Russian Military Intervention in Kazakhstan

I’ve written a short report for an American Enterprise Institute project on possible Russian interventions in neighboring states. I was asked to discuss possible reasons for and trajectories of a Russian intervention in Kazakhstan. You can access the full report through AEI, but here’s an excerpt.


Key Points

  • Kazakhstan’s size and Russia’s lack of significant military presence in the region make outright invasion unlikely.
  • Nevertheless, the death or deposition of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev could generate regional instability, which may prompt Russia to intervene in support of a new regime or to undermine a newly empowered Kazakh nationalist one.
  • The likeliest cause of intervention would be to put down an Islamist insurgency, either with or without a request from Astana.

Introduction

Although a Russian military intervention in Kazakhstan is fairly unlikely, there are scenarios under which it could occur. This report first describes several possible scenarios that might result in such an intervention, considering potential Russian responses that range from providing assistance at the request of Kazakhstan’s government to an outright invasion. It then briefly examines the forces Russia could bring to bear in a conflict in Central Asia, looking in slightly more depth at the likeliest scenario—a Russian intervention to suppress an Islamist incursion or uprising.

Possible Scenarios for Intervention in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan’s size would make Russia reluctant to undertake a full-scale military intervention. Still, there are circumstances under which the Russian leadership would feel pressure to use force to intervene in Kazakhstan.

The greatest potential threat to political stability in Kazakhstan would come from the death or incapacity of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Such a situation could be followed by a succession crisis, with multiple groups jockeying for position.

If prolonged government weakness or conflict ensues, radical Islamist groups connected to the Taliban or the Islamic State could seize the oppor-tunity to launch an armed insurgency, potentially combined with an incursion from the south. A weak or divided Kazakhstan government might prove incapable of resisting a well-organized insurgency, especially if the anti-government forces are able to draw on the support of local inhabitants in the more religious (Islamic) southern parts of the country. In such a situation, Kazakhstani leaders might request assistance from Russia. Russia might also intervene on its own without a request for help, but only if Kazakhstan were largely engulfed by instability and Russia wanted to protect its borders or ethnic Russians living in areas near Russia that were under threat.

Although the threat from religious extremist groups is real, it requires some degree of state weakness or division to develop. While scholars have long argued that a crisis precipitated by the death of an aging leader could provide such an opportunity in any of the Central Asia states, the two cases so far of leaders dying in office in Central Asia (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) have both resulted in fairly smooth leadership transitions.

A second, though relatively unlikely, possibility is that Nazarbayev’s death coincides with a difficult period in Russian domestic politics for the Vladimir Putin regime. Whether because of economic problems or political weakness vis-à-vis younger politicians, Putin and his circle might choose to reenact the Crimea scenario in Kazakhstan. The goal would be to boost the regime’s popularity through another injection of militarized patriotism by annexing a territory with a predominantly Russian population. Such territories are located in the north and northeast of the country, directly adjacent to Russian territory. Counting on support from at least some of the local ethnic Russians, Moscow could seek to annex the territories around Petropavlovsk and Kustanay in the north or the territory around Ust-Kamenogorsk in the northeast.

Somewhat paradoxically, a third scenario for Russian intervention could follow a smooth transition of power. In this case, Nazarbayev could be succeeded by a leader who begins to implement a Kazakh nationalist agenda, acting aggressively to remove Russian language from the public sphere and ethnic Russians from positions of authority inside the country. Government policies under such a leader might also shift financial resources away from the northern and eastern parts of the country where ethnic Russian inhabitants predominate.

The leadership might undertake policies to reduce Kazakhstan’s ties to Russia, perhaps going so far as to suspend membership in the Eurasian Union. In doing so, the leadership would bank on expanding already close economic ties with China into the political and security spheres. Such a development would worry Russian leaders, who are comfortable with a division of influence with China in Central Asia as long as Russia continues its primacy in the security sphere—they would be concerned about a Kazakhstani government bent on severing political and security ties to Moscow.

Finally, Russian intervention might also be triggered by mass protests leading to a color revolution, similar to Georgia in 2003 or Ukraine in 2004–05 and 2013–14. The population might be outraged by corruption and repression during tough economic times. As in the first scenario, Kazakhstan’s leadership would need to precipitate the intervention by requesting assistance from either Russia directly or the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russian leaders would then act in support of this request.


Read the full report here

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Central Asian Military Capabilities

Another Oxford Analytica brief, this one originally published in late February 2015.

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SIGNIFICANCE: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are leading other Central Asian governments in increased spending on military and security forces and the procurement of modern equipment. Regional governments have long-standing fears of potential Russian military interference and remain concerned about the situation in Afghanistan. The increase in military expenditures is expanding capabilities, although the degree and pace of improvement varies from country to country, and regional militaries still lag Russian and NATO forces.

ANALYSIS: Impacts

  • Russian forces presence in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan will increase.
  • Turkmenistan will place greater emphasis on modern weapons procurement and naval assets.
  • Mobile and counter-terrorism focused forces will be seen as more important than conventional land forces.
  • While Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan will drive military reform, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will increasingly rely on Russia.

Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan’s military is Central Asia’s most capable, but it is far less capable than NATO or Russian militaries. Special forces will play a larger role as Kazakhstan looks to make a greater contribution to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s counter-terrorism capability.

A Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) report estimates Kazakhstan’s armed forces at 30,000-45,000 troops — plus many thousands of other personnel attached to the Interior Ministry. In 2014, Astana said that it would be increasing defence spending by 36% over three years from around 2 billion dollars per annum to 2.7 billion dollars by 2017, according to a report by IHS Janes. However, this increase may have to be reduced slightly to fall in line with expected budget cuts due to low oil prices.

Astana is looking to trim all 2015-17 budgets to match a 50 dollars per barrel oil price, but President Nursultan Nazarbayev could authorise the government to support increased defence expenditure with oil reserves from the National Fund. The World Bank noted that in 2013 Kazakhstan spent the equivalent of 1.2% of GDP on defence.

Air force

The air force, which has a primarily air defence role, has between 11,000 and 13,000 personnel, according to SIPRI and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Combat pilots average 100 hours of flight time per year, which is lower than the NATO standard. On February 4, Major General Nurlan Ormanbetov, Commander in Chief of the Kazakhstan Air Defence Forces (KADF), said that Astana plans to acquire the Russian Sukhoi Su-30SM ‘Flanker’ from Russia. As noted by IHS Janes, the KADF currently uses the MiG-27 ‘Flogger’, Su-25 ‘Frogfoot’, MiG-31 ‘Foxhound’, Su-27 ‘Flanker’, and MiG-29 ‘Fulcrum’ aircraft. The SU-30SM has been developed by Russia as a stopgap unitl the MiG-35 and Sukoi T-50 PAK-FA fifth generation fighters become fully operational.

Navy procurement

The navy has been significantly expanded and modernised since 2010. It now has 3,000 personnel and has deployed new patrol boats and missile boats. By the end of 2015, it will have gained mine countermeasure (MCM) capabilities with the delivery of a Project 1750E inshore MCM vessel from Russia. The navy’s missions focus on territorial defence and protection of offshore oil platforms and tankers. Kazakhstan’s increased naval procurement follows a general trend of greater military activity on the Caspian. On February 16, as reported by IHS Janes, Kazakhstan and France are to work jointly on the development of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). Astana will buy 10 UUVs to use in the Caspian.

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan’s military is reckoned to be Central Asia’s second most capable with an army currently numbering 40,000 personnel. Total defence spending is approximately 2 billion dollars per annum, according to SIPRI. The military is focused on improving its capabilities to defeat asymmetric challenges to President Islam Karimov’s administration. However, in Uzbekistan, the National Security Service (SNB) has historically been seen as significantly more important than the military. This trend will likely continue. The SNB will be a key powerbroker in any Karimov succession crisis. This highlights Tashkent’s main security priority, which is to maintain internal stability as opposed to undertake foreign operations.

Air force disrepair

Uzbekistan’s air force is reasonably well-equipped, but ill-maintained. Pilots receive around only 10 hours of flight time per year. Uzbekistan’s primary air assets are SU-24, SU-27, SU-25 and MIG-29 fighters, with transport capabilities provided by Illyshin-76 and AN-26s.

Joint Russian training

Uzbekistan’s defence priorities include procuring modern military equipment, improving combat readiness and mobility, and increasing professionalism among the officer corps. In December 2014, defence and military cooperation were discussed during President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Uzbekistan. Some 3,000 Uzbekistani military officers will reportedly study at military schools in Russia this year, which will increase Russia-Uzbekistan military interoperability.

Leaner fighting force

Uzbekistan aims to cut the overall size of its military in order to free up resources to create and train more mobile units. Heavy armour formations — using T-72, T-64 and T-62 battle tanks — and high-calibre artillery units are being reduced in favour of lighter infantry units with counter-insurgency/counter-terrorism and mountain warfare capabilities.

In January, the United States announced delivery to Uzbekistan of 328 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) military vehicles to be used for counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics operations, according to Radio Free Europe/Free Liberty (RFE/RL). Washington stressed that this was non-lethal aid.

Turkmenistan

Ashgabat’s military numbers an estimated 22,000-30,000, according to SIPRI. Despite being willing to spend money on modern weapons, Turkmenistan’s armed forces are considered weak with low operational effectiveness. Ashgabat has been unwilling to allocate spending to training and equipment maintenance. Meanwhile, the modern weapons it has acquired largely remain unused due to a lack of qualified personnel. The 2012 defence budget is estimated to be 210 million dollars, according to SIPRI. The army currently uses a lot of old Soviet era hardware such as T-72 tanks, BTRs and BMP infantry fighting vehicles.

Air Force struggles

Despite having received a large number of aircraft at the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan has struggled to maintain these, and pilot training has suffered. Currently it has MiG-29 and SU-25 fighters along with a handful of Mi-24s and Mi-8 helicopters. The air force lacks a heavy lift capability and would struggle to support the army on out-of-area operations or on Caspian patrols, which it is officially tasked to do.

Navy new ships

The navy was reformed as an independent force in only the past two years. Previously it was a department in the general staff. The navy’s missions include defending the Caspian coastline and protecting energy assets. Ashgabat has focused on improving naval capabilities through building new bases, procuring new ships and setting up a naval officer training academy.

As reported by Eurasianet in 2011, Turkmenistan bought two 12418 Molniya-class missile corvettes armed with the Uran-E missile system. These vessels are among some of the most powerful ships on the Caspian, although Ashgabat still trails Moscow and Tehran in naval capability. In 2013, Turkmenistan reportedly procured eight naval vessels which will be made at the Turkish shipyard Dearsan.

Military reform

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has made military reform a central aspect of his policy platform. In 2010, the government adopted a five-year military modernisation plan. However, reports indicate that the programme focuses on rearmament objectives, rather than structural reforms. In November, Berdymukhamedov reportedly told his national security council that Turkmenistan must procure the most advanced modern military equipment.

With the country having a long, porous border with Afghanistan, Ashgabat will increasingly look to procure unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for surveillance. However, despite buying modern arms, absent reforms and greater training of personnel, Turkmenistan’s military will remain an impressive military on paper but will lack the capabilities to defend the state.

Kyrgyzstan

In 2013, according to World Bank data, Kyrgyzstan allocated the equivalent of 3.2% of GDP to defence spending. This represents a gradual decline over the last four years from 2010 (3.8%) and 2011 (3.4%). The Kyrgyzstani armed forces are weak overall with gaps in command and control. Total spending on military and security services is estimated by SIPRI at 234 million dollars per annum.

Morale is assessed to be low. Declining funding means that Kyrgyzstan is increasingly dependent on external assistance for equipment and training. Bishkek’s main goal is to improve readiness and mobility in order to let the military respond to both border and internal events.

Army

The army’s total strength is 8,500 personnel, according to SIPRI. The army is looking to become a more agile force focused on mountain warfare. Mirroring a common theme across the region, the army is equipped with T-72 tanks, BMPs and BTR armoured vehicles.

Air force

Poor pilot and personnel training hinder Kyrgyzstan’s air force which is considered to be one of Central Asia’s weakest. Given limited resources, the country’s leadership has chosen not to upgrade the air force’s capabilities. Instead, Bishkek relies on assistance from Russian air forces based at Kant, where Moscow has rights until 2032 ( see CIS: Unstable Central Asia will drive Russian ties – January 23, 2015). In February, Russia announced intentions to reinforce the combat capabilities at Kant.

Tajikistan

With its 1,300 kilometre border with Afghanistan, Tajikistan’s military would be pressed to halt any incursions from militant groups. To boost security, Tajikistan is planning a new military base on the Afghan border.

Total spending on military and security services is estimated at 164 million dollars per annum, according to SIPRI. Dushanbe’s military forces developed out of irregulars that operated during the 1992-97 civil war. In recent years, the military has sought to increase mobility by establishing airborne and mountain infantry units. Tajikistan is dependent on Moscow for its security. Russia has 7,000 troops in Tajikistan that are set to remain in the country until 2042 ( see CIS: Unstable Central Asia will drive Russian ties – January 23, 2015).

Tajikistan’s army has only 7,000 personnel, and uses a variety of Soviet era equipment. Air forces are divided among various ministries, and have only a handful of Mi-24 and Mi-8 helicopters. With GDP of 8.5 billion dollars (World Bank 2013), Tajikistan’s military and security forces are likely to remain constrained for the foreseeable future. Dushanbe lacks the spending power to boost the military significantly.

CONCLUSION: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan appear to be building reasonably capable military forces. In Uzbekistan, the security service (SNB) will likely remain pre-eminent and enjoy the best access to the president. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are struggling to maintain even small rapid reaction forces; Bishkek and Dushanbe would likely need Russian military support in the event of a security crisis. Turkmenistan has the wealth to formulate a major military force, but Ashgabat has been unwilling to spend on training and maintenance.

Foreign military assistance to Central Asia, part 2

Here is the conclusions and recommendations section of my policy brief on foreign military assistance to Central Asia. This is the second part of the brief. The first part was posted last week and the full text (including references) can be accessed on the SIPRI website. You can also read the entire working paper on which this policy brief is based.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Overall, external military assistance to Central Asian states is unlikely to have a serious negative impact on regional stability and security. With the end of the NATO operation in Afghanistan, the region’s decade-long position of prominence on the international arena is likely to fade. In its place, the states of the region will increasingly be left to their own devices, with internal instability the most serious threat that they face.

While external military assistance to Central Asia is likely to decline in the near future, it will not disappear. In this context, it is important to ensure that the assistance that is provided is not wasted and helps to improve the security situation in the region. In particular, steps will have to be taken to ensure that any such assistance does not enhance the ability of internal security forces to harm civilians. The following recommendations are targeted at changing the nature of security assistance in order to focus on improving human security in Central Asia.

Emphasize training

Training needs to be emphasized over the provision of military equipment. This is a lesson that the US Government has already learned to some extent, as it has in recent years shifted away from equipment donations and towards providing training in areas ranging from language instruction to combat operations. Shifting towards training will also help to avoid situations where equipment provided through foreign assistance is used against unarmed civilians, resulting in embarrassment or worse for the country providing the assistance.

Shifting to training will not entirely solve the issue of complicity in repressive activities, since forces trained through foreign assistance programmes have already been implicated in human rights violations in Central Asia. Human security in the region could be improved by shifting the focus of security training programmes from special forces units to policing work, and especially teaching internal security forces how to handle large groups of protesters without resorting to excessive violence.

As part of an effort to reduce smuggling of people, narcotics and weapons, both US and European security assistance programmes have emphasized border security initiatives. While these efforts are laudable, they have often focused on technical assistance, such as the donation of scanners and other detection equipment. Such equipment may not be useful when the bulk of cross-border smuggling in the region is sanctioned by local intermediaries with government ties or by government officials themselves. Training may help to ameliorate this problem to some extent, but it will not be solved without breaking the link between smuggling and high-level corruption. Assistance providers must recognize that, given local incentive structures, corruption-reduction initiatives will not eliminate corruption. However, the nature of local smuggling networks means that providing technical assistance for border security is a waste of money.

Multilateral initiatives

In order to improve human security in Central Asia, coordination among assistance-providing states is necessary. The effectiveness of security assistance to Central Asia is undermined by the perception among outside powers that other powers are providing this assistance as part of an effort to increase their influence in the region. The zero-sum nature of this competition is encouraged by local leaders, who play off outside powers against each other in an effort to preserve their own freedom of manoeuvre. While coordination will be difficult to achieve because of long-standing suspicions among assistance providers about each other’s intent, it is not an impossible goal. The key is to start with areas of mutual interest.

Such cooperation has the greatest chance of success in counternarcotics. All of the governments in the region are worried by the rapid increase in drug addiction in their countries. They also face relatively similar issues in their efforts to reduce drug smuggling and the corruption that it breeds. Existing regional information-sharing institutions provide a starting point for cooperation on the issue. As interaction leads to greater trust, more involved regional cooperation, such as multinational training events with Russian and US participation, may become acceptable to governments that now studiously avoid multilateral engagement. Eventually, these states may become willing to organize multinational counternarcotics exercises and operations.

If cooperation on counternarcotics is successful, planners can work to encourage Central Asian states to cooperate on critical energy infrastructure protection. Given existing sensitivities about sharing information with neighbours on potential security weaknesses, this effort should begin slowly. A good start would involve regional seminars on best practices in countries that have extensive experience with energy production in potentially vulnerable environments such as the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia or the USA. If this type of interaction leads to greater trust, regional collaboration could expand to include information-sharing about best practices and eventually joint projects to protect shared infrastructure such as pipelines, tankers transiting the Caspian Sea and offshore platforms located near borders. However, given the existing political relationships in the region, such efforts should be seen as a long-term target at best.

These recommendations are deliberately limited in their scope. Security assistance efforts by outside powers are unlikely to lead to significant improvements in regional security, given perceptions within and outside the region that these powers are engaged in a geopolitical competition for influence rather than a sincere effort to improve local conditions. Furthermore, the likely decline in attention paid to the region by outside powers after the completion of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 will reduce the extent to which outside powers remain interested in the region. Other priorities will inevitably make it more difficult to change assistance policies toward the region. Recognizing these limitations, the relatively small steps described above would help to improve the impact of outside military assistance on human security in the region.

Foreign military assistance to Central Asia

My SIPRI-OSF working paper and policy brief on external support for Central Asian military and security forces are finally out. They seem to have been somewhat buried on the SIPRI website, so it seems worthwhile to highlight some of the key findings here. I am putting up the first half of the policy brief here today and will post the conclusions and recommendations section next week.

I encourage those interested in the topic to read the full report.

Summary

As the drawdown of foreign forces from Afghanistan has accelerated in the run-up to their withdrawal by the end of 2014, attention has come to focus on the extent to which military equipment will be left behind for the use of the Central Asian states.

Over the past decade, Russia and the United States have been the main sources of military assistance to Central Asian states, while other countries have played much smaller roles. The USA is in the process of reducing its assistance to the region as it completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan. Russia is likely to remain the main source of military and security assistance for most Central Asian states.

External military assistance to Central Asian states is unlikely to have a serious negative impact on regional stability and security. Internal instability is the most serious threat that these states are likely to face. Steps will have to be taken to ensure that future assistance does not enhance the ability of internal security forces to harm civilians. This can be accomplished by focusing on training programmes over the provision of military equipment.

Introduction

As the drawdown of foreign forces from Afghanistan has accelerated in the run-up to their withdrawal by the end of 2014, attention has come to focus on the extent to which military equipment will be left behind for the use of the Central Asian states—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. At the same time, recent agreements to extend Russian military basing agreements in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have highlighted the extent to which Russia is providing military equipment and other forms of security assistance to states in the region. This raises questions about the actual extent of external support for military and security forces in Central Asia and the potential impact that augmentation of these forces could have on regional security. This issue has become especially salient as all of these states have recently increased spending on their military and security forces to varying extents, which has in turn led to a gradual increase in capabilities.

Assistance from Russia

Russia remains the main source of military and security assistance for most Central Asian states. Its primary goal in the region is to keep the Central Asian states in the Russian sphere of influence while making sure that United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces leave the region after the completion of the operation in Afghanistan. Russian military assistance to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the weaker Central Asian states, can be described as a quid pro quo arrangement, whereby Russia provides political and military support for the ruling regimes in exchange for basing rights and a certain level of acquiescence with Russian foreign policy priorities in the region.

Although Russian military and security assistance to Central Asian states is relatively limited in scale, the low starting capabilities of the Central Asian military and security forces mean that even relatively limited assistance can have a sizeable impact on security and stability in the region. This impact is likely to be mixed in the future. On the one hand, efforts to create a unified air defence system and to improve counterterrorism and counterinsurgency capabilities are likely to help local armed forces protect their countries from the threat of infiltration by radical Islamist groups. On the other hand, the extent of this danger to Central Asian security has been repeatedly overstated, by both local leaders and their Russian partners, in order to justify assistance requests and subsequent security cooperation.

Most local leaders face a greater threat from internal instability and regime collapse than from outside infiltration. Especially in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the 2011–12 electoral protests in Russia, Russian and Central Asian leaders see regime stability as their highest security priority. To the extent that Russia provides equipment and training to security services without regard for how such assistance may be used, it may prove to be useful for helping local leaders protect themselves from popular protests by repressing internal opposition movements.

Reductions in Equipment Transfers from the United States

For much of the past decade, ensuring continued access for transferring supplies and personnel to Afghanistan has been the highest priority for the United States in Central Asia. Other goals—including counterterrorism, counternarcotics and promotion of democracy—have been pursued, but only rarely have they been allowed to infringe on the priority of the Afghanistan mission. The US track record in providing military equipment to Central Asian states is relatively poor. Many previous donations of equipment were wasted because of inadequate maintenance or a lack of training in their use.

In a period of reduced budgets and limited resources, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will inevitably result in a decreased emphasis on all forms of assistance to Central Asia. The region will once again become a relatively low priority for the US Department of Defense. Security assistance budgets for states in the region have already been cut in recent years and are likely to be cut further in years to come.

Central Asian leaders sense that the withdrawal period presents a final opportunity to receive significant amounts of military assistance from the USA. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are most interested in such equipment. In contrast, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have the financial wherewithal to buy new equipment and are not very interested in donations of used armaments.

Much of the discussion about the extent of US assistance has overstated both the amount and significance of equipment likely to be provided and the potential impact of such assistance on regional security. To date, the US Government has not agreed to transfer any excess defence equipment from the Afghanistan operation to Central Asian states. While it is likely that at some point in the future at least some equipment will be transferred to Central Asian states under the US Excess Defense Articles (EDA) programme, it is not likely to include major weapon systems or even small arms. The security consequences of such donations will be limited.

The greater threat to regional security is posed not by the potential provision of excess military equipment from NATO forces leaving Afghanistan, but by long-standing US training programmes for the region’s special forces, as part of an effort to increase counterterrorism preparedness. In recent years, special forces troops trained by the US military have engaged in combat against local insurgents and have fired on unarmed protesters and other civilians in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and possibly Kazakhstan. Training programmes such as these are much less costly to the donor than equipment donations and are more likely to be maintained as part of general US military assistance programming after NATO leaves the region.

The Role of European Union Member States and Other Actors

While Russia and the USA are the primary providers of military and security assistance to Central Asian states, other countries also play a role in the region. The European Union (EU) and its member states have been particularly active in efforts to improve local capacity in counternarcotics and border control. The European defence industry has also become the preferred alternative for Central Asian states seeking to diversify their sources of military equipment.8 Turkey has sought to use its cultural ties with the region to establish a role as a senior partner, albeit with mixed success. India has made an effort to hedge against China and Pakistan, its traditional rivals, by seeking to establish a military presence in Tajikistan, although this effort has met with little success to date. China’s role, while limited, has been most significant from a strategic point of view. While China has quickly come to dominate regional economic life, it has limited its role in Central Asian military and security affairs in order to avoid alienating both Russia and local populations.

Turkmenistan’s security challenges for 2014

A journalist recently asked me to comment on some questions regarding Turkmenistan’s security situation in the coming year. The resulting comment has now been posted, though without the questions for some reason. I’ll reproduce it here for ease of access, though please click through to the original to see several other analysts’ perspectives on Turkmenistan’s security.

Q: What will be the main security challenges for Turkmenistan in 2014?

A: I think drug (narcotics) trafficking will remain the greatest security challenge for Turkmenistan in the next year. The US departure from Afghanistan may lead to greater instability in the region, though most discussion of its impact on Central Asia exaggerates the likely impact, so I would list this as a second challenge.

Q: US [appears to be] really retreat[ing] from Central Asia, being more and more focused on South East Asia. What could be in 2014 the signs that this retreat is in process? What would be the consequences for Turkmenistan?

A: If the US pulls out all, or even most, of its troops, from Afghanistan, this will prove that the focus on the region is at an end. The financial allocations for security assistance to Central Asian states are another good signal. If this assistance is cut significantly, that will be proof that the withdrawal from Afghanistan also signals the end of US paying much attention to Central Asia. Since Turkmenistan is fairly isolated in security and alliance terms, I don’t think the consequences will be very significant. Even if the Taliban does take over in Afghanistan and uses the country as a base to spread insurgency to Central Asia, this takeover would take a long time to complete, so there would not be much of an effect in 2014.

 

Q: Which other great powers, geopolitical actors (China, Russia, Europe…), could take the responsibility of Central Asia, and Turkmenistan, in the coming future? Are there any signs that indeed China or Russia, or others, are starting to take geopolitical and security responsibilities in the area around Turkmenistan?

A: Russia will retain the lead role for security assistance to Central Asia as a whole, though Turkmenistan itself is much more closely tied to China in economic terms. Russian efforts to strengthen the CSTO are a sign that it is taking Central Asian security quite seriously. It may at some point in the future increase pressure on Turkmenistan to participate in CSTO activities or even to become a member, though such pressure will not come for some time. China will continue to free-ride on Russian security assistance and will continue to focus on dominating economic developments in Central Asia as a whole and Turkmenistan in particular. Europe’s role will be minimal at best. India and Turkey have made some efforts to increase security ties to Central Asian states, but have not achieved that much.

 

Russian preparation for Central Asian instability

The most recent issue of the Moscow Defense Brief has an interesting article by Maksim Shepovalenko on “Russian Preparations for Reduced Foreign Military Presence in Afghanstan.” It starts with the usual line on how the Taliban could spread instability to Central Asia if it came to power after the coming withdrawal of ISAF, which is an argument that I and others have found to be exaggerated at times. The threat of Islamist infiltration of Central Asia is often used by Central Asian and Russian governing elites to justify their security policies in the region, whereas most Islamist groups in the region are now far more focused on developments in Afghanistan itself and in parts of Pakistan. Islamist groups external to the region are primarily focused on fighting in Syria and, to a lesser extent, Iraq. So the greater threat to Central Asia comes from internal instability, such as the violent protests that have regularly shaken Kyrgyzstan in recent years, conflicts among the Central Asian states (as highlighted by the recent border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan), and the possibility of fighting resulting from a succession crisis in Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan. But although it doesn’t say anything new on the nature of the threat facing Central Asia, the MDB article does gets interesting once it starts to talk about the capabilities of Russian forces in or near Central Asia. 

The first line of defense in Central Asia would consist of the forces already in theater, including especially the 201st Military Base located in Tajikistan, which is essentially a brigade. It could be reinforced relatively quickly by two special operations brigades deployed from the Central OSK and one or both of the 98th Guard Airborne Assault Division and the 31st Independent Guard Airborne Assault Brigade of the Airborne Troops.  There’s an interesting discussion in the article of Russian plans to establish a rapid reaction force that might be structured as a fifth OSK “with a universal geographical remit.” Such a force would  include four independent airborne assault brigades (three existing and one new). In preparation for the establishment of this force, these brigades were recently transferred from the jurisdiction of the four military districts to the Airborne Troops HQ. These brigades’ recon companies are being bolstered to battalion size while special-ops and comms regiments are being turned into brigades through the addition of army aviation companies. UAV companies are also being formed and there are plans for each Airborne division to get a third regiment.

Additional support would come from the CSTO’s rapid deployment force, which includes, in addition to the 201st Military Base and the 999th Air Base in Kant, two Kazakhstani airborne assault battalions, two Kyrgyzstani alpine rifle battalions, and a motor rifle battalion and two airborne assault battalions from Tajikistan. Shepovalenko also highlights the importance of the 2nd and 41st Armies of the Central OSK as a mobilizable reserve for potential action in Central Asia. In addition to these two armies, the Central OSK also has a tank brigade and heavy motor rifle brigade in reserve, which could also be mobilized in the event of a crisis in Central Asia. F0rces from the CSTO’s Collective Fast Deployment Force (KSOR) could also provide reinforcements.

That each of the Central OSK armies consists of three motor rifle brigades is well known. What I haven’t seen mentioned before is the type of brigades. According to the article, the 2nd Army consists of one light, one medium and one heavy brigade, while the 41st Army consists of one medium and two heavy brigades. This transition to different types of brigades has been discussed since military reform began in 2009, but this is the first time I’ve seen mention of specific brigades having been converted to one or another type. Just as a reminder, heavy brigades are based on tanks, medium brigades are based on tracked armored IFVs and wheeled APCs, and light brigades are based on armored cars. The recently published report on Russian military capabilities by the Swedish Defense Research Agency argues that the transition to these brigades is likely to happen in the 2015-20 time frame, concurrently with the introduction of new ground forces equipment such as the Armata tank, Kurganets AIFV and Boomerang APC. (p.147-148, since I can’t link to the specific part of the report) So if the transition to different types of brigades using older equipment has already happened, it would be interesting to find out the types of motor rifle brigades located in other military districts.

The second half of the article provides a lot of information on the types of equipment that these various units use, as well as on Russian arms supplies to Central Asian states and is well worth a read. I agree with the conclusion that the security situation in the Central Asian states is likely to deteriorate in the near future, even though I disagree about the precise nature of the threat. Those interested in Russian preparations for responding to potential security problems in the region should take a look at the whole article. Given Russia’s unwillingness to intervene during the Osh pogroms in 2010 or during the current round of border skirmishes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, I would like to see a companion article describing the conditions under which Russia would be willing to use its forces to maintain stability in the region.

 

Does the US have vital security interests in Central Asia?

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a conference in DC, presenting my work on military assistance to Central Asia. During the Q&A, all of the panelists were asked a question that roughly amounted to the following; If you had a minute with John Kerry, what would you tell him were the United States’ vital strategic interests in Central Asia? (I’m terrible at remembering what is said verbatim, so I’m probably getting the wording completely wrong, but that was the essence of the question.) As it happened, I went first. My response basically boiled down to stating that with the impending US departure from Afghanistan, the US had no vital security interests in the region. This turned out to be an unpopular position with the other panelists and with a few members of the audience (to the extent that it was mentioned — though not by name — at a different conference on Central Asia held the next day). So I thought it might be useful to write a short post here in an attempt to justify my position.

First of all, I should make clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that Central Asia would not benefit from US assistance. The region on the whole is deeply misgoverned and suffers from a great deal of poverty and repression. I’m all for rectifying that. I am also not saying that the US should completely withdraw from the region. There are various reasons, both humanitarian and strategic, for the US to continue to be involved in Central Asia. However, the question I was asked was neither about how Central Asia might benefit from US involvement nor about whether or not the US should remain involved. It was about what factors would justify a significant expenditure of US government resources on continued involvement in the region.

And I would argue, that there are no such factors, once our troops are out of Afghanistan. The US will continue to have a strategic interest in ensuring that Afghanistan does not become a global center for anti-American extremists. But given the increasing likelihood that the US and Afghanistan will fail to reach a Status of Forces Agreement, it seems quite likely that this interest will have to be pursued without any US troops on the ground in Afghanistan. This means that ensuring access for troops and supplies, the one overriding reason for continued US involvement in Central Asia over the last 12 years, will disappear once US troops depart. Anyone who thinks that the US would have been seriously engaged in Central Asia in recent years without the need for this access is kidding themselves.

There are other important strategic calculations for the US. Some would argue that it is important to counter Russian and Chinese expansion in the region. My response is that investing US resources in some kind of new Great Game in the region is both wrong-headed and impractical. Russia and China border on the region and have obvious economic and security interests there. On the practical side, the United States is far away. Its leaders have found the region difficult to get to and hard to understand. There’s just no way that it can compete with Russia and China in the region in any sustained way. But even if it could, I don’t think the zero-sum calculations inherent in the great game analogy are the right way to understand international affairs in general or developments in the region in particular. Rather than trying to counter Russian and Chinese influence in the region, it would make a lot more sense to work with them to promote security and development in Central Asia.

On the other side from the hard-nosed realists are folks who argue that US engagement in Central Asia is necessary in order to improve governance, human security and economic well-being for the people living in the region. I’m very much in favor of this happening, but I question whether the US government is the best positioned actor to carry out such activities. I’m all for engagement on the part of NGOs and international organizations dedicated to improving the well-being of Central Asians. But the track record of the US government in promoting good governance and economic development in Central Asia leaves a lot to be desired. Too often, development and democratization initiatives have been tied to other foreign policy considerations or have taken a back seat to the security needs of the moment. As a result, US initiatives in this area may not be fully trusted at the local level. And there is also the question of sustainability, given the current distaste in Washington for foreign assistance that is not explicitly tied to hard security considerations. For these reasons, it seems to me that development and governance, while important, are best left to other bodies. (Though of course US funding for such bodies and organizations would be inordinately helpful, and would likely be more useful than direct involvement.)

So that’s my reasoning. It’s not so much a call to isolationism, as a recognition that the US government can’t be simultaneously engaged in all parts of the world and that some types of assistance are best handled by non-governmental organizations. I expect that regardless of the wishes of scholars and experts on the region, the US will gradually disengage from the region over the next couple of years. I guess that unlike many of my colleagues, I won’t necessarily view this policy change as a bad thing.