. India-Central Asia relations have the potential to scale new heights to promote regional and global security, stability and prosperity.

The writer is an executive council member, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, president, Institute of Global Studies, Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Aspen Centre, and former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia. The views expressed are personal.

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Ukraine war fallout: Is Russia losing influence in Central Asia?
Ukraine war fallout: Is Russia losing influence in Central Asia?
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