Russia already has its hands full dealing with wars in eastern Ukraine and Syria, but the temptation of consolidating ties in a ‘Greater Eurasia’ may prove too great to resist, writes David Lewis.
Russia’s diplomats and military chiefs are already overworked, dealing with wars in eastern Ukraine and in Syria. Now officials from Moscow are busy with another geopolitical play: bolstering Russia’s position on a third strategic front across Central Asia and Afghanistan.
Nobody is suggesting a Syrian-style intervention in the region. The memories of Soviet humiliation in Afghanistan remain fresh. But spurred on by the short-lived Taliban capture of Kunduz in late September, and by subsequent fighting on the Afghan-Turkmen border, Russian officials have been consolidating ties in Central Asia, offering military aid to allies, and gaining influence inside Afghanistan and in the wider region.
Russia’s policy is partly driven by real concerns that Islamist militants will cross the borders from Afghanistan into Tajikistan, Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan, and spark instability across the region. These fears are probably overblown. But Russia is also using the crisis in Afghanistan to pursue geopolitical gains in the wider Central Asian region.
Moscow is working on three tracks to strengthen its strategic position.
Firstly, Russia has expanded its contacts with different political forces in northern Afghanistan. Ties have been revived with traditional allies, such as Afghan Vice-President and erstwhile warlord Dostum, who visited Moscow in September. The Afghan government has asked for more arms from Moscow, after the United States Congress short-sightedly ended a helicopter supply deal for the Afghan government.
But recent reports also claim that Moscow has been opening channels to the Taliban, hoping to turn them against more radical groups, and positioning itself to play a role in future political talks.
Secondly, Russia has used a series of recent summits and diplomatic meetings to consolidate its position among post-Soviet Central Asian states. Russia has been adept at leveraging small military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan for political effect. Regimes in the region know that Russia is the security guarantor of last resort. Other players, such as China, have neither the capacity nor the willingness to project military power in the region.
Russia is not just relying on its security presence. It has also used economic, political and cultural levers to reassert its traditional dominance in the region. China may be the biggest investor in the region, but most of the region’s economies are still dependent on remittances from labour migrants in Russia. Historical and cultural ties, and Russia’s ability to engage in behind-the-scenes politicking, also give Moscow an advantage.
China’s new Eurasian transport and investment initiative (One Belt, One Road) will make it the dominant economic player in the region. But it is Russia that has been more successful so far at institutionalising its regional influence. The Eurasian Economic Union – which links Russia, Belarus and Armenia, with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – has helped consolidate Russia’s economic role. The Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) – which also includes Tajikistan – does the same in the realm of security.
Two states in Central Asia have resisted Russia’s influence. Uzbekistan pulled out of the CSTO in 2012, and has always refused to host Russian military bases. Turkmenistan has an official policy of ‘neutrality’. When President Putin met other Central Asian leaders at a summit in Astana in mid-October, Turkmenistan’s president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, stayed at home.
Both states have sought Western allies as an alternative to Russia. But these are fully blown dictatorships with appalling human rights records. When US Secretary of State John Kerry visited the region in early November, he promised closer political ties and economic support, but held back from any promises of closer security cooperation, despite shared concerns over Afghanistan.
Thirdly, Russia has sought to cement ties with a wider range of regional players. Its military alliance with Iran in the Syrian campaign has important ramifications in Afghanistan. And Russia has even reached out to traditionally hostile nations, such as Pakistan, another US ally discontented with relations with Washington, signing new arms and pipeline deals with Islamabad. India has been quietly supportive of Russian military intervention in Syria, and will welcome a more active Russian role in Central Asia. On a recent visit to Moscow, Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj talked of Russia as a ‘tried and tested friend’.
This engagement with a broader circle of powers in the region ties in with Russian nationalist thinking, which sees Russia’s future at the centre of a region of ‘Greater Eurasia’, uniting Russia, China and Iran, together with the Central Asian states, and possibly India, in a new Eurasianist space.
These spatial fantasies are a distraction from Central Asia’s real security challenges, many of which have their roots in repressive politics and failing economies. Sober voices in Moscow will focus on combatting security threats from the South while guarding against Russian overstretch at a time of economic crisis.
But notions of Russia’s revival at the centre of a ‘Greater Eurasia’ – and the possibility of mounting another geopolitical challenge to the US – may prove too alluring for Moscow’s decision-makers.