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Joint Workshop on Europe and Transatlantic Security: Issues and
Perspectives, 25-27 August 2000, Kandersteg, Switzerland
Roland Dannreuther: Russia’s Eurasian Security Policy

Russia’s Eurasian Security Policy

Central Asia

One of the reasons for Primakov’s engagement with the broader Middle East was to mitigate, and ideally reverse, the perceived decline of Russian influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In this endeavour, Primakov failed to make much inroad. Certainly, some of the countries of the region, such as Armenia and Tajikistan, whose very existence depend on Russian support, have had no option but to remain firmly wedded to Moscow. The same could be said, if to a lesser degree, of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, whose geographical proximity to Russia also counsels caution, but who have also not been fully constrained from seeking alternative regional and international supporters. It is the other countries of the region where Russian influence has been most under threat. Georgia and Azerbaijan have warmly embraced the interest the West has shown, with Baku offering NATO a base on its territory and Georgia putting forward its application to join the Alliance. For its part, Turkmenistan assumed a studied neutrality with a clear tilt to the West.

The most dramatic shift was, though, in Uzbekistan, which can plausibly be considered the key geostrategic country of Central Asia, and who engaged in the mid-1990s in an intensive effort to greatly reduce, and even to eradicate, Russia’s presence and influence. In the military field, all Russian forces were obliged to withdraw from Uzbek territory and significant resources were dedicated to constructing a national army, which currently numbers about 150,000 troops. In the economic sphere, Tashkent pursued a successful policy of energy self-sufficiency, thereby undermining one of the main instruments Moscow has used to elsewhere to promote its interests. And, politically, the extent to which President Karimov has provided unqualified support for the United States – including over such issues as NATO enlargement and policy towards Cuba – has been quite unrestrained by fears of incurring Moscow’s wrath.

With the ascendance of Vladimir Putin to power, there has been a significant turn in Russia’s fortunes. This first visits to foreign countries after Putin’s inauguration as President were to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. At these visits, there was an official affirmation of Russia’s closer and more intensive relations with these two Central Asian states who had gone furthest in developing relations with the West. The shift in orientation of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is also symptomatic of a more general consolidation of Russian influence and interests in Central Asia.

One major factor for this Russian reengagement has been Moscow’s success in capitalising on a discernible shift in Western US priorities which has led to a reduction in the strategic importance accorded by the West to the region. One significant reason behind this has been the realisation that the region’s oil and gas reserves are less substantial than earlier estimates, most notably the 1995 US State Department’s projection of 200 billion barrels. It is now generally assumed in the oil business that the probable oil reserves in the Caspian Sea region will be in the order 30-70 billion barrels which would make the region the equivalent of 1-2 North Seas. The idea that the Caspian Sea might represent a new Saudi Arabia, which would permit a real diversification of oil supplies from the Persian Gulf region, is now generally accepted as vastly over-optimistic.

The declining economic context of Western engagement has also meant that there has been less justification for the West to overlook the democratic failings and human rights violations within the Caspian region states. This is perhaps most notable in Turkmenistan where the failure to secure an agreement on a trans-Caspian pipeline for Turkmen gas takes away the incentive for Western capitals to ingratiate themselves with President Niyazov and to overlook the quasi-totalitarian state he has constructed. In the security sphere, Western states have been keen to dampen expectations of the putative role that NATO might play in the region. With the Georgian and Azerbaijani démarches to NATO, there has been a fear that the Central Asian states have interpreted the essentially symbolic nature of PfP membership as a genuine security commitment from the West. This has led Western leaders privately to emphasise that NATO has no intention of intervening in the region.

It is, therefore, at least in part due to the strategic vacuum left by the West’s economic and political withdrawal from the region which has provided a favourable context for a Russian reassertion of its interests in the region. But, the more deliberate and proactive elements in Putin’s strategy towards Central Asia and the Caucasus have also been important. There are two aspects of this strategy which have been the principal focus of Russian diplomatic activity. First, the Putin administration has sought to pursue a geoeconomic policy which makes a clearer political linkage, involving principally according greater loyalty to Moscow, in exchange for economic benefits. Such a policy also involves a greater Russian willingness to provide more favourable terms, at some costs to Russia itself, for the purchase of Central Asian gas and oil which would weaken their determination to diversify export routes. In general, the Putin administration is promoting this policy, with a subtle and sometimes not so subtle mix of sticks and carrots, in a more co-ordinated and purposive manner than was the case during the Yeltsin era.

The second part of the strategy has been to promote Russian pretensions as a guarantor of stability in the region. In practically every speech that Putin has made since coming to power, he has provided a ritual incantation and conflation of the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism and international terrorism. For the leaders of Central Asia, in particular, this discourse has found an increasingly favourable reception. For President Karimov of Uzbekistan, the fear of Islamic fundamentalism has become a driving obsession, ever since the assassination attempt on his life in Tashkent in February 1999. Subsequent developments, most notably the military successes of the Taleban in Afghanistan and the incursion onto Kyrgyz territory in August 1999 of militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (now called the Hizb ul-Tahrir) have increased the anxiety of all the states of Central Asia.

Putin’s strategy has been not only to highlight the dangers of the export of Islamic militancy but to emphasise that, as shown in Chechnia, Russia has the will and capability to do something about this. For the countries of the South Caucasus, this is more an admonitory message, which reminds them that Russian power can still be projected in the region. But, for the countries of Central Asia, the Chechen campaign was observed with some enthusiasm and provided a degree of reassurance that, if similar ‘terrorists’ with Islamist objectives were to threaten Central Asian  tability, Russia would be able to provide critical military support. This was more directly confirmed by the large-scale military exercise – Commonwealth Southern Shield 2000 – which took place in March, involving about 10,000 Russian, Tajik, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Uzbek troops, and specifically rehearsed an anti-terrorist operation in the mountains of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

In general, all these various factors has led Russia to regaining a degree of influence in Central Asia which would not have been predicted prior to the second campaign in Chechnia. Indeed, most analysts prior to this concurred that Russia was engaged in a post-imperial process of withdrawal. Even if these projections have proved false, it can still be questioned how sustainable this Russian reengagement might be. There remain political sensitivities in the region concerning renewed Russian neo-imperialism and President Karimov has stressed that bilateral Russian-Uzbek relations must be founded on conditions of equality and on Russia respecting the independent decision-making of the Central Asian states. In the economic sphere, there remains the basic problem that the Russian and Caspian region economies are more competitive than complementary and that the economic imperative for both Russia and the Caspian region is to attract external investment and to secure markets in the global international markets.

The nature and content of the security commitment which Russia is offering to the region ought also to be critically assessed. There is a real question whether, if it came to the crunch, Russia would have either the military capabilities or the will to engage in a major intervention in the region. Chechnia has certainly not expunged the memory of the disastrous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. More generally, there is the underlying reality that the threat of international terrorism and externally-supported Islamic fundamentalism do not represent the most significant sources of instability in the region. Rather, the more dangerous and probable source of insecurity lies in the authoritarian and increasingly dictatorial rule of the Central Asian regimes, whose acts of repression provide the breeding ground for opposition groups to assert a radical Islamist agenda. There is a real issue whether Russia, by openly supporting the increasingly authoritarian practices of the regimes of the region, might be contributing towards, rather than resolving, the internal Islamist-inspired challenges to regional stability. Indeed, Russian diplomacy in Tajikistan revealed a very different approach whereby it fostered and supported a process of reconciliation between a warring secularist government and the Islamist opposition. It must be a question whether this Tajik model is not also appropriate for Uzbekistan, and other states in the region, and that promotion of this more pluralist and inclusive approach to conflict management might not be more efficacious than support for the regional predilection towards authoritarian repression.