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.


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.

Russia has not sent troops to Syria

Various sensationalist media accounts yesterday and this morning have been reporting that Russia has sent some sort of anti-terror troops to Syria. The whole media frenzy seems to go back to this ABC News report, which in turn is based on what is almost certainly a misinterpretation of this report on the RIA-Novosti Arabic site. It seems pretty clear that this is a major exaggeration of what is actually happening in Tartus.

Obviously, I don’t have channel to the Russian MOD, so treat the following as well-informed speculation, rather than reporting. Nevertheless, what is actually happening seems pretty clear from the available information. The ship in question, called the Iman, is a tanker that as far as I know has been participating in Russia’s counter-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. Its mission in Tartus is to refill supplies. Given its previous mission off Somalia, it undoubtedly has a contingent of naval infantry on board for the protection of the ship’s crew. In fact, the original RIA-Novosti report seems to state that the troops in question are Marines, rather than “anti-terror troops,” whatever those may be. So it seems to me that this whole episode is nothing more than a small contingent of ship protection troops being mislabeled as Russian troops potentially coming to help Assad. (For a very similar interpretation of events from a Russian source, take a look at Konstantin Bogdanov’s article on the RIA-Novosti website.)

Now, one might argue that the presence of any Russian ship at Tartus at this point in time should be viewed as a show of support for Assad. There is certainly an aspect of that here, but one should note that the naval presence is not new. Russian ships have repeatedly docked at Tartus since the uprising began. The Iman in fact replaced the Ivan Bubnov, another tanker that had been docked in Tartus until recently. It may be that Russia has decided to keep a ship in Tartus in case evacuation of Russian citizens becomes necessary, though that seems to be a bit of a waste of resources. More likely, the ship presence is the result of a combination of factors, including the need to resupply, the desire to show support for Assad, and the potential need for evacuation.

But the key point is that Russian ship presence at Tartus is not a policy change, and the ship protection unit are almost certainly not “anti-terror troops” come to support Assad. The whole episode will become a “bomb certain to have serious repercussions” (as described by an unnamed UNSC source in the ABC News report) only if the Western media narrative turns it into something that it’s not.


How to save money on the military

In last Friday’s NVO, Ruslan Pukhov takes on the always controversial topic of how to reduce military expenditures. He notes that the plans set out by President Putin in his article on security issues require a high level of financing, which may not be available if the price for oil and natural gas declines or if Russian economic growth slows down. He mentions that the Ministry of Finance is discussing the option of reducing defense expenditures by as much as 0.5 percent of GDP. If that plan comes to fruition, how would the savings come about?

Pukhov proposes two primary areas for cost reductions. First, he points out that no one has ever explained why Russia needs a one million man army. That level of manpower is excessive for dealing with local and regional conflicts, while more serious conflicts with NATO or China can be deterred with nuclear weapons. Russia’s poor demographic situation means that even without the cost considerations, Russia will not be able to maintain a million man army in the next decade. I have previously noted that even now there are only 750,000-800,000 personnel serving in the military, while 20-25 percent of billets are vacant.

But Pukhov goes farther, arguing that military manpower could be cut to 700,000 or even 600,000 by way of eliminating 6-8 brigades in the ground forces. This would result in significant savings on staffing and training, with little negative effect on overall combat readiness.

The second area for savings is in procurement of equipment and weaponry. Here, Pukhov makes the argument that given Russia’s geography and the nature of the potential threats it faces, the navy provides the least value for the price. Ships and submarines are of course notoriously expensive items and it is true that the most likely source of conflict for Russia will come from across its southern border, where naval forces can play no more than an auxiliary role. At the same time, the Russian Navy is likely to play an important role in protecting sea lanes in the Arctic and in guarding offshore oil and gas extraction facilities in the Pacific. It would also play a crucial role in any potential future conflict in East Asia. So I was initially dubious about Pukhov’s call for downsizing the fleet.

However, if you look at the details of his recommendations, they primarily concern the ongoing shift from a blue water navy to a coastal protection force. While this has been the de facto strategy for Russian naval development for the better part of the last decade, recently the MOD has made statements indicating that it will seek to restore the RFN as a global force. Pukhov rejects this initiative, specifically by calling for the cancellation of the pointless project to restore the Soviet-era nuclear cruisers. This is a recommendation I fully support. I know that boosters of the RFN will respond with data about how powerful these ships can be. My response is that power is one thing, but usefulness is a different matter. There is simply no way that the project’s cost can be justified given the lack of missions for such ships in current Russian military strategy.

Pukhov’s second recommendation is to cancel the purchase of Mistral ships. Here I am a bit more skeptical. These are very expensive ships, no doubt. But they will provide value for the RFN in three ways. First, they can serve as a helo-carrying amphibious assault ship, a capability largely lacking in the current RFN. Second, they can serve as command ships for specific fleets. And third (and still the main reason for the deal), by building two ships in Russia, the deal will contribute to the ability of Russian shipbuilders to construct modern ships of various types in the future. So there may be value here. But if the budget axe does fall on the Russian Navy, then it would no doubt be more effective to cancel this project than the new frigates and corvettes that are to form the core of the Russian Navy for the next 20-30 years.

Whether or not one accepts Pukhov’s specific recommendations, his article serves a useful purpose in calling our attention to the kinds of hard choices that the Russian military will have to make should the rumors of impending budget cuts come true.



The State of the Airborne Troops

A few days ago, NVO published a lengthy interview by Viktor Litovkin with General Vladimir Shamanov, the  commander of Russia’s airborne troops. Litovkin got answers to some questions that have long been circulating among observers of the Russian military.

Maintaining the old organizational structure

First of all, he addresses the issue of why the VDV was the only service (other than the strategic nuclear force) to retain a divisional structure, rather than shifting over to brigades. He argues that the divisional structure was kept because it was tried and true practice. While the ground forces, air force and navy were all undergoing wholesale restructuring, there was a need to retain one combat force that would be prepared for combat while these changes were going on.  Shamanov goes on to say that the VDV was able to react quickly to the Georgian attack on South Ossetia at a time when the ground forces were being shifted to a brigade structure. This is an odd response, both since the shift to brigades was announced in October 2008, three months after the Georgia War, and because the ground forces’ 58th army was  very involved in that conflict. Airborne troops did arrive first, but rapid response is their job, isn’t it?

Furthermore, if the main reason that the division structure was retained had to do with keeping one combat force stable while the others were being reformed, wouldn’t the airborne troops have been shifted to a brigade structure once the organizational transformation of the ground forces was complete? There are two possible implications: either the military’s top commanders are not yet satisfied with the combat readiness of the ground forces’ new organizational structure or Shamanov is not giving the real reason for the VDV’s retention of the divisional structure. Perhaps the rumor that Shamanov simply had enough pull to shield the VDV from the organizational reform is the real story, but obviously not one that can be shared by an official source.

In any case, Shamanov notes that some organizational changes are coming to the VDV. Instead of regiments, in the near future the VDV divisions may be comprised of brigades. Also, each division now includes an anti-aircraft missile regiment, armed with 9K35 Strela-10 short range SAM systems, 9K38 Igla man-portable SAM systems, and ZU-23-2 autocannons. The VDV and the General Staff are currently working out whether the airborne troops might have their own helicopter regiments in the future. Another option is to have army aviation regiments or brigades that operate as part of the VDV without being formally included in VDV command structures. The incorporation of helicopter units will first be tried out by the 7th VDV division in the Caucasus, with the first test to come in the Kavkaz-2012 exercises this fall.

Shamanov also briefly addresses the question of the VDV’s position in the overall military chain of command. The VDV is still subordinate directly to the Chief of the General Staff, but in some situations its units could be commanded by the commanders of individual operational strategic commands. Furthermore, the 98th division and 31st brigade are also part of the CSTO rapid reaction force and subordinate to that organization.

Manpower and social needs

Manpower is the second major topic of discussion in the interview. Shamanov notes the increasingly important role that professional soldiers are playing in the VDV. Currently, contract soldiers make up 40-45 percent of the troops across all services. He believes that the official goal of reaching 80 percent by 2016 is eminently reachable. He points out that since military salaries were increased in January, the army has been able to be selective in choosing who serves in the military. At the same time, conscription will be retained in order to maintain some mobilization potential and to socialize one segment of the country’s youth. This all sounds great, but I’d like to see some specific numbers on recruitment of contract soldiers in the last 2 months. Otherwise, it just sounds like more of the type of empty generalities we’ve all heard too many times before.

Shamanov also talks extensively about the role of sergeants in the VDV. Currently, most of the sergeants serving in the airborne troops are technical staff (i.e. former warrant officers), who are currently being trained in 10-month  courses in Omsk according to the old warrant officer training program. There are also some technical sergeants trained in other specialized schools in fields such as communications and servicing anti-aircraft weapons. But this summer, the VDV will receive the first cohort of sergeants graduating from the three year training program in Riazan that is designed to train sergeants to command troops. While this first class will be just over 200 people, they will form the basis of the new corps of command sergeants. Again, this sounds great, but the Russian military will need a lot more of these sergeants before there will be much effect on overall discipline in the force.

Shamanov briefly addresses the question of officer housing, as well. Since VDV units are mostly located in large cities, they have fewer problems with housing and spousal employment than other services do. They tend to attract contract soldiers who already live in the city and need neither housing nor jobs for their wives. Instead, the service focuses on creating comfortable conditions for service within the VDV. They have also pretty much resolved the issue of wait lists for apartments for retiring personnel. The one exception is those who want an apartment in Moscow — they have a choice of waiting for a long time or accepting an apartment well outside the city.

New technology and training

Shamanov notes that the VDV is increasing its participation in multi-national and bilateral exercises, including a two week counter-terrorism exercise in Colorado with US Special Forces coming up in May 2012. During this calendar year, the VDV will also participate in CSTO rapid reaction force exercises in Armenia, the SCO exercise Peace Mission 2012 in Tajikistan, and an exercise with Ukrainian paratroopers on Russian territory.

As far as new equipment, Shamanov focuses primarily on UAVs. VDV is currently using domestically produced Grusha UAVs for reconnaisance, though he is not fully satisfied with the quality of the device’s optics. Nonetheless, its use has improved artillery accuracy by 20 percent. He would also like to receive attack UAVs, with a range of 50-100 km. For now, there are no such domestic UAVs in production and there are no plans to buy foreign UAVs for the VDV.

To conclude, Litovkin asks Shamanov about the biggest unsolved problems facing the service. Shamanov lists two — increasing the amount of modern equipment used in the service and improving the quality of conscripts drafted to serve. He pins his hopes on Rogozin’s energy in speeding up production of new equipment and military-patriotic clubs in schools increasing the physical preparedness of young men before they are called up. I’m not sure which is more likely — Rogozin creating an effective and efficient Russian defense industry or a new DOSAAF turning Russian teenage boys into models of physical fitness.

A New Push for Nuclear Submarine Development

The following is an Oxford Analytica brief from early December 2011. Some of the material has been overtaken by events, but I decided it was still worth posting. One of these days, I will write up an update on naval procurement plans, but it will take some time, so this will have to do in the interim.


Russia’s fleet of nuclear submarines may be about to get an overhaul. Until recently, the State Armaments Programme’s plan for eight new Borey-class and six Yasen-class submarines by 2020 looked highly dubious. However, the Defence Ministry last month signed a series of contracts with design bureaus – in the presence of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and with full media coverage – suggesting that submarine modernization will proceed as quickly as possible.

What next

The conclusion of these contracts by no means guarantees that the plans will be fulfilled in the next eight years. While serial production is always faster than the building of the first ship in a class, given the state of Russian shipyards, it will probably still take a minimum of two to three years to construct each vessel. The makeover of Russia’s nuclear submarine fleet is a strategic priority – but it may take significantly longer than a decade to realize.


The deals were reportedly worth more than 280 billion rubles (9.2 billion dollars), including contracts for:

  • design of the modernized Yasen-class submarine by the Malakhit design bureau (13.4 billion rubles);
  • construction of the first modernized Yasen-class submarine, theKazan, by Sevmash (47 billion rubles);
  • construction of four additional Yasen-class submarines by United Shipbuilding Corporation’s (OSK)Severodvinskshipyard (164 billion rubles);
  • design of the modernized Borey-class submarine by the Rubin design bureau (39 billion rubles).

In addition, the Defense Ministry leaked information that a contract to build five more Borey-class submarines will be signed next year at a likely cost of 23 billion rubles per unit.

These deals represent the last unsigned contracts of the 2011 military procurement plan. They were held up for several months because of a row between the federal authorities and the defense industry – primarily OSK – over pricing. The Defence Ministry refused to accept price increases requested by OSK, because the requests did not spell out all aspects of the contract’s cost, as required by new regulations put in place this year. In the end, OSK agreed to lower prices in exchange for the right to choose its own subcontractors; in the past, the choice of subcontractors was dictated by the Defense Ministry.

Russia’s strategic submarines

The maritime ‘leg’ of Russia’s strategic nuclear triad currently consists of a combination of Delta III and Delta IV ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs):

  • Northern Fleet. The Navy operates six Delta IV SSBNs, all based in the Northern Fleet. Four have already been upgraded to carry Sineva missiles. Two others are currently being overhauled, with expected relaunch dates in 2012 and 2013. The expectation is that these subs, built in the late 1980s, will continue to serve into 2020-25.
  • Pacific Fleet. The Pacific Fleet has four active Delta III SSBNs, all built between 1979 and 1982. These subs carry SS-N-18 missiles. They will probably be withdrawn from service as the new Borey-class SSBNs enter the fleet. Original plans called for them to have been withdrawn by 2010, but persistent problems with the Bulava missile have pushed the timetable forward.

Borey class’s troubled history

The Borey class has a long and complicated history. Work on the first sub of this class, the Yuri Dolgoruky, began in 1996. Because of a series of redesigns involving both the submarine and its armament, it was not launched until 2008. Borey-class submarines have a displacement of 24,000 tons, a top speed of 29 knots, and can dive to a depth of 450 meters.

Construction of the second submarine (the Aleksandr Nevsky) began in 2004, and it was finally launched in 2010. The Pacific Fleet expects to deploy both Borey submarines next year, if all goes well in sea trials. A variety of problems with the Aleksandr Nevsky detected during initial testing have reportedly been fixed, though officers report continuing issues with the reliability of digital control systems. The Boreys are the first Russian submarines to be equipped with digital (rather than analog) control systems, and evidently not all the bugs have been worked out.

A third submarine is under construction and may be launched next year. The five vessels expected to be ordered next year will have a modified design that will likely include 20 launch tubes (up from 16). If they are completed on schedule, the Russian navy will have its eight new SSBNs in place well before 2020, allowing for the retirement of the Delta IIIs and most, if not all, of the Delta IVs.

Bulava delays

The main potential roadblock is the checkered history of the Bulava ballistic missile. Three consecutive failed test launches in 2008-09 led to the removal of the director of the missile’s lead design bureau. It appears that the problems were related to quality control in the production cycle, rather than any defects in the missile’s design. Since the production cycle was improved in 2009, the last five tests have been successful, including one that achieved the maximum range of 9,300 kilometers.

A test firing of two missiles simultaneously was planned for November or December, but this has just been postponed to May 2012. While the official reason had to do with poor weather in the Barents Sea, the real cause was probably the desire to avoid any chance of failure so close to the December 4 parliamentary elections. While success cannot be guaranteed, the missile’s recent track record means that commissioning by the end of 2012 is highly likely.

Why Yasen submarines

The Yasen class may be the world’s most sophisticated nuclear submarine, capable of 31 knots, equipped with eight torpedo tubes and able to launch up to 30 cruise missiles simultaneously. The Yasen is a multi-purpose attack submarine originally designed during the Cold War to hunt NATO aircraft carriers, protect strategic submarines, and fire cruise missiles at onshore targets. This class is expected eventually to replace all existing classes of Soviet-era attack submarines (Oscar, Akula, Victor, and Sierra). The Severodvinsk, the first of the Yasen class, could be commissioned this winter.

The Yasens are highly capable but also extremely expensive, with a unit cost of over 40 billion rubles. With the end of the Cold War, their purpose is unclear – especially given the extremely low likelihood that Russia could commission enough to threaten the US Navy. At the same time, the submarine is more powerful than needed to fight against any other potential adversary, including China. The Pentagon canceled the comparable Sea Wolf because of similar cost-benefit calculations, replacing it with the much cheaper Virginia class.


  • Fear of a missile-test-launch failure so close to the elections will delay the Borey-class’s deployment until mid-2012.
  • Russia appears committed to developing the new Yasen-class despite dubious cost-benefit calculations.
  • Fiscal strains – notable, a sharp and sustained fall in oil prices – would cast doubt on the entire naval procurement plan.



Problems of Post-Communism, January 2012 Table of Contents

Volume 59 Number 1 / January-February 2012 of Problems of Post-Communism is now available on the M.E. Sharpe Metapress web site.

This issue contains:

Playing to Lose?: Russia and the “Arab Spring”  p. 3
Stephen Blank and Carol R. Saivetz
The Politics of U.S. Television Coverage of Post-Communist Countries  p. 15
Ivan Katchanovski and Alicen R. Morley
Explaining the Varying Impact of International Aid for Local Democratic Governance in Bosnia-Herzegovina  p. 31
Paula M. Pickering
Russian Military Modernization: Cause, Course, and Consequences  p. 44
Bettina Renz and Rod Thornton
Why Look Back?: Citizens’ Attitudes Toward the Communist Regime in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine  p. 55
Sergiu Gherghina and Lina Klymenko