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.

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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.

 

Energy concerns drive China-Central Asia defence ties

Here’s the latest of my Central Asia series of Oxford Analytica briefs. This one is from late February.

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In shaping its relations with Central Asian states, Beijing has primarily focused on developing energy imports and forging economic ties in other areas. At the same time, China faces several security concerns emanating from the region, most importantly, Islamic radicalism and regional separatism. Beijing has been attempting to address these concerns via multilateral and bilateral cooperation with Central Asian states. The conflicts and tensions are likely to become more acute as NATO begins to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Impact

  • China’s desire to avoid alienating Russia has prompted it to de-emphasise military ties in favour of economic and trade relations.
  • Most Central Asian states prefer the focus on trade relations with China, although Uzbekistan has recently sought to increase military ties.
  • Chinese leaders favour multilateral initiatives, which countries in the region regard as less threatening than bilateral approaches.

Analysis

Although China has long sought to increase its influence in Central Asia, it has sought to do so largely through economic and trade relations, rather than in the security sphere. As a result, China’s military ties with Central Asian states are relatively limited. This is due to a combination of factors:

  •  Beijing is keen to avoid alienating Moscow, which continues to see itself as the primary guarantor of Central Asian security.
  • Central Asian leaders are concerned that China is already enjoying a disproportionate degree of influence in the region. This has led them to be extremely cautious in extending military cooperation.
  • China is reluctant to become the region’s main security guarantor, due to a combination of its long-standing policy of non-interference abroad, and more significant security challenges elsewhere, especially in its maritime region.

Multilateral initiatives

The primary mode of interaction between China and the Central Asian states in the security sphere revolves around multilateral initiatives organised through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). These are closely related to China’s desire to combat terrorism, separatism and extremism. As a result, most multilateral security activities in the region that involve China revolve around counter-terrorism.

Peace Mission exercises

The Peace Mission series of counter-terrorism exercises have been held since 2003. The most recent took place in Tajikistan in June 2012 and included participants from all of the SCO member states except Uzbekistan. This was the smallest of the eight exercises held to date, highlighting the lack of emphasis on the military component of regional cooperation within the SCO. Uzbekistan has consistently refused to participate in the SCO exercises. The Uzbek leadership’s fear of domination by external powers — Russia, in particular — has made it keen to avoid any possibility that potential conflicts among Central Asian states might be internationalised.

RATS

China has also established a regional organisation dedicated to fighting terrorism. The Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) of the SCO is dedicated to coordinating the anti-terrorist activities of member states, with a particular focus on radical Islamist organisations. RATS was established in 2004 and is headquartered in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan. In recent years, it has expanded its activities to include counter-narcotics coordination.

Bilateral cooperation

Kazakhstan is the most significant partner in China’s bilateral security activities in Central Asia. The two countries have had regular military exchanges since 1993 and have engaged in numerous, though mostly small-scale, military exercises since 2002. As with the multi-lateral activities, China’s military engagement with Kazakhstan focuses on non-traditional threats such as terrorism and drug trafficking. China provides a significant amount of military assistance to Kazakhstan, but it is limited almost entirely to non-lethal equipment.

Kyrgyzstan

China’s security relations with Kyrgyzstan are more limited and opaque. They are focused primarily on countering Uighur separatist networks. Beijing has also provided equipment to the Kyrgyzstani security forces, but as with Kazakhstan, this has been limited to non-lethal goods such as vehicles and computers.

Turkmenistan and Tajikistan

Security relations with Turkmenistan and Tajikistan are not a priority for China. With Turkmenistan, the basis of the bilateral relationship is natural gas exports. Security assistance is provided by Beijing in order to ensure that pipelines and other energy infrastructure are protected. China’s interests in Tajikistan are also very limited due, in part, to the widespread hostility towards the Chinese in Tajikistan, which is largely driven by the success of a recent Chinese effort to renegotiate the border between the two countries.

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan withdrew from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in June 2012, not long after President Islam Karimov had signed a strategic partnership agreement with China on the sidelines of an SCO summit. These circumstances, in conjunction with a prior visit to Tashkent by the chief of the Chinese General Staff, have led to speculations that Karimov decided to strengthen the security partnership with China at the expense of the traditionally strong ties with Russia’s military and security establishment. So far, China has not given any indications that it is eager to make this relationship deeper than its security relations with the other four Central Asian states.

Afghanistan concerns

Beijing is concerned with the potential spread of Islamic radicalism and political instability in Central Asia in the aftermath of NATO’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is particularly worried that instability in Central Asia would negatively affect its ability to import energy. The potential for the instability to spread to Xinjiang is an important secondary concern. Both of these threats may be realised if Afghanistan returned to a state of civil war or if the Taliban came back to power and began to export its ideology and methods of governance to Central Asia.

China will continue to tread cautiously, since the political reservations that limited its military involvement in Central Asia are equally relevant for Afghanistan. It will seek to ensure that its security initiatives in the region remain largely multilateral.

What next

China will continue to emphasise economic relations with Central Asia while soft-pedalling military ties, which will largely focus on the security of Chinese energy imports and continued stability in Xinjiang. Despite increased security concerns in the aftermath of the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, China will not attempt to become a regional security guarantor. It will leave that role primarily to Russia and focus instead on establishing its economic dominance in Central Asia.

Russia and China vie for influence in Central Asia

I’m still swamped with various projects, so in the meantime, here’s another Oxford Analytica brief. This one is from mid-December…

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Although China and the United States have focused greater attention on Central Asia in recent years, Russia remains the dominant power in the region. Its size and the cultural, political and economic connections that remain from the Soviet period are such that Central Asian countries are reluctant to take any actions that would antagonise Moscow. For Russian leaders, Central Asia serves as a buffer zone that protects Russia’s southern border from potential threats.

Impacts:

  • Increasing Chinese economic presence in Central Asia will curtail Russia’s efforts to limit China’s regional political influence.
  • After NATO’s exit from Afghanistan, Russia and Central Asian states will cooperate to prevent radical Islam from destabilising the region.
  • Shifting patterns of energy demand and supply will reduce Russia’s ability to use energy as a tool for political influence.

ANALYSIS:

Russia’s various initiatives in Central Asia are shaped by three interest groups with widely divergent interests that often work at cross-purposes to each other:

  • The military and defence industry is focused on the role of great power competition in the region; it seeks to promote arms sales and to increase Russia’s military presence.
  • The energy industry focuses on securing exclusive rights to gas transit from Central Asia to Europe.
  • The security services concentrate on the transnational threats to Russia from radical Islam, terrorism and drug smuggling.

Maintaining monopoly

Throughout the last decade, Russia sought to maintain its energy-transit monopoly on the export of petroleum and natural gas from Central Asia. Until 2005, all major export pipelines from the region went through Russia giving it control over transit fees. Russia’s monopoly over natural gas transit to Europe also gave it political and economic leverage over downstream countries dependent on supplies of Russian natural gas for domestic consumption.

The construction 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 shale gas extraction in the United States has increased the supply of LNG to Europe at the same time as the 2008-09 global financial crisis has led to a sharp drop in demand for natural gas.

These factors decreased Russia’s ability to set prices and to use its control of energy supply for political ends, thus reducing the importance of future Caspian pipeline transit. Russia is now likely to focus on energy production in the Caspian Sea region and has already begun to develop several oil and gas fields that it controls jointly with Kazakhstan.

Keeping China at bay

China has sought to increase its economic and political influence in Central Asia without alienating Russia for a number of reasons. For example:

  • Central Asia has become one of China’s primary energy suppliers;
  • Central Asia serves as a security buffer zone between China and both Russia and the United States; and
  • China seeks to prevent Uighur separatists in Xinjiang from using Central Asia as a safe haven.

To further these goals, China made large investments into the Central Asian economies and, in particular, in energy infrastructure. The region provides raw materials to China in exchange for finished products such as machinery, food and consumer goods.

Russian leaders fear that their country’s position in Central Asia is gradually being displaced as China’s political influence and economic power grow. To maintain its sway in Central Asia, 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, Russia has combined participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) with its role in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). While the SCO provides a neutral forum where Russia can discuss security and plan joint operations and exercises with China, the CSTO allows Russia to address Central Asian security issues without China’s participation. At the same time, Russia has sought to counter China’s economic influence in Central Asia by setting up the Customs Union, which, in 2014, is expected to include Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Recent discussions concerning the establishment of the Eurasian Union in 2015 are also part of the effort to cement Central Asian economic ties to Russia.

Ensuring political stability

Although most of the regimes in the region have endured for over 20 years, Central Asia is now entering a period of potential political instability.

  • Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are all bracing for a potential resurgence of Islamist radicalism in the aftermath of the likely US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.
  • Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan — both states ruled by authoritarian presidents in their mid-1970s — are highly vulnerable to succession risks.
  • Kyrgyzstan is still recovering from two episodes of violent regime collapse in the last decade.

The potential destabilising influence of radical Islamist groups and drug smuggling networks is a key concern for Russia. Moscow believes that the current Central Asian leadership has been able to contain the threat of radical Islam and is worried that a regime change, combined with the withdrawal of NATO troops, would facilitate the spread of radical Islam to Russia.

These concerns have led Russia to provide various forms of security assistance to the region’s more vulnerable states. In the last year alone Russia has:

  • extended leases on military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan;
  • sold weapons to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan;
  • sought to persuade Uzbekistan to re-engage with the CSTO; and
  • agreed to provide 1.3 billion dollars to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to modernise their military forces and ensure their security after the departure of Western troops.

The extension of Russia’s military base agreements with Central Asian countries, together with Kyrgyzstan’s decision to ask the United States to vacate the Manas base after the NATO departure from Afghanistan, will leave Russia as the sole security provider to vulnerable states in the region.

CONCLUSION: Russia’s security relations with Central Asian states will strengthen as they face the consequences of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. At the same time, Moscow’s efforts to remain the dominant economic partner of the region’s key players will likely falter as China strengthens its position as the main recipient of Central Asian energy exports and a key supplier of imported consumer products.

Turkmenistan’s isolationist strategy eases, to a point

While I hang out in Russia, here’s another Oxford Analytica brief. This one was written right after a quick trip to Ashgabat, back in early December 2010.

SUBJECT: The shift from an isolationist foreign policy towards selective engagement.

SIGNIFICANCE: Since President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov took office four years ago, Turkmenistan has started to shift away from the isolationism that characterized its international relations under former President Saparmurat Niyazov. However, its willingness to engage in international cooperation remains highly selective and largely limited to the economic sphere.

ANALYSIS: Since becoming independent in 1991, Turkmenistan has largely pursued an isolationist foreign policy, as symbolized by its declaration of permanent neutrality, which was recognized by a vote of the UN General Assembly in 1995. Since then, Turkmenistan refused to join any regional alliances or organizations that have military components, though it has participated as an invited guest in meetings of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. It is also a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, having joined in 1994 prior to the neutrality declaration.

Regime Preservation. The over-arching goal of Ashgabat’s foreign policy is to preserve and stabilize the ruling regime. Although the tenure of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has led to greater openness in principle towards international cooperation, Turkmenistan remains mostly isolationist in its foreign policy, using its neutrality as a shield to avoid unwanted international entanglements. Neutrality continues to play more or less the same role under the new regime as it did under President Saparmurat Niyazov:

  • Masking weakness. It is an excuse that the country’s leaders use to mask their state’s fundamental weakness. Neutrality allows them to reject any cooperation that they fear may lead to excessive dependency on a single outside power. While Russia presents the greatest threat for them in this regard, the authorities are also concerned about the potential designs of the United States, Iran and, increasingly, China.
  • Resisting critics. Neutrality also helps Ashgabat resist criticism about domestic repression from international organizations. Calls by the EU and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe for improvements in human rights have resulted in government declarations that these are efforts to interfere in the internal affairs of a neutral state.
  • Non-compliance. Likewise, neutrality is often used as justification for not complying with the demands of various international organizations or foreign states critical of the domestic political situation.

These rationales have not changed since Berdymukhamedov’s succession. While the new president is somewhat more open to the outside world than his predecessor, he remains focused on using his country’s neutrality to strengthen his hold on power in what is by many measures a weak state.

Economic engagement. At the same time, Turkmenistan has always been more open to international cooperation on economic matters. Its preference was for bilateral cooperation over participation in multinational organizations or projects, and it continues to focus on bilateral engagement. This is especially important for its economic development, as Turkmenistan lacks sufficient domestic expertise in key economic sectors. The bulk of international investment in Turkmenistan has been confined to the energy and construction industries:

  • Construction. The gleaming white marble palaces (and equally gleaming apartment buildings) that dominate Ashgabat have been built by Turkish construction companies. Foreign contractors have also been brought in to build major showpiece projects, such as the work by a French company to refurbish Ashgabat’s international  airport. Firms from Turkey, France, and Russia have been involved in the construction of facilities and infrastructure at the new Avaza resort on the Caspian Sea.
  • Oil and gas. In energy, Turkmenistan does not have the expertise for offshore oil and natural gas exploration, and has leased sectors in the Caspian to companies from a number of countries, including the United Arab Emirates, the United States, Russia, China, and Germany. Most export pipelines for Turkmen natural gas are also constructed by foreign partners. Indeed, in private, officials state that they will fill any pipeline built to their proverbial doorstep. China and Iran have recently taken advantage of this informal policy by building new pipelines to import Turkmen natural gas.

Nabucco implications. If a consortium of some kind were to build a trans-Caspian gas pipeline to connect to the Nabucco project, Turkmenistan would almost certainly sign a contract to export natural gas through it. At the same time, because of their fears of negative reactions from Russia and Iran, officials are very unlikely to take any proactive measures to join such a consortium prior to the start of construction.

This cautious approach is not limited to Nabucco; in general, Turkmenistan remains quite reluctant to participate in multinational economic projects, especially if there is a realistic chance that its participation might antagonize one of its neighbors or a regional power such as Russia or China.

Security isolationism. As for security issues, Turkmenistan’s foreign policy remains virtually unchanged from the Niyazov era. Neutrality is still the dominant paradigm, and the calculus behind this approach is largely unchanged. The authorities recognize that their country is one of the weakest states in the region: it has virtually no real capacity to defend itself in military terms, and continues to depend on its neighbors for the transit of natural gas, its main source of revenue.

This dependence was brought home to Turkmenistan’s leaders by the nine-month cut-off of exports through Russia in the aftermath of a pricing dispute in 2009. Though the opening of alternative pipelines to Iran and China has decreased Turkmenistan’s dependence on Russia, its leaders nonetheless want to ensure that no foreign power has reason to feel that Turkmenistan is turning away from it.

Limited re-engagement. At the same time, it has undertaken some bilateral initiatives that were unimaginable under Niyazov, especially in permitting overflights to supply the US war effort in Afghanistan and in accepting foreign assistance to build its maritime forces. However, these initiatives are organized through informal means and are never publicized, allowing Ashgabat to maintain at least an appearance of plausible deniability. The authorities consistently leave open the possibility that an initiative might be canceled if the international situation changes or if the government comes under criticism from more powerful neighbors.

Caspian Sea security is the one realm where Turkmenistan seems willing to participate in multilateral initiatives, albeit only on a limited basis. It has always participated in summits of the Caspian littoral states and has indicated that it would be willing to sign an agreement on maritime border delimitation as long as all five states agree to it. At the same time, Turkmenistan has consistently refused to join multinational security initiatives , such as the Russian-sponsored CASFOR and the US-sponsored Caspian Guard. Given the likelihood that joining any such organization would create problems with unaffiliated states, this stance reinforces the focus of Turkmenistan’s leaders on using foreign policy to ensure that they can maintain power.

CONCLUSION: Though Turkmenistan under Berdymukhamedov is somewhat more open to the outside world, its engagement is focused on economic projects and sectors where it lacks domestic expertise. On security issues, Ashgabat remains highly insular, using its permanent neutrality as a shield to maintain distance from more powerful neighbors out of fear that it might be turned into a satellite state.