Russian-Central Asian Security Relations

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


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

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

Russia’s energy interests in Central Asia

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

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

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

Competition with China

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

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

Seeking to Ensure Political Stability

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

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

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

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

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

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

US-Russian Cooperation in the Caspian: An Opportunity Worth Pursuing

For the United States, the strategic importance of the Caspian region has increased dramatically in recent years. The Caspian littoral states have come to provide an important set of opportunities for the U.S. in a strategically significant region. Now, however, they face a range of significant security threats in the region, which have resulted from a combination of changes in the region’s geopolitical environment resulting from the break-up of the Soviet Union and conflicts over the division of marine and seabed resources in the Caspian Sea. Specific threats include smuggling of narcotics and other contraband, proliferation of WMD or related materials, and the limited reach of government authority in remote land and maritime areas. Further, Caspian energy security is particularly vulnerable to a number of regional actors. There is also the potential for armed conflict that can spill into the wider region; in particular, Azerbaijan and Armenia may come to blows over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Finally, terrorism presents a threat—both directly to several of the littoral states, and indirectly to the entire region, which serves as a transit corridor for terrorist group members traveling between the northern Caucasus and Afghanistan. An important consideration is that the effects of these threats can and do proliferate beyond the region. It is in the interests of the U.S. government  to help its Caspian regional partners achieve or enhance the ability to deter, detect, and respond to these threats themselves before the problems spread. Continue reading

Diplomacy comes to the fore in Russia’s Arctic strategy

I’ll be traveling this week and next, so it’s time to dig up some more Oxford Analytica articles to keep things lively while I’m gone. This one is about the Arctic and was originally published in late October, 2010.

SUBJECT: Shifts in Russia’s diplomatic and international legal strategies in the Arctic region.

SIGNIFICANCE: During most of the late 20th century, the Arctic region was primarily a zone of military interests, used by both NATO and Soviet strategic forces as bases for their nuclear submarines and as testing grounds for intercontinental ballistic missiles. With the end of the Cold War, the Arctic initially lost its strategic significance. This has changed in the last decade thanks to a combination of accelerating climate change and a rapid increase in energy prices.

ANALYSIS: The US Geological Survey estimates that up to 20 percent of the world’s remaining oil and natural gas reserves are located in the Arctic, and a relative increase in energy prices compared to the historical average has made the exploitation of these remote and technically difficult resources more cost-effective. Russia’s natural resources ministry has stated that the parts of the Arctic Ocean claimed by Russia may hold more petroleum deposits than those currently held by Saudi Arabia.

Furthermore, climate change has led to rapid melting of the polar ice cap, which has improved access to the area. While talk of new northern shipping routes coming to dominate transnational economic flows remains just talk for now, previously ice-covered areas are now accessible for natural resource exploration.

Legal status. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which came into effect in 1994, allows countries to claim a 200 nautical mile (nm) exclusive economic zone that extends beyond their twelve-mile territorial boundaries. Large parts of the Arctic Ocean could thus be claimed by more than one country. Several multi-national corporations are aiming to explore for natural resources in these legally contested areas, though this is complicated by the lack of a legal regime for energy exploration in this region.

Furthermore, UNCLOS grants states exclusive rights to extract mineral resources on their continental shelves up to a distance of 350 nm from shore. This has led to disputes over whether various underwater mountain ranges should be considered extensions of the continental shelf:

  • Moscow has claimed that the Lomonosov and Mendeleyev Ridges are extensions of the Russian continental shelf. In December 2001, Russia submitted a claim to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, arguing that a large sector of seabed under the Arctic Ocean, extending to the North Pole, was an extension of the Eurasian continent. According to the claim, Russia should have the exclusive right to explore for natural resources in this area.
  • The Commission ruled the following year that additional research was necessary to substantiate the claim, which remains unresloved.

Energy Exploration. Russia’s main goal in the Arctic is developing energy resources. According to a policy document approved by President Dmitry Medvedev in September 2008, Russia views the Arctic as a strategic resource base. Russia has already put in place plans to exploit resources in this region — most significantly the Shtokman natural gas deposit, which contains 3.8 trillion cubic meters (tcm) of natural gas. Development of Shtokman is to be carried out by a consortium among:

  • Gazprom,
  • France’s Total,
  • and Norway’s Statoil.

However, because of the current oversupply of natural gas to Europe as a result of the global recession, development of the field has been postponed until 2016.

Territorial Claims. The authorities assess that there are significant natural gas and petroleum reserves on the Lomonosov Ridge and in the Barents Sea, near the maritime border with Norway. In order to ensure access to these resources, the government believes it must resolve maritime territorial disputes with the four other states with claims to Arctic waters:

  • Norway,
  • Denmark,
  • Canada, and
  • the United States.

Until recently, the only boundary agreement to which Russia was a party was with the United States.

‘Facts on the Seabed’. In order to press its claims to the Lomonsov Ridge, Russia launched a scientific expedition in 2007 that included a State Duma deputy who placed a titanium Russian flag on the sea bottom near the North Pole. Around the same time, Russian officials began openly to discuss increasing the military presence in the Arctic. These actions prompted concern in other countries that Russia was prepared to defend its claims by force. In the end, these concerns proved unwarranted as Russian rhetoric quieted down and its leaders began to focus on negotiated solutions to territorial disputes in the region.

Maritime boundary settlement. The Russian government has recently focused on reaching agreements with neighboring Arctic states to delimit maritime boundaries. Since the potential boundary between Russia and Denmark (via the latter’s sovereignty over Greenland) is small, the main focus has been on Canada and Norway.

Norway was particularly important because of a long-standing bilateral dispute over a 175,000 square kilometer area in the Barents Sea. The area was originally disputed because of conflicts over fishing rights, though it became more significant in recent years because of the probability that there are significant oil and gas deposits in the region. According to Russian estimates, the recoverable resources stand at 39 billion barrels of oil and 6.6 tcm of natural gas.

Russian-Norwegian cooperation. In an accord reached in September 2010, the two sides decided to divide the disputed territory more or less equally. In addition, both countries agreed to cooperate in developing the region’s natural resources and to share any mineral deposits that cross the delimitation line. Both sides plan to begin exploring for natural resources in the region once the treaty is ratified by their respective parliaments, something that was impossible while the dispute was unresolved.

The settlement of this dispute, long considered the most serious in the Arctic, has given impetus to other bilateral negotiations. In the days after the signing ceremony, Canada and Russia jointly announced that they will abide by the decisions of the UN in solving their dispute over the Lomonosov Ridge. This has engendered optimism that various territorial claims that have been (or will soon be) filed with the UN by all five Arctic states can be resolved in an orderly and peaceful manner.

Outlook. The coming years are likely to see an increase in the number of disputes over territorial claims in the Arctic. Russia is allied with Canada, Denmark and Norway in seeking to divide the region into territorial sectors, though many disagreements remain about where the lines should be drawn. They are opposed by the United States and a number of states outside the region (including the United Kingdom, China, and Sweden) that seek to establish an open-access regime modeled on Antarctica’s. Russia has been active in settling its disputes with the other regional powers in the hope of reaching a settlement without the involvement of outside actors.

CONCLUSION: Though Russia remains keenly interested in the Arctic, it will pursue its regional ambitions via negotiations and peaceful dispute resolution. Unilateral posturing and talk of building up a Russian military presence — which featured prominently in Russian Arctic policy just three or four years ago — have now fallen by the wayside, in part because the authorities regard a cooperative approach as more conducive to exploration of and investment in Arctic natural resources.