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.