Central Asian Military Capabilities

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


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.


  • 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’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’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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Central Asian Military and Security Forces: Assessing the Impact of Foreign Assistance

The next PONARS Eurasia policy conference is happening next Monday and Tuesday. Here is my policy memo for that conference, based on my forthcoming report on this topic for SIPRI and OSI. For more information about the conference, including the full program, visit the PONARS Eurasia website.


As the drawdown of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan has accelerated in preparation for the end of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2014, media attention has come to focus on the extent to which equipment being withdrawn from the region will be left behind for Central Asian states to use. At the same time, recent extensions of Russian military base agreements in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have underlined Russia’s own provision of military equipment and other forms of security assistance to the region. Central Asia has been receiving external military assistance since the mid-1990s, and the amount of such assistance has grown substantially in the last decade due to a combination of U.S. interest in using the region to provide access to Afghanistan and the Russian desire to ensure its continued predominance in regional security affairs.

Local leaders sense that the heightened interest in the region by foreign powers may fade once the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan is complete. They are therefore using the current situation to highlight the potential threats to the region and how these might affect the rest of the world. The goal is to ensure that outside powers provide the maximum possible amount of assistance in the short term, before their focus shifts to other parts of the world. This memo examines the extent of external support for military and security forces in Central Asia and analyzes the possible effects of such support on the security situation in the region. Since the vast majority of military assistance to the region comes from Russia and the United States, I focus on these countries in this memo. Other sources include Turkey, Israel, and several West European states. China, on the other hand, provides very little military assistance to the region.


Russia has been the primary source for military equipment and training for Central Asian states since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Because the Central Asian states in large part retain Soviet legacy forces, which are stocked with Soviet equipment and still largely follow Soviet doctrine, military personnel are familiar with Russian equipment and with Russian training methods. However, Russia does not have a real strategy in its military assistance policy toward the region beyond seeking to keep the Central Asian states in its orbit while making sure that U.S. and NATO forces leave the region after the completion of the operation in Afghanistan. As one Russian interlocutor put it recently, “If the price of stability in Central Asia is [continued] U.S. presence, that price is too high for Russia.” To ensure that the situation does not deteriorate to the point where that choice has to be made, Russia has been shoring up Central Asian regimes as best it can, through efforts to modernize their military forces and security services to improve their capabilities both to take on externally-based insurgents and to suppress potential domestic revolts. By providing assistance, Moscow has also sought to ensure that the region’s governments remain relatively pliable. The entire policy was described by one Moscow observer as “playing preemptive defense.”

Russian military assistance to the weaker Central Asian states can be described as a quid pro quo arrangement, whereby Russia provides political and military support for ruling regimes in exchange for basing rights and a certain level of acquiescence to Russian foreign policy priorities in the region. Kyrgyzstan provides the clearest case of this type of arrangement, with the institutionalization of a major Russian military presence in the country coming in conjunction with Russian expressions of support for the government of President Almazbek Atambaev. Tajikistan’s reluctance to give final approval to its recent military base agreement with Russia may be related to Russia’s refusal to provide guarantees of continued support for President Emomali Rahmon’s rule. Moscow has been highlighting the potential danger of instability spreading from Afghanistan to Central Asia as a means of ensuring that local states feel the need to maintain close ties with Russian security forces. At the same time, Central Asian leaders use Russian foreign policy priorities to meet their own goals, including the development of more capable military and security forces.

There is less to Russian military assistance than meets the eye, however. Both Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) have made numerous promises of assistance and expanded cooperation to Central Asian states. Only some of these promises have been met. In part, Russian military assistance is constrained by the limited capacity of the Russian defense industry. Exports to Central Asia remain the lowest priority for Russian defense corporations, behind both domestic military procurement requirements and exports to countries that pay full price for weapons and equipment. Most Central Asian states pay the lower prices charged on the Russian domestic market for equipment, while repercussions to the Russian defense industry for delays in the fulfillment of export contracts are not as serious as when dealing with the Russian Ministry of Defense. As a result, most military equipment provided to Central Asia consists of older used systems, primarily armored vehicles and helicopters, that are being replaced by more modern weapons and are therefore no longer needed by the Russian military.

United States

For much of the last decade, assuring 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 democracy promotion, have been pursued but only rarely have they been allowed to infringe on the priority of the Afghanistan mission. In a period of reduced budgets and limited resources, the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 United States. Several Central Asian states have developed so-called wish lists of military equipment that they would like to receive from the United States and its NATO allies through the donation of equipment left behind as NATO forces leave Afghanistan. The countries that are most interested in such equipment include Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have the financial wherewithal to buy new equipment and are less interested in donations of used armaments.

To date, the U.S. government has not agreed to transfer any excess defense equipment from Afghanistan to Central Asian states. Most equipment is currently being returned to the United States or scrapped onsite in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, it seems likely that at least some EDA equipment will be transferred to Central Asian states at some point in the future. The extent of the transfers will depend on whether the United States signs a bilateral status of forces agreement with Afghanistan. The terms of this agreement will determine the force posture in the region, which will in turn affect how much equipment will need to be removed from Afghanistan and how quickly. In any case, the equipment is not likely to include major weapons systems or even small arms. More likely, it will be limited to items such as night-vision goggles, trucks, mine detection equipment, or reconnaissance UAVs to be used for border surveillance.

The timing of these donations reduces the likelihood that they will be provided as a quid pro quo for Central Asian states’ permission to allow the reverse transit of personnel and equipment leaving Afghanistan. At this point, agreements on transit have all been signed and the process of withdrawal from Afghanistan is well under way. Since no public announcements of equipment donations have been made so far, it appears that the two processes have been working in parallel, with limited linkage. It is of course possible that promises of assistance have been made secretly and will be announced at a later date. However, even if such announcements are made in the coming months, the security consequences of such donations will be limited.

Much of the discussion about the extent of such assistance has overstated both the amount and significance of equipment likely to be provided and the potential impact of such assistance on regional security. Legally, the U.S. military is obligated to declare equipment to be “excess” before it can be donated to other states. Excess Defense Articles (EDA) then cannot be replaced with similar but new equipment back in the United States. This means that the EDA process cannot be used to avoid the expense of shipping equipment out of Afghanistan if the unit might still need such equipment in the future. Furthermore, states receiving EDA equipment would be responsible for its shipment from Afghanistan to their territory. Most Central Asian states would not be able to afford the cost of transferring and maintaining major weapons systems, even should the United States agree to such a transfer.

Impact on Regional Security

As currently constituted, the military forces of Central Asian states are fairly limited in their capabilities. Local leaders have devoted more effort and resources to developing their internal security forces, since they see these forces as far more necessary for the survival of their regimes. Despite years of largely half-hearted reform efforts, Central Asian states’ armed forces remain primarily based on Soviet-era equipment and doctrine. Efforts at modernization have progressed to some extent but have been limited in most states by a lack of financing (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan) or a limited understanding of modern military strategy (Turkmenistan). Only Kazakhstan has begun to make some progress in transforming its military into a more modern force, and even there changes have been limited by continued adherence to Soviet legacy ideas.

Despite the extensive publicity generated by the deals for Russian military assistance in exchange for basing rights in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and the possibility that the United States may be willing to donate excess military equipment as it departs from Afghanistan, the reality is that this assistance will at best have a modest impact on these states’ military capabilities. Both Russia and the United States are likely to provide primarily non-lethal equipment. Given the limitations of the Russian defense industry, Russian assistance will consist primarily of older armaments and equipment that are being retired from the Russian armed forces. The United States will also donate used equipment that may have a limited lifespan. Furthermore, local military personnel are less familiar with Western military equipment, limiting its usefulness unless the receiving countries contract for training in its use.

External military assistance is unlikely to have much of an impact on regional security and stability, simply because none of the states in the region are receiving or are planning to receive in the future enough external support to shift regional power dynamics appreciably. The greater danger is in small arms and basic military equipment being provided to internal security agencies, either directly by donor states or through transfers from the relevant military forces. As seen in past events in Andijan, Osh, and Zhanaozen, relatively basic equipment can be used with great effect against domestic opponents, who are at most lightly armed and usually completely unarmed. The use of foreign equipment against unarmed domestic opponents has the potential to be highly embarrassing for the donor states, as shown by the extensive attention paid to the provenance of tear gas canisters used against protesters in Egypt during the Arab Spring.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Defense have highlighted that they do not provide lethal military equipment to internal security forces. They have also noted that any transfers of equipment provided by the United States from local armed forces to internal security services would be a violation of various agreements that could lead to a suspension of future assistance. The extent to which such safeguards would prove effective in a situation where local leaders feel that regime survival is at stake remains unclear.

U.S. officials argue that U.S. training has had a positive impact on the behavior of units in internal conflict situations. They say that units that had received such training are less likely to use violent means to disperse unarmed protesters. According to Defense Department sources, during the 2010 events in Kyrgyzstan, U.S.-trained units returned to their barracks rather than participate in the violence. Similarly, during the May 2013 unrest in Kumtor, Kyrgyzstani special forces units fell out of communications, possibly in order to avoid shooting their own civilians. While it is impossible to independently confirm the extent to which such training has had a positive impact on the behavior of special forces, Central Asian armed forces do receive training in non-violent crowd control and are taught international human rights standards by U.S. military trainers.

At the same time, there is little doubt that local authorities would be able to find units from the military or security forces that would be willing to use violence against regime opponents should the future of the regime be at stake. The success of the two uprisings in Kyrgyzstan had more to do with the unwillingness of key officials in the regime to order the use of force on a large scale than with the refusal of units to follow such orders. Furthermore, Russia is unlikely to have problems with transferring equipment to security services or to put conditions on the transfer of such equipment to security services from the armed forces.

External military assistance to Central Asian states is thus 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. Instead the states of the region will increasingly be left to their own devices, with internal instability the most serious threat. External military assistance will be limited and will do little to strengthen local armed forces.