Energy concerns drive China-Central Asia defence ties

Here’s the latest of my Central Asia series of Oxford Analytica briefs. This one is from late February.

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In shaping its relations with Central Asian states, Beijing has primarily focused on developing energy imports and forging economic ties in other areas. At the same time, China faces several security concerns emanating from the region, most importantly, Islamic radicalism and regional separatism. Beijing has been attempting to address these concerns via multilateral and bilateral cooperation with Central Asian states. The conflicts and tensions are likely to become more acute as NATO begins to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Impact

  • China’s desire to avoid alienating Russia has prompted it to de-emphasise military ties in favour of economic and trade relations.
  • Most Central Asian states prefer the focus on trade relations with China, although Uzbekistan has recently sought to increase military ties.
  • Chinese leaders favour multilateral initiatives, which countries in the region regard as less threatening than bilateral approaches.

Analysis

Although China has long sought to increase its influence in Central Asia, it has sought to do so largely through economic and trade relations, rather than in the security sphere. As a result, China’s military ties with Central Asian states are relatively limited. This is due to a combination of factors:

  •  Beijing is keen to avoid alienating Moscow, which continues to see itself as the primary guarantor of Central Asian security.
  • Central Asian leaders are concerned that China is already enjoying a disproportionate degree of influence in the region. This has led them to be extremely cautious in extending military cooperation.
  • China is reluctant to become the region’s main security guarantor, due to a combination of its long-standing policy of non-interference abroad, and more significant security challenges elsewhere, especially in its maritime region.

Multilateral initiatives

The primary mode of interaction between China and the Central Asian states in the security sphere revolves around multilateral initiatives organised through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). These are closely related to China’s desire to combat terrorism, separatism and extremism. As a result, most multilateral security activities in the region that involve China revolve around counter-terrorism.

Peace Mission exercises

The Peace Mission series of counter-terrorism exercises have been held since 2003. The most recent took place in Tajikistan in June 2012 and included participants from all of the SCO member states except Uzbekistan. This was the smallest of the eight exercises held to date, highlighting the lack of emphasis on the military component of regional cooperation within the SCO. Uzbekistan has consistently refused to participate in the SCO exercises. The Uzbek leadership’s fear of domination by external powers — Russia, in particular — has made it keen to avoid any possibility that potential conflicts among Central Asian states might be internationalised.

RATS

China has also established a regional organisation dedicated to fighting terrorism. The Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) of the SCO is dedicated to coordinating the anti-terrorist activities of member states, with a particular focus on radical Islamist organisations. RATS was established in 2004 and is headquartered in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan. In recent years, it has expanded its activities to include counter-narcotics coordination.

Bilateral cooperation

Kazakhstan is the most significant partner in China’s bilateral security activities in Central Asia. The two countries have had regular military exchanges since 1993 and have engaged in numerous, though mostly small-scale, military exercises since 2002. As with the multi-lateral activities, China’s military engagement with Kazakhstan focuses on non-traditional threats such as terrorism and drug trafficking. China provides a significant amount of military assistance to Kazakhstan, but it is limited almost entirely to non-lethal equipment.

Kyrgyzstan

China’s security relations with Kyrgyzstan are more limited and opaque. They are focused primarily on countering Uighur separatist networks. Beijing has also provided equipment to the Kyrgyzstani security forces, but as with Kazakhstan, this has been limited to non-lethal goods such as vehicles and computers.

Turkmenistan and Tajikistan

Security relations with Turkmenistan and Tajikistan are not a priority for China. With Turkmenistan, the basis of the bilateral relationship is natural gas exports. Security assistance is provided by Beijing in order to ensure that pipelines and other energy infrastructure are protected. China’s interests in Tajikistan are also very limited due, in part, to the widespread hostility towards the Chinese in Tajikistan, which is largely driven by the success of a recent Chinese effort to renegotiate the border between the two countries.

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan withdrew from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in June 2012, not long after President Islam Karimov had signed a strategic partnership agreement with China on the sidelines of an SCO summit. These circumstances, in conjunction with a prior visit to Tashkent by the chief of the Chinese General Staff, have led to speculations that Karimov decided to strengthen the security partnership with China at the expense of the traditionally strong ties with Russia’s military and security establishment. So far, China has not given any indications that it is eager to make this relationship deeper than its security relations with the other four Central Asian states.

Afghanistan concerns

Beijing is concerned with the potential spread of Islamic radicalism and political instability in Central Asia in the aftermath of NATO’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is particularly worried that instability in Central Asia would negatively affect its ability to import energy. The potential for the instability to spread to Xinjiang is an important secondary concern. Both of these threats may be realised if Afghanistan returned to a state of civil war or if the Taliban came back to power and began to export its ideology and methods of governance to Central Asia.

China will continue to tread cautiously, since the political reservations that limited its military involvement in Central Asia are equally relevant for Afghanistan. It will seek to ensure that its security initiatives in the region remain largely multilateral.

What next

China will continue to emphasise economic relations with Central Asia while soft-pedalling military ties, which will largely focus on the security of Chinese energy imports and continued stability in Xinjiang. Despite increased security concerns in the aftermath of the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, China will not attempt to become a regional security guarantor. It will leave that role primarily to Russia and focus instead on establishing its economic dominance in Central Asia.

Great Powers vie for sway in Central Asia

Here’s an Oxford Analytica brief from early February on basing in Central Asia.

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As NATO and the United States prepare to withdraw the bulk of their military forces from Afghanistan in 2014, both regional powers and local actors in Central Asia are preparing for the aftermath. NATO countries have already negotiated short-term access to new and existing military bases in the region to facilitate the step-by-step withdrawal of their troops. At the same time, the United States and Russia are working out deals with local players to maintain their military presence in an effort to preserve regional security, as well as guarantee their long-term influence in Central Asia.

Impact

  • The Russian military presence in Kyrgyzstan is becoming more entrenched due to the recent changes in the legal status of its facilities.
  • US influence in Central Asia will decline after NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, as the region is not a US foreign policy priority.
  • Given its de facto economic dominance in Central Asia, China is cautious about stepping up its military involvement in regional affairs.

What next

The Western focus on Afghanistan will decline after the NATO operation is completed. The United States will seek to maintain a presence at the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan, but the number of personnel there will depend primarily on the supply needs of the US troops remaining in Afghanistan after 2014. Russia, on the other hand, will aim to solidify its position as the dominant regional security provider. Finally, China will continue to strengthen military ties with Central Asian states, though it will stop short of the potentially incendiary step of sending its forces to the region.

Analysis

Over the past few months, discussions of post-2014 military bases in Central Asia have resurfaced. Although Moscow and Washington remain the key contenders in their efforts to ensure continued military access to the region, several other countries involved in NATO operations in Afghanistan have sought to secure access to the bases as they are beginning to plan troop withdrawals. For example:

  • Germany wants to maintain its lease on the base in Termez, Uzbekistan; and
  • France recently signed an agreement with Kazakhstan to develop a military transit hub in Shymkent.

Both countries are almost certainly going to pull out of these bases once the withdrawal of their troops is complete. Russia and the United States, on the other hand, will likely stay for the longer term.

US-Russian Manas rivalry

The Manas transit centre in Kyrgyzstan served as the key link in the US effort to bring equipment and troops to Afghanistan. It is poised to play a similar role during the US withdrawal from the region. At the same time, there is a great deal of competition for access to Manas after 2014.

United States

Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev sees the base as a regional airport. The United States appears to support Atambayev’s plan and has already submitted a proposal to transform the facility into a civilian aviation hub. This may prove beneficial in future negotiations with Kyrgyzstan should Washington decide to retain some local military presence. The mid-January visit to Bishkek by the US Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake was widely perceived as the first step toward bilateral discussions on the future of the Manas Transit Centre.

Russia

Moscow is also keen to provide assistance for Manas redevelopment as it seeks to ensure base access while, at the same time, hoping to prevent the United States from remaining in the country. A delegation of Russian state officials visited Bishkek in December 2012 for discussions about the possibility of establishing a joint Kyrgyzstani-Russian logistics centre at Manas.

Russia: Access to Kyrgyzstan facilities

In December 2012, Russia succeeded in convincing Kyrgyzstan’s government to allow it to consolidate into a unified military base its existing local facilities. These consist of:

  • a weapon test range in Karakol;
  • a signals centre in Kara-Balt;
  • a radio-seismic laboratory in Mayly-Suu; and
  • an airbase in Kant.

Until now, these facilities were governed by several agreements that made them more vulnerable to political pressure from the Kyrgyzstani side. To reduce the risk, Moscow had been looking to change their status for the last two years. The new agreement will last for at least 15 years.

The deal appears to have ended speculation that Russia was planning to build a second military base in southern Kyrgyzstan near Osh. Although Moscow was keen to build a base in that region for several years, the importance of this initiative diminished after the United States announced in the summer of 2010 that it will not proceed with its plans to establish a counter-terrorism training centre in the area.

Russia: Long-term presence in Tajikistan

In October 2012, Russia finalised with Tajikistan an arrangement to extend its lease on local military facilities for 30 years. Tajikistan agreed to forego significant rent payments in exchange for:

  • 200 million dollars toward the modernisation of its armed forces;
  • additional economic assistance, including Moscow’s help with the construction of hydroelectric power stations; and
  • fewer restrictions for Tajik migrant labourers in Russia.

Fuel supplies hurdles

Several obstacles have been delaying the ratification of the agreement in Tajikistan’s parliament. They include duty-free Russian fuel shipments. Moscow insisted on a clause that would prevent Dushanbe from re-exporting the fuel and, after initial reluctance, Tajikistan relented in late January 2013.

Migration issues

The two sides remain at odds over restrictions imposed on Tajik guest workers. The current migration agreement stipulates that Tajikistan nationals are allowed to stay in Russia for 15 days without registration and are eligible for a work permit of up to three years. Dushanbe is seeking to improve the terms of the agreement while, on its part, Moscow is requesting that Tajikistan control the flow of migrants by sending them through dedicated organisations. Migration law is a critical issue for Tajikistan; remittances from its migrant workers in Russia comprise almost half of the country’s GDP.

Despite delays in negotiations, both sides appear committed to completing the deal, which is likely to be ratified in Tajikistan’s parliament in the next 1-2 months.

China: Military reluctance

Although China has strengthened its military ties with Central Asian states through frequent multi-national exercises and occasional arms sales, it has not attempted to establish a permanent military presence in the region. The strategy is part of an effort to assuage the fears shared by Central Asian leaders of excessive Chinese dominance. It also addresses Russia’s concerns of being displaced by China as the security guarantor, having already been sidelined in the economic realm.

Russia and China vie for influence in Central Asia

I’m still swamped with various projects, so in the meantime, here’s another Oxford Analytica brief. This one is from mid-December…

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Although China and the United States have focused greater attention on Central Asia in recent years, Russia remains the dominant power in the region. Its size and the cultural, political and economic connections that remain from the Soviet period are such that Central Asian countries are reluctant to take any actions that would antagonise Moscow. For Russian leaders, Central Asia serves as a buffer zone that protects Russia’s southern border from potential threats.

Impacts:

  • Increasing Chinese economic presence in Central Asia will curtail Russia’s efforts to limit China’s regional political influence.
  • After NATO’s exit from Afghanistan, Russia and Central Asian states will cooperate to prevent radical Islam from destabilising the region.
  • Shifting patterns of energy demand and supply will reduce Russia’s ability to use energy as a tool for political influence.

ANALYSIS:

Russia’s various initiatives in Central Asia are shaped by three interest groups with widely divergent interests that often work at cross-purposes to each other:

  • The military and defence industry is focused on the role of great power competition in the region; it seeks to promote arms sales and to increase Russia’s military presence.
  • The energy industry focuses on securing exclusive rights to gas transit from Central Asia to Europe.
  • The security services concentrate on the transnational threats to Russia from radical Islam, terrorism and drug smuggling.

Maintaining monopoly

Throughout the last decade, Russia sought to maintain its energy-transit monopoly on the export of petroleum and natural gas from Central Asia. Until 2005, all major export pipelines from the region went through Russia giving it control over transit fees. Russia’s monopoly over natural gas transit to Europe also gave it political and economic leverage over downstream countries dependent on supplies of Russian natural gas for domestic consumption.

The construction of alternative pipelines over the last decade has eliminated Russia’s monopoly on hydrocarbon transit from Central Asia. Energy-producing states in the region can now sell their products to China and Iran. At the same time, changes in patterns of supply and demand for natural gas in Europe have decreased the political and economic significance of Russia’s remaining monopoly on natural gas supply to some European countries. The development of new methods of shale gas extraction in the United States has increased the supply of LNG to Europe at the same time as the 2008-09 global financial crisis has led to a sharp drop in demand for natural gas.

These factors decreased Russia’s ability to set prices and to use its control of energy supply for political ends, thus reducing the importance of future Caspian pipeline transit. Russia is now likely to focus on energy production in the Caspian Sea region and has already begun to develop several oil and gas fields that it controls jointly with Kazakhstan.

Keeping China at bay

China has sought to increase its economic and political influence in Central Asia without alienating Russia for a number of reasons. For example:

  • Central Asia has become one of China’s primary energy suppliers;
  • Central Asia serves as a security buffer zone between China and both Russia and the United States; and
  • China seeks to prevent Uighur separatists in Xinjiang from using Central Asia as a safe haven.

To further these goals, China made large investments into the Central Asian economies and, in particular, in energy infrastructure. The region provides raw materials to China in exchange for finished products such as machinery, food and consumer goods.

Russian leaders fear that their country’s position in Central Asia is gradually being displaced as China’s political influence and economic power grow. To maintain its sway in Central Asia, Russia has focused on ‘tying’ China into regional networks and institutions while retaining levers of influence through institutions in which China is not a member.

In the security realm, Russia has combined participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) with its role in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). While the SCO provides a neutral forum where Russia can discuss security and plan joint operations and exercises with China, the CSTO allows Russia to address Central Asian security issues without China’s participation. At the same time, Russia has sought to counter China’s economic influence in Central Asia by setting up the Customs Union, which, in 2014, is expected to include Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Recent discussions concerning the establishment of the Eurasian Union in 2015 are also part of the effort to cement Central Asian economic ties to Russia.

Ensuring political stability

Although most of the regimes in the region have endured for over 20 years, Central Asia is now entering a period of potential political instability.

  • Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are all bracing for a potential resurgence of Islamist radicalism in the aftermath of the likely US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.
  • Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan — both states ruled by authoritarian presidents in their mid-1970s — are highly vulnerable to succession risks.
  • Kyrgyzstan is still recovering from two episodes of violent regime collapse in the last decade.

The potential destabilising influence of radical Islamist groups and drug smuggling networks is a key concern for Russia. Moscow believes that the current Central Asian leadership has been able to contain the threat of radical Islam and is worried that a regime change, combined with the withdrawal of NATO troops, would facilitate the spread of radical Islam to Russia.

These concerns have led Russia to provide various forms of security assistance to the region’s more vulnerable states. In the last year alone Russia has:

  • extended leases on military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan;
  • sold weapons to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan;
  • sought to persuade Uzbekistan to re-engage with the CSTO; and
  • agreed to provide 1.3 billion dollars to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to modernise their military forces and ensure their security after the departure of Western troops.

The extension of Russia’s military base agreements with Central Asian countries, together with Kyrgyzstan’s decision to ask the United States to vacate the Manas base after the NATO departure from Afghanistan, will leave Russia as the sole security provider to vulnerable states in the region.

CONCLUSION: Russia’s security relations with Central Asian states will strengthen as they face the consequences of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. At the same time, Moscow’s efforts to remain the dominant economic partner of the region’s key players will likely falter as China strengthens its position as the main recipient of Central Asian energy exports and a key supplier of imported consumer products.

Problems of Post-Communism, November 2012 Table of Contents

Volume 59 Number 6 / November-December 2012 of Problems of Post-Communism is now available on the ME Sharpe web site at http://mesharpe.metapress.com.

This issue contains:

The 2012 Political Reform in Russia: The Interplay of Liberalizing Concessions and Authoritarian Corrections  p. 3
Grigorii V. Golosov
Modernization and Historical Memory in Russia: Two Sides of the Same Coin  p. 15
Miguel Vázquez Liñán
Reforming Post-Communist Welfare States: Family Policy in Poland, Hungary, and Romania Since 2000  p. 27
Tomasz Inglot, Dorottya Szikra, Cristina Raţ
Civil Society with Chinese Characteristics?: An Examination of China’s Urban Homeowners’ Committees and Movements  p. 50
Ngeow Chow Bing
A Salute to Ronald Linden, Outgoing Associate Editor of Problems of Post-Communism and a Welcome to Sherrill Stroschein, Incoming Associate Editor of Problems of Post-Communism  p. 64
Dmitry Gorenburg, Editor

Russian-Central Asian Security Relations

I was recently asked by the Slovak Atlantic Commission to write a short article reviewing security relations between Russia and Central Asia for their Euro Atlantic Quarterly. With their permission, I repost the article below.

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Russian policies in Central Asia are shaped by three divergent perspectives. The geopolitical/military perspective focuses on the great power competition in the region; the perspective of the Russian energy industry focuses on securing exclusive rights for gas transit from the region to Europe; and the security perspective focuses on the transnational threats to Russia caused by radical Islamism, terrorism, and drug smuggling through the region.[1]

The internal tension among these perspectives is the main source of inconsistency in Russian policies in the region. Depending on which perspective is in ascendance, Russian officials alternate between focusing on soft security threats, which are best dealt with through the establishment of cooperative mechanisms with states both in and outside the region, and taking steps to limit the influence of outside states in the region as part of its effort to retain a monopoly on energy transit and to come out on top in its rivalry with the United States in the region.

Russia’s energy interests in Central Asia

Until recently, Russia’s primary energy policy goal in the region was to control the export of petroleum and natural gas from Central Asia to Europe. Until 2005, all major export pipelines from the region went through Russia, giving it significant leverage over transit fees and sales prices. Control over natural gas transit was also important politically, as it could potentially be used as leverage over downstream countries dependent on supplies of Russian natural gas for their domestic consumption.

The construction of a number of alternative pipelines over the last decade has eliminated Russia’s monopoly on hydrocarbon transit from Central Asia. Energy producing states in the region can now sell their products to China and Iran. At the same time, changes in patterns of supply and demand for natural gas in Europe have decreased the political and economic significance of Russia’s remaining monopoly on natural gas supply to some European countries. The development of new methods of extracting shale gas in the United States increased the supply of LNG to Europe at the same time as the 2008-09 global financial crisis led to a sharp drop in demand. These factors combined to sharply reduce Russia’s ability to set prices or to use its control of supply for political ends. This effect is likely to last for at least the medium term.

This change in European natural gas dynamics has reduced the political importance of future Caspian pipeline routes for Russia. Instead, Russia is likely to focus on increasing the economic benefits of energy production in the Caspian. To this end it has focused on developing several oil and gas fields it controls jointly with Kazakhstan. The most significant of these is the Kurmangazy offshore oil and gas condensate field, with estimated reserves of 7-10 billion barrels of oil. Russian energy companies also have partial control or minority stakes in several other Kazakhstani fields, all currently in the survey and exploration stage.

Competition with China

In recent years, Russian leaders have become increasingly concerned about the rise of Chinese influence in Central Asia. China’s political strategy in Central Asia is focused on turning the region into a strong, accessible, and secure region for Chinese influence without generating strong Russian opposition. The region is significant for China for three reasons. First of all, it has become a critical source of energy resources for China. Second, China views the region as a security buffer zone between it and both Russia and the United States. Finally, China seeks Central Asian support in its ongoing fight against Uyghur separatism in Xinjiang.[2] To further these goals, China has made large investments in the Central Asian economy, and particularly in energy infrastructure. Most Sino-Central Asian trade consists of the supply of raw materials from Central Asia to China and the subsequent import of finished products such as machinery, food, and consumer goods from China into Central Asia.

Russian leaders fear that their traditional influence in Central Asian politics is slowly ebbing away as their economic position in the region is replaced by China. While Russian is still frequently the lingua franca in Central Asian markets, the products being sold are mostly Chinese.[3] To maintain its influence in the region, Russia has focused on tying China into regional networks and institutions while retaining levers of influence through institutions in which China is not a member. In the security realm, the most important role in this regard is served by the interplay between the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which provides the two countries with a neutral forum in which they can have security discussions and plan joint actions and exercises, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which allows Russia to have a role in providing security Central Asian states without Chinese interference. At the same time, Russia seeks to counter China’s economic influence in Central Asia through the formation of a customs union with Kazakhstan and its potential future extension into Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.[4]

Seeking to Ensure Political Stability

Russian leaders are concerned about the fragility of political regimes in Central Asia. Although the states in the region appear strong on the surface, their state structures are relatively weak, best by corruption, and dependent on patronage networks for their continued functioning. These types of regimes may succumb to a rapid loss of power, much as the Mubarak regime did in Egypt in 2011 and as the Akayev and then Bakiyev regimes did in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 and again in 2010. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the two central states in Central Asia, are entering periods of greater political uncertainty as they face inevitable battles to succeed their aging presidents.

Russian leaders are concerned that the sudden death or overthrow of one of the Central Asian leaders will result in prolonged internal instability and could provide an opportunity for radical Islamist groups to attempt to seize power or launch a civil war. They see the current set of Central Asian rulers as a bulwark against the threat of radical Islam coming from Afghanistan and fear that instability in the region could make it easier for radical Islamic groups to infiltrate Russia.

Despite the increasing attention paid to Central Asia by the United States and China in recent years, Russia for now remains the dominant power in the region. The other former Soviet states in the region are loath to take any actions that would antagonize Russia. Russia has used the cultural, political, and economic connections left from the Soviet period to maintain its role in the region. Russian leaders consider Central Asia to be a critical buffer zone protecting Russia’s southern border from potential threats. For this reason, they will continue to act to ensure that Russian interests in the region are safeguarded.


[1] “The Caspian Sea region towards 2020,” ECON-Report no. 2007-008, 17 January 2007.

[3] James Brooke, “China Displaces Russia in Central Asia,Voice of America, 16 November 2010.

[4] Dina Tokbaeva, “Central Asia Focus of Russia-China Rivalry,Institute for War and Peace Reporting, 21 December 2011.

Armed Forces of Central Asia and the Regional Threat Situation

In the most recent issue of NVO, Aleksandr Khramchikhin has a very useful description of the forces located in Russia’s Central Operational Strategic Command. This is in the context of an article examining the total array of forces located in or near Central Asia, including Kazakh, Uzbek, Pakistani, and Chinese forces in the region. I haven’t seen all this data in a single place before, so it seems worthwhile to reproduce it here, followed by a discussion of the extent to which these forces present a threat to Russia.

Eventually, I’ll update my series on the structure of Russia’s Ground Forces to take into account the new organizational structure, but until I have time to do that, this will have to do.

Russia’s Central Operational Strategic Command

Ground Forces

  • 1 tank brigade
  • 7 motorized rifle brigades
  • 2 special forces brigades (one of which is being demobilized)
  • 2 rocket brigades
  • 1 artillery brigade
  • 1 MLRS brigade
  • 2 missile brigades
  • 5 bases for storage and equipment repair

These forces are equipped with: 400 T-72 tanks, more than 500 BMP infantry fighting vehicles, 200 airborne infantry fighting vehicles, 400 armored personnel carriers, 400 self-propelled guns, 100 other pieces of artillery, 200 mortars, 250 multiple rocket launchers, 300 anti-tank guns, and 270 air defense missiles of various kinds

Air Defense Forces

  • 5 S-300PS regiments
  • 1 S-300 V regiment

Air Forces

  • 6 airbases housing 48 MiG-31 interceptors, 32 Mi-24 helicopter gunships and 80 transport aircraft and helicopters.
  • 2 long-range aviation bases in Saratov oblast, housing 14 Tu-160,  16 Tu-95, and 30 Tu-22M3 long range bombers.
  • Military transport aviation base in Orenburg, housing 27 Il-76MD transport planes.
  • Various reserve bases housing over 500 airplanes and over 150 helicopters, though the majority of these are older types that are unlikely to be operational.

In addition to these forces, the Center OSC also controls the 201st military base located in Tajikistan and the 999th airbase located in Kyrgyzstan.

Kazakhstani armed forces

Ground Forces

  • 10 mechanized infantry brigades
  • 7 artillery brigades
  • 1 MLRS brigade
  • 2 anti-tank brigades
  • 4 airborne brigades
  • 1 missile brigade
  • 1 engineering brigade
  • 1 shore defense brigade
  • 1 peacekeeping brigade

These forces are equipped with 1000 tanks (T-80, T-72, T-62), 2500 armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles, 250 self-propelled guns, 500 towed artillery pieces, and around 200 Uragan and Grad surface-to-air missiles. Air defenses include several S-300 systems.

The Kazakh air force and air defense forces are organized into 10 regiments. They are equipped with:

  • 30 Su-24 bombers
  • 12 Su-24M reconnaissance planes
  • 12 Su-27 fighter planes
  • 40 MiG-29 fighter planes
  • 40+ MiG-31 interceptors
  • 5 MiG-25 interceptors
  • 20 MiG-23 fighter-bombers (being retired)
  • 15 Su-25 close air support planes
  • 40 transport planes
  • 40 Mi-24 helicopter gunships
  • 12 Mi-26 heavy transport helicopters

The Kazakh navy consists of 9 patrol boats, including one Turkish-built boat, 4 1950s vintage German boats, 2 new Saigak boats built in Russia, 1 Dauntless class boat built in the US, and 1 Berkut-class boat built in Kazakhstan.

Uzbekistani armed forces

Ground forces

  • 11 motorized infantry brigades
  • 1 mountain infantry brigade
  • 1 tank brigade
  • 1 airborne brigade
  • 3 air assault brigades
  • 5 engineering brigades

These forces are armed with 340 tanks (half of which are old T-62s), 400 infantry fighting vehicles, more than 500 armored personnel carriers, 140 self-propelled guns, 200 towed artillery pieces, and 80 air defense missiles.

The air forces consist of:

  • 30 Su-24 bombers and reconnaissance planes
  • 20 Su-25 close air support planes
  • 30 MiG-29 fighters
  • 25 Su-27 fighters
  • 40 transport aircraft
  • 30-50 Mi-24 helicopter gunships
  • 90 transport and multi-purpose helicopters

Pakistani armed forces

The ground forces are comprised of 19 infantry divisions, 2 tank divisions, and 35 brigades of various types. These forces are armed with 165 tactical ballistic missiles, 2500 tanks (including 320 T-80UD), 1300 armored personnel carriers, 260 self-propelled guns, 1600 towed artillery pieces, 2350 mortars, 50 multiple launch rocket systems, 1200 MANPADS, 1900 anti-aircraft weapons, and 25 AN-1 Cobra helicopter gunships.

The air force operates 400 combat aircraft, including 50 F-16s and more than 100 Chinese JF-17s.

Iranian armed forces

Khramchikhin briefly addresses the armaments of the Iranian armed forces, These include 1700 tanks, 700 infantry fighting vehicles, 600 APCs, 2400 artillery pieces (including 300 self-propelled), 5000 mortars, 900 MLRS, 900 anti-tank guided weapons, 2000 air defense artillery pieces, 300 combat airplanes, 100 combat helicopters, and over 250 air defense missile systems.

Chinese armed forces (Lanzhou Military Region)

Finally, Khramchikhin discusses the Chinese forces focused on Central Asia. These are located in the Lanzhou Military region.

Ground Forces

  • 2 tank divisions
  • 2 motorized infantry divisions
  • 3 infantry divisions
  • 1 mountain infantry division
  • 3 motorized infantry brigades
  • 2 artillery brigades
  • 3 air defense brigades
  • 2 reserve infantry divisions
  • 2 reserve anti-aircraft artillery divisions

The Air Force is organized into 1 bomber division and 2 fighter divisions. There are three regiments of H-6H bombers, 2 regiments of J-11 (Su-27) fighters, 4 regiments of J-7 (MiG-21) fighters. Ground air defenses are comprised of one regiment of HQ-2 missiles.

The Regional Balance of Forces

Khramchikhin engages in this description in order to provide a rough description of the balance of forces in the region. Oddly enough, he does not include the NATO coalition forces in Afghanistan in this assessment. But he does point out a couple of interesting things. First of all, the Chinese forces in just the Lanzhou military region, which is generally a low priority for the Chinese government and receives few modern weapons, are more powerful than all of the other forces in the region put together (once again, excluding the NATO forces).

Second, none of the other countries in the region present realistic military threats to Russia. Neither Iran nor Pakistan are likely to have any reason to engage in conflict with Russia, though Pakistan’s forces are, at least on paper, more powerful than those of Russia’s Center OSC. Pakistan is more concerned with India and its own internal instability. The only possible scenario where it might present a threat to Russia would involve a violent overthrow of its government by the Taliban and its allies, followed by its joining an anti-Russian effort in Central Asia. If the Taliban were to take over in Pakistan, it would have many more pressing concerns than attacking Russia or even Central Asia. This scenario is therefore sufficiently far-fetched as to be not worth considering for the moment.

Despite a recent deterioration in military relations because of Russia’s adherence to UN sanctions, Iran is also not interested in engaging in hostilities with Russia. It has more pressing concerns in every other direction.

Three of the Central Asian states (Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan) have no military forces worth the name. All five states have sufficiently good relations with Russia that they pose no real threat. The only potential threat to Russia from Central Asia comes from the possibility of a mass radical Islamist uprising in the Ferghana Valley, especially in the event of a NATO failure in Afghanistan that results in the Taliban’s return to power there. In that case, Khramchikhin argues for joining forces with Kazakhstan to keep the radicals in the south, while leaving the governments of the other Central Asian to survive as best they can on their own.

The Chinese Threat?

This brings Khramchikhin back to China.  He has previously written some fairly alarmist pieces about the potential Chinese threat to Russia, so this time he focuses on the possibility that China would attack Kazakhstan. This seems to be a sufficiently fantastic scenario that it could be dismissed out of hand, but instead he argues that China would easily win such a conflict while absorbing Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan with minimal effort. This means that Russia would have to come to Kazakhstan’s assistance or face the prospect of a 12,000km border with China stretching from Astrakhan to Vladivostok. (I’m not sure what happens to Mongolia in this scenario, but I assume it’s nothing good.) And at this point, Khramchikhin argues that Russia might as well capitulate on the spot.

I have never understood the extent of Russian paranoia about Chinese intentions. China is certainly a rising power, but it has accomplished its rise by developing its economy while remaining fairly quiet and conservative on the international scene. While there are certainly circumstances under which China would use its military forces offensively, particularly in Taiwan, the only scenario I can imagine where it feels the need to use armed force in Central Asia would involve defending itself against Islamist forces that have come to power in the region and are assisting Uyghur separatists in Xinjiang. In this scenario, Russia, Kazakhstan and China are all allies uniting to stop the Islamist threat, rather than adversaries.

In other words, Russians (and Kazakhs) should continue to sleep safely, knowing that China is not going to attack — either now or anytime in the foreseeable future.

The missing Chinese threat?

In the recent discussion of Russia’s new military doctrine, most of the coverage has focused on its discussion of NATO’s role as a potential threat to Russia and the criteria for possible use of nuclear weapons. What has been largely missing from the discussion (and from the military doctrine itself) is the role that China will play in Russia’s security in coming years. Both official documents on Russian security and the vast majority of Russian officials and analysts consistently underplay the potential threat that Russia might face from China. It’s not that Russians don’t think there’s a threat there, it’s just that it doesn’t get as much attention as the threat from the West.

In any kind of realist conception of how states formulate their foreign policy, this distinction wouldn’t make any sense. After all, objectively speaking, China is an enormous country located on Russia’s border and having a high rate of economic growth, overpopulation, an increasingly powerful army, and a history of territorial claims on Russian territory (and even border clashes over this territory in the late 1960s). Even now, Russian governors in the Far East occasionally raise the specter of the “yellow menace” and talk about the danger posed to the underpopulated region by unregulated Chinese migrants. But this kind of talk rarely emanates from Moscow and certainly does not affect troop positioning — only three of the 85 new brigades are situated in the Far East.

So why does Russia understate the potential threat from China (and consequently overstate the potential threat from NATO and the West)? I would argue that this is because Russian foreign policy elites are not operating with a realist worldview (despite all their protestations that they base their foreign policy on realpolitik). The goals of Russian foreign policy are at heart about restoring lost prestige. Russian leaders want Russia to be seen as a great power again, if not equal to the U.S., then at least sufficiently respected to be able to influence world events that they care about. This is much more important than actually becoming a great power.

And they measure the status of their country by comparing it to Europe and the United States, not to China.  The vast majority of Russians still see the Chinese as inferior and do not view China as a valid state for comparison with Russia. This is why China is largely ignored in most Russian foreign policy formulations and threat assessments.

In reality, I don’t think Russia has much to fear from China. China is focused on economic growth and not on territorial expansion and would not want to face the international opprobrium that would come with any kind of hostile action against Russia. But then again, realistically Russia should not feel threatened by the West either, and yet its rhetoric and official pronouncements often focus on the potential threat from just this quarter.

In this regard, it is again instructive to turn to the placement of Russia’s military forces. I already mentioned that there are almost no brigades in Russia’s eastern regions. There are also not too many brigades facing west. Most of the ground forces are positioned to the south, where the actual potential for military conflict is highest. In this way, the rhetoric and actions of Russian leaders diverge, with the rhetoric about status giving way to a more realistic assessment of potential military threats when it comes to troop placement.

In other words, it makes sense for China to be ignored as a potential threat to Russia — the risk of military conflict in the Far East is low. The discrepancy comes in the artificially inflated public assessment of threat from the West, and this inflation has taken place primarily for political reasons.