Strategic Analysis

Strategic Analysis:
A Monthly Journal of the IDSA

February 1999 (Vol. XXII No. 11)

Russian Policy Towards Central Asia—II
By Jyotsna Bakshi *

Moscow’s diplomacy is currently faced with the challenge of adjusting to post-Soviet reality all along its borders in conditions of grave economic crisis, general military decline, and political uncertainty arising from systemic transition and change. The formula prescribed by the country’s Foreign Minister—and now the Prime Minister—Yevgeny Primakov, for the country’s foreign policy establishment stresses even greater activity and vigilance on its part in order to protect the country’s interests in the present conditions of relative weakness and vulnerability. The emphasis is on stoutly defending the country’s interests while avoiding a slide back to the past policy of global confrontation with the West. It seems that the general pattern is aimed at evolving a mechanism of constructively engaging Russia’s major interlocutors all along its borders and beyond within a mutually-agreed formal framework of talks and agreements. The country’s foreign policy establishment appears to be practising what Henry Kissinger said about diplomacy, that it is “the art of the possible”. Thus, despite its strong opposition to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), Russia has signed the Russia-NATO Founding Act. Moscow is willing—and working—for a layered relationship within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) framework; closer integration is sought with those CIS countries that are more willing for it. Russia fears a geo-political threat to its historical influence in Central Asia from the USA, China and the Islamic militancy and fundamentalism from the south. With China, Russia and the three Central Asian Republics (CARs) bordering on China have succeeded in evolving a mechanism of cooperative geo-politics among the “border five”. Despite strong concern over the US-led multinational military exercises in Central Asia under NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme, Russia has opted to participate in them. As a last resort, some virtue is seen in keeping the CARs within the European civilisational framework rather than losing them to Islamic fundamentalism. However, Moscow and Washington have not as yet resolved the issue of their essentially competing and contending policies in Central Asia. As regards Taliban- controlled Afghanistan, Moscow has made known its determination to defend the southern borders of the CIS, while choosing non-interference in the country’s internal affairs and desiring a political settlement through talks within the “six plus two” (Afghanistan and the five counties bordering on it along with the USA and Russia) framework under UN auspices.


Moscow Suspects the Geo-Political Designs of the USA in Concert with Turkey and Others

Moscow strongly suspects and fears the geographical designs of the West, mainly the USA, in Central Asia, Caspian Sea region and Tanscaucasia on its southern periphery. Turkey aligned with the West through NATO, is regarded as the main vehicle of realising Western objectives in the region. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and the Taliban militia in Afganistan, created by the former with Saudi financial assistance and covert US connivance , are other US allies in the region. Four of the five CARS, with the exception of Tajikistan, belong to the Turkish ethno-linguistic group. With the Western backing, Turkey is emerging as the major challenger to Russian positions in Central Asia and the Caspian and Transcaucasian regions. Much to Moscow’s chagrin and consternation, the USA has pronounced Central Asia and the Caspian region as areas of special US interest. 1

The borders of Russia, China, Iran, Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent meet in Central Asia. The USA is keen to acquire a foothold in this strategically important region of inner Asia. Moreover, as an added incentive, the region is also rich in hydrocarbon and other resources.

In July 1994, all the former Soviet republics along with Russia joined NATO’s PfP programme. From September 15 to 21, 1997, military exercises were held in three of the Central Asian states—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan—under the PfP programme. It was the first time that the troops from the USA and other Western countries had set foot on Central Asian soil, which had hitherto been a Russian preserve. The projection of US troops was particularly high-profile and dramatic. 2 Russia, no doubt, felt deeply concerned as the exercise made a dent in the security framework of the region where it enjoyed a monopoly. But it had no answer to it and acquiesced by sending its own token presence for fear of being isolated in the region. The staunchest criticism of the exercises came from the Communist-dominated Duma. 3

Central Asians themselves have a different view of NATO and its PfP programme. President Islam Karimov welcomed its stabilising role. Uzbek participation in the PfP was regarded as a factor strengthening its independence and sovereignty. He saw in it an opportunity for joining modern military and technological achievements and expanded opportunities for the training of military experts. 4 The Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan remarked that while Kazakh authorities understood Russian concerns over the eastward expansion of NATO, they did not regard the expansion as a threat to their own security. Kazakhstan’s relations with NATO, he said, were not limited to joint military exercises. The two sides cooperate in defence technology and the representatives of the republic attend the meetings of NATO on security issues. 5 Exchanges of military delegations of the CARs and the Western countries, mainly the USA, have become a regular feature. The USA is reported to have given warships to Kazakhstan for the patrolling of its off-shore oil installations in the Caspian Sea. 6 According to the Uzbek President, the visits of the NATO Secretary General and the US permanent representative in NATO to Uzbekistan demonstrated that their attitudes towards global and regional security problems, coincide. The Russian media also took note of the high level of US-Uzbek military ties. The emissaries of the Pentagon have been reported to be offering military assistance to Tajikistan also. 7 Even Turkmenistan, which is following a policy of “permanent neutrality” and has not joined the Russia-led collective security system along with the other CARs, has joined NATO’s PfP programme.

In his statement before the Duma, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia, George Mamedov, said that “some steps by the US do not inspire enthusiasm in us.” He was referring to the report by the US Assistant Secretary of State for Political Issues to the US Senate Committee for International Relations on the “strategic course of the US in Transcaucasus, Caspian and Central Asian countries”. He said that Russia objects to the US decision to extend the country’s command responsibility zone to the former Soviet republics. The issue was repeatedly raised with the USA at the level of the Foreign Minister and also at the highest level. 8 Central Asia has been included in the zone of responsibility of the US Central Command.

It is significant that while expressing concern over the US moves in the region, Moscow has consistently avoided a frontal confrontation with the USA, so characteristic of the Soviet-American relations during the Cold War period. In fact, Russia has decided to participate in the military exercises under NATO’s PfP.

In the success of the Taliban militia in Afganistan, Russia sees the covert hand of the US oil major UNOCAL and Delta Oil, and Saudi Arabia’s ARAMCO, which are keen to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. The pipeline would eliminate Russian control over the Turkmen gas business. The overland access to the CARs from Pakistan across Afganistan would also change the geo-politics of the region by laying it open to direct US penetration.

Moscow has also viewed with unmitigated concern the US moves in the Caspian Sea region, rich in hydrocarbon resources. Along with Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran, two of the Central Asian states—Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan—border on the landlocked sea. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Western corporations have signed a number of multi-billion dollar contracts with Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan for the exploration and exploitation of the region’s oil and gas resources. It is estimated that if all these contracts come to fruition, in the next 10-15 years, the Caspian Sea would become the second largest energy supplier to the West. 9 The USA is not only interested in the energy resources of the region, but also in changing the geo-political map of the region by bolstering the independence of the newly-independent republics of the region from the former metropolis—Moscow. Russia sees in it a threat to its own geo-political interests. Russia fears that the USA, in concert with Turkey and others, wants to oust it from Central Asia, the Caspian Sea region and Transcaucasia and push it further into the depth of Eurasia and force it to become a “circum-polar” state.

Turkey has proposed the construction of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline across Georgia and Turkey to the European markets as the main pipeline for carrying Caspian oil and gas. It is proposed to construct two additional pipelines passing through the bottom of the Caspian Sea to be linked to the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline: one oil pipeline from Kazakhstan’s Tengiz oil field to Baku and the other from Turkmenistan to Baku. The proposed pipeline would by-pass Russia as well as Iran. It has the backing of the USA. Moscow sees in the proposal a US-Turkish move to oust it from the oil business in the region and ultimately marginalise it from the geo-politically and geo-strategically important region. It has found a firm ally in Iran in opposing the proposed Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. For the present, Russia’s pipeline network—the Baku-Grozny-Novorossisk pipeline—remains the main transit route to carry early Caspian oil to world markets. In March 1996, it was decided to route Kazakhstan’s Tengiz oil also through Russia’s Black Sea port of Novorossisk.

Initially, Russia was opposed to the division of the Caspian into national sectors and refused to recognise the contracts signed by the Caspian states with foreign companies. However, recently on July 6, 1998, Russia and Kazakhstan signed an agreement delimiting the seabed of the north Caspian for the purpose of oil exploration and extraction. The water body and the surface of the sea are still held in common. It has been reported that the change in the Russian stance has followed the discovery of proven oil resources (1 to 1.5 billion tons) near the Russian coast. 10 Other littoral states of the Caspian have taken a different position. Azerbaijan, for instance, wants the international law of the sea to be fully applied to the Caspian also. In the meanwhile, following their recent consultations, Russia and Iran have expressed the view that pending the agreement on a new legal status of the Caspian among the five littoral states, the 1921 and 1940 Soviet-Iranian agreements would remain in legal force. None of the coastal states has the right to divide the sea at its own discretion. 11 The legal status of the Caspian agreement, thus, is to be determined by a consensus among the littoral states. And there, Russia and Iran can always veto the plans for constructing underwater pipelines in the Caspian Sea by-passing their two countries.

Earlier, in February 1998, President Yeltsin made it abundantly clear that the Caspian is not an area of “US national interests alone.” “Russia”, he said, “cannot be indifferent to the Caspian Sea either.” 12

The plea advanced by Russia for opposing the underwater pipeline by-passing Russia is that it is environmentally hazardous as the Caspian Sea region is prone to earthquakes. The proposed pipeline is also not cost effective. In the meanwhile, the northern Russian route remains the only route for carrying Caspian oil to the European markets. 13 Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have also entered into an oil and gas swap deal with Iran for their export to the world market. According to the deal, oil and gas from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan would be transported to north of Iran, which, in its turn, would release the equivalent amount of the same on its Persian Gulf port.


Russia’s Options

It is believed that a difference of opinion exists in present day Russia regarding its future course in response to the US geo-political challenge. The “imperialists” and the “traditionalists” would like Russia to dig in its heels in defence of its historical positions in the region. The “pragmatists” or the “realists”, who include Russia’s major oil and gas companies, would like to adjust to the changing geo-political realities in return for a share in the region’s lucrative oil and gas deals. 14 It appears that the country’s policy-making establishment, in the pursuit of perceived national interests, is constantly synthesising the differing views among the Russian political class and strategic community.

Despite its current weakness, Russia still has the requisite force projection capability in the region. Moreover, the proposed pipeline by-passing Russia is likely to pass through conflict-ridden areas in the former Soviet republics where Russia has established itself in the role of a peace-keeper. There are also reports that Russia has of late stepped up support to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which is behind the Kurdish insurgency in eastern Turkey from where the proposed Baku-Ceyhan pipeline would pass. 15

Russian geo-politicians feels that as a consequence of its victory in the Cold War, the USA has driven to the minimum Russian influence in the Baltic and Black Seas. It has forced Russia out of the zone of the warm seas—the Indian Ocean—with the loss of Central Asia and Transcaucasus. Making use of the CARs’ desire to assert their independence from Moscow, it is seeking to irrevocably change the geo-political equations in the region. It seems to them that Russia can protect its vital interests in Central Asia in partnership with Iran and China against Western machinations and designs. 16 Iran occupies a position of great geo-political importance in the region. Moreover, Iran is also opposed to those tendencies in the Islamic world that happen to be under the control of NATO i.e. Wahhabism, controlled and inspired by Saudi Arabia and pan-Turkism, encouraged by Turkey. Turkey wants to turn the CARs into “buffer states”—a kind of cordon sanitaire around Russia and Iran. 17 Moscow has officially welcomed recent signs of improvement of US-Iran relations. 18 But, at the same time, the importance of cementing the Russia-Iran strategic partnership is widely emphasised in Russian political circles. It is argued that in the Seventies, Washington took away socialist China from under the nose of the former Soviet Union. The same should not be allowed to be repeated in the case of Iran.

In a detailed article on “Russia in Central Asia”, Aleksei V. Malashenko of the Moscow Centre of Carnegie, took note of the West’s limitations in dealing with Central Asia. He questioned whether the West was really in a position of bearing the responsibility of “internal stability” in the region. It may require greater effort than the one in southern Europe. He also doubted whether NATO was capable of acting in several directions at the same time. And if it did, it may invoke opposition from China and Japan. In the circumstances, according to the author, Russia can play a very useful role in the region, particularly in ensuring regional security and stability, even from the West’s point of view. In fact, Russia could become to some extent a “guarantor” of the West’s mercantile interests in the region. 19

In its present condition of military, political and economic weakness, Russia may not be able to impose its will on the region. But by the admission of Russian publicists themselves, Russia is still in a position to obstruct others from achieving their goals in the region at the expense of Russian interests.


Russia, Central Asian Republics and China: Developing Cooperative Geo-Politics

In contrast to Russia and the USA in the region, Russia and China have been able to evolve a mechanism whereby China’s growing interaction with the CARs is not seen as taking place at the expense of Russian interests. China borders on three Central Asian states—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. They inherited the Sino-Soviet boundary dispute in Central Asia. All three Central Asian states bordering on China have decided to negotiate the border issue with China collectively along with Russia under the CIS joint commission. The CARs have, thus, avoided negotiating with China bilaterally from a comparatively weaker position. Joint negotiations with Russian participation under the CIS joint commission have imparted a certain continuation of policy from the Soviet days and reinforced the impression that the CARs and Russia fall within one common security framework in dealing with external powers. Moreover, all the three CARs bordering on China are members of the Customs Union with Russia and Belarus. Russian troops are stationed in the territory of all these republics. Like the Sino-Russian border, there has been a move to reach a negotiated settlement of the borders of the three CARs with China. In April 1994, Kazakhstan and China signed the border demarcation treaty. Understanding was reached on the Sino-Kyrgyz and Sino-Tajik borders also.

China is interested in the Central Asian market and above all in its energy resources. In September 1997, China signed a major $9.5 billion oil agreement with Kazakhstan, whereby China would develop oil and gas fields in western Kazakhstan and a 3,000-km pipeline would be construction to transport oil from Kazakhstan to China. At the same time, China is particularly keen to elicit a promise from the Central Asian regimes that they would not support the separatist groups in Chinese Xinjiang, mainly the Uighurs. The Central Asian regimes are ready to oblige. They have a common interest with China as well as Russia in countering the menace of Islamic militancy and fundamentalism in the region.

In December 1992, China and the CIS joint commission agreed on a number of confidence-building measures on the border to preclude any possibility of conflict. It was decided to establish a 200-km stability zone of “decreased activity along the border”. The “border five” (Russia, China and the three CARs) jointly issued the Shanghai Communique in 1996, the Moscow Communique in 1997 and a joint statement at Alma-Ata recently in July 1998 following their summit meeting. Thus, a joint framework is sought to be evolved to promote confidence-building measures and boost trade and commerce among them. It has been agreed to set a limit on land forces, short-range aviation and anti-aircraft defences deployed on the 200-km (100-km on both sides) border zones. In his speech at the Alma-Ata summit on July 3, 1998, Russia’s Foreign Minster, Yevgeny Primakov (President Yeltsin did not go to the summit due to pressing engagements at home), praised the cooperation among the five that were “showing an example of how border disputes should be dealt with” to India and Pakistan.


The Taliban Challenge

Russia’s response to the challenge posed by the victory of the Taliban forces in northern Afghanistan has been to reaffirm its determination to protect the southern borders of the CIS in keeping with the 1992 collective security treaty. Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Pastukhov told a news conference on August 13, 1998, that the Tajik-Afghan border would be strengthened. He said that in Tajikistan, Russian border guards and peace-keeping efforts are having positive results. He made it clear that Russia does not envisage plans for military intervention in the affairs of Afghanistan. 20 In an interview to Russia’s Ekho Moskvy radio on August 15, Ivan Rybkin, the Russian President’s representative to the CIS, reiterated that should the Taliban units cross the CIS border, “a response will be given with all the power available to the CIS countries”. He made it clear that defending the borders of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan with Afghanistan is extremely important. It is the “key element in defending the southern borders of Russia”, as Russia’s long border with Kazakhstan is transparent and not fortified. In this connection, he also referred to the tripartite agreement among Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in May 1998 aimed against religious extremism and fundamentalism. He said that Russia has been holding constant consultations with other CIS countries and primarily with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Ivan Rybkin also made it clear that there is no question of Moscow repeating 1979 in Afghanistan. Moscow would continue to recognise the Rabbani government in Afghanistan till a new common denominator is found there by the people of Afghanistan themselves. 21

The First Deputy Defence Minister of Kyrgyzstan said on August 14, 1998, that “to infringe upon the borders of the CIS means to declare war on five countries bound by an agreement on collective security.” 22

Turkmenistan has adopted a separate stand from the other CARs. It has adopted a position of neutrality. It has an understanding with all the factions in Afghanistan. But Turkmenistan has economic interests there. It is mainly interested in getting a southern outlet for its gas to the world market. Thus, a Turkmen official in charge of the pipeline project said that the fighting in Afghanistan will not affect the time-table to build the gas pipeline from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan, the construction work for which was to begin before the end of 1998. 23

Uzbekistan, on its part, emphasised that it would rely on its own forces for the defence of its borders with Afghanistan. After a visit to the border town of Termez, President Karimov said that the Uzbek Army is the strongest in Central Asia. It will be provided all the necessary modern military equipment to ensure the safety of the country.

Russian commentators, however, have expressed the view that the Uzbek Army, in contrast to the Afghans, is not battle-tested and battle-hardened. Moscow feels confident that in view of the common challenge from the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban forces in Afghanistan, Tashkent, the most independent-minded of the CARs, would move closer to it. The visit by Russian President Boris Yeltsin to Tashkent on October 11-12, 1998, was aimed at cementing ties with Uzbekistan and coordinating the policies of the two countries in the light of recent developments in Afghanistan.

The Taliban challenge, thus, has tended to reinforce the concept of the common defence parameters of the CIS countries in this region. At the same time, the general tenor of the Russian media does not envisage that the Taliban forces would break into the former Soviet space in the near future. It is estimated that for quite some time to come, the Taliban militia would remain engaged in internal pacification, trying to consolidate its hold on the fractious state. In the meanwhile, Moscow favours a negotiated solution of the Afghan issue taking into view the interests of all the Afghan factions and the neighbours of Afghanistan within the framework of six plus two i.e. Afghanistan’s neighbours, Russia and the USA under the auspices of the United Nations.


Central Asian Geo-Politics: Implications for India

The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent new republics has changed the geo-political map of the region. The new republics are keen to cement their independence by diversifying multifarious ties with the outside world. They are seeking new trade and pipeline routes to the world market that would reduce their dependence on Moscow. This overwhelming desire of the new republics is a fact of life. Russia has to adjust to it. At the same time, being a territorial power, Moscow can play a crucial role in maintaining peace and stability in the region. The point of convergence of Russian, Central Asian and Indian interests is the common interest in the maintenance of peace and stability in the region. Economic progress and cooperative economic efforts can go a long way in contributing to peace and stability. India does not figure in the threat perceptions of either Russia or the CARs. In fact, the Indian position is viewed by them as exercising a stabilising and moderating influence in the region. On its part, India is keen to ensure that the region does not pass into the hands of hostile forces. India, Russia and the regimes in all the CARs have a common interest in countering the spread of religious extremism and fundamentalism in the region.



*: Research Fellow, The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.  Back.

Note 1: Moscow News, no.44, November 6-12, 1977, p.5.  Back.

Note 2: SWB, SU/3026 S1/2, September 17, 1997; SWB, SV/3028 S1/2 19, 1977. Similar exercises were held in September 1998 also.  Back.

Note 3: Ibid.  Back.

Note 4: Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan on the Threshold of the Twenty First Century: Threat to Security, Conditions of Stability and Guarantees for Progress (Tashkent, Uzbekistan, 1997) p.262.  Back.

Note 5: SWB, SU/3031, S1/1. September 23, 1997.  Back.

Note 6: SWB, SU/3027, G/2, September 18, 1997.  Back.

Note 7: Krasnaya Zvezda, February 26, 1998  Back.

Note 8: SWB, SU/3236 B/12, May 25, 1998.  Back.

Note 9: Michael P. Croissant. “US Interests in the Caspian Sea Basin”, Comparative Strategy, vol.16, no.4, October-December 1997, p. 353.  Back.

Note 10: Izvestia, July 24, 1998.  Back.

Note 11: Ibid.  Back.

Note 12: President Yeltsin’s interview to Italy’s Corriere Della Serra, on February 7, 1998, in Segonya, February 10, 1998.  Back.

Note 13: Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have entered into a swap deal with Iran whereby their gas and oil are transported to northern Iran and Iran releases equal amounts of oil and gas from its stock on its Persian Gulf port for sale in the world market.  Back.

Note 14: See, for instance, S. Kolchin, “Neft i gaz Kaspiya: strategicheskie interesy Rossii”, Mirovaya ekonomika i mezhounarodnie otnosheniya; no.3, 1998, p.98; also, Andrei Shonmikhin, “Developing Caspian Oil: Between Conflict and Cooperation.” Comparative Strategy, vol.16, no.4, October-December 1997, pp.344-345.  Back.

Note 15: Croissant, n.19, p.357.  Back.

Note 16: Aleksei Gromyko, “Rosiya I Iran: novaya realnost, soznanie geopoliticheskovo soyuza v yevrazii vpolne vozmozhno”, Nezavisimaya Gazete, June 26, 1998.  Back.

Note 17: Ibid.  Back.

Note 18: SWB, SU/3259 B/9, June 22, 1998.  Back.

Note 19: Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 8, 1998.  Back.

Note 20: SWB, SU/3305 B/10, August 14, 1998.  Back.

Note 21: SWB, SU/3307 B/7-8, August 17, 1998.  Back.

Note 22: SWB, SU/3308 G/3, August 18, 1998.  Back.

Note 23: Ibid.  Back.