To the casual observer, Mr. Putin may seem to be well on track toward realizing his own version of a pivot to Asia, reorienting the economy away from Western sanctions to catch Chinese wind in its sails. But closer inspection reveals that the Sino-Russian “strategic partnership” is neither strategic nor a real partnership. Russia is not among China’s top 10 trading partners, and Chinese enterprises have little appetite for investment in Russia. The relationship remains what veteran observer Bobo Lo once called an “axis of convenience.”
While President Putin delights in any form of good news that may support his bid for reelection in 2018, President Xi is happy to oblige – so long as Russia supports his strategic vision of a new Silk Road to Europe, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), formerly known as One Belt, One Road. The place where their respective agendas will clash is in Central Asia. The situation recalls the Great Game that was played out between the British and the Russian empires in the 19th century, only this time around the Middle Kingdom is no longer on the sidelines.
Up until a decade ago, Moscow was viewed as the master of the region. The Soviet-era infrastructure was designed to pump oil and gas north, into Russia, offering the Kremlin monopoly power over pricing and supply decisions – and therefore over revenue streams. Those days are now gone.
Russia's involvement in Chinese-funded infrastructure projects
is reduced to benevolent smiling on the sidelines
Beijing has played a comprehensive long-term strategy. The first stage entailed a combination of pipeline construction and equity investment, aimed primarily at Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan but also at Uzbekistan. The result has been to ensure a stable supply of energy to the western parts of China, break Russia’s stranglehold over Central Asia and reduce the need for shipments of Russian energy out of Eastern Siberia.
The second stage, currently unfolding, entails working with the same partners under the BRI to build railroads, highways and other forms of transport infrastructure across a region that Russia still considers part of its backyard. Russian involvement in this project is chiefly reduced to benevolent smiling on the sidelines.
In a novel deviation from its prior focus on business only, Beijing has also begun to move into the field of hard security, seeking to protect its investments. It is allegedly involved with troops on the ground in Afghanistan, and has offered to provide security for Tajikistan by funding the construction of border posts along its Afghan border.
The transformation is momentous. In the original round of the Great Game, Russia came out ahead. Known during the Imperial era as Turkestan, in the Soviet era the region was divided into five Soviet republics that were subjected to deep Russification – ranging from the introduction of Cyrillic script and the Russian language to the appointment of ethnic Russians to leading local positions and the co-optation of local elites into the power center in Moscow.
Those gains are now unravelling. Use of the Russian language is in decline across the region. Latin script is replacing the Cyrillic for local languages, and simple demographics indicate that the time is fast approaching when few will have direct experience or even memories of life under the Soviet order. The relation to Russia is being transformed, economically, politically and culturally.
The basis for the Kremlin’s traditionally heavy-handed approach to power projection is steadily eroding
As the basis for the Kremlin’s traditionally heavy-handed approach to power projection – ranging from military deployments to political manipulation – steadily erodes, its influence in the region is starting to wane. It is symptomatic that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has felt obliged to publicly deny “allegations” of Russian imperial ambitions in the region.
President Putin is currently fighting what amounts to a rearguard action, seeking to shore up what remains of Russian influence. The game plan has been to devise a NATO-inspired security alliance, known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, and a European Union-inspired body called the Eurasian Economic Union, or EEU. Neither has met with much success.
During his latest swing through Central Asia, in late February 2017, Mr. Putin’s first stop was Kazakhstan, where he discussed security cooperation and announced a several billion-dollar credit from his newly created Eurasian Development Bank. He then proceeded to Tajikistan, for fruitless talks on the EEU, and to Kyrgyzstan, to discuss the Russian presence at the Kant military base. Mr. Putin made a phone call to Turkmenistan and completely bypassed Uzbekistan. The image is hardly that of Russia managing its backyard.
Energy-rich Turkmenistan has decided to strike out on its own. Uzbekistan was a member of the CSTO but pulled out in 2012, and remains hesitant about joining the EEU. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are members of the CSTO but have still not completed accession to the EEU. The pivotal player in retaining any semblance of a serious Russian presence is Kazakhstan, whose aging president Nursultan Nazarbayev is trying to balance Russia, China and the United States against each other in a three-sided game.
Mr. Nazarbayev is a profoundly experienced holdout from the Soviet days. Back in the 1990s, he was the originator of plans for the Customs Union that finally emerged under Mr. Putin, to include Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. His country has only just taken a two-year rotating seat on the UN Security Council, and in December 2016, was chosen as the venue for Syrian peace negotiations brokered by Mr. Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Reflecting the eclipse of the Russian language, Kazakh books and official records
will be printed in Latin script by 2025
While relations between Moscow and Astana remain formally excellent, the Russian presence in Kazakhstan is also waning. The share of ethnic Kazakhs in the population has risen from 39.7 percent in 1989 to 66.5 percent in 2016. Reflecting the general eclipse of the Russian language, in April of this year, Mr. Nazarbayev published an article stating that by 2025 all books and official records in the country will be printed in Latin script. Established in 2010, on the president’s initiative, Astana’s Nazarbayev University is an English-language institution with an international faculty. Mr. Nazarbayev has also taken over several Russian missile testing facilities and claimed partial control over the legendary Baikonur Cosmodrome. The future clearly does not belong to Russia.
Hopes that Russia’s overstretched military will receive support from its CSTO allies are fading as well. In late June, the head of the Russian Duma Defense Committee, Vladimir Shamanov, claimed that talks were under way to send troops from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to help police the proposed de-escalation zones in Syria. This was immediately denied by the two countries’ foreign ministries.
The Kremlin is justifiably concerned about these developments. Despite the various conflicts that have plagued its relations in the west, the fact remains that Central Asia is the country’s soft underbelly. The main concern is that a full NATO pullback from Afghanistan will cause that country to revert to tribal sectarian violence, and that a Taliban resurgence will spill over into the newly independent and fragile states of Central Asia.
Uzbekistan has already been shaken by Islamic fundamentalism. Moscow was relieved that the death of Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov in September 2016 did not spark the expected war of succession, but Uzbekistan remains vulnerable. Destabilization of the region could turn it into an incubator for terrorism. Even more alarming, it could generate massive streams of refugees headed north, across the highly porous border between Russia and Kazakhstan.
The Russian military, already involved in three wars with no end in sight – in the North Caucasus, Ukraine and Syria – is ill-equipped to take on yet another conflict. Perhaps this was the reason for Russia’s rather odd response to the threat of a Taliban resurgence, which has been to send weapons to the Taliban. According to U.S. sources, such deliveries have been going on since late 2015.
The presumed hope is that the Taliban will turn those weapons against Daesh, also known as Islamic State, which Moscow views as an even greater evil. The shipments could potentially earn some gratitude that will thaw future relations between the Taliban and Russia. Allegedly, however, the arms have instead ended up in heavily contested Helmand and Kandahar provinces, where there is no Daesh presence. The practical outcome is that Russia is arming the Taliban in their war against the U.S.-led coalition, mirroring how the U.S. supported the mujahedeen against the Soviet Union. Washington angrily complains that this is a violation of international law.
Need for adventure
Given that staunchly secular Kazakhstan remains the linchpin of Russian security in Central Asia, it is an added concern that the country’s leader is aging. Born in July 1940, President Nazarbayev is now 77 years old, only two years younger than the recently deceased Mr. Karimov. The danger of a succession struggle looms like a dark cloud.
Kazakhstan fears that the Kremlin may need another Ukraine-style foreign policy adventure
Kazakhstan’s relations with Russia are also marred by fears that the Kremlin may feel it needs another Ukraine-style foreign policy adventure to rally voters around President Putin in the run-up to his 2018 campaign for reelection. The seemingly logical choice for such an operation would be Kazakhstan. The northern part of the country is dominated by Russian-speakers, and Astana is anxious that agents of influence could be used to whip up a Donbas-style insurgency, claiming that the region belongs to and must be reunited with Russia. Such Kazakh fears are regularly fueled by statements from nationalist circles in Moscow.
For example, Pavel Shperov, who sits on the Duma committee on Eurasian integration, caused quite a stir in late January by observing that the Kazakh-Russian border is “not eternal and ... the territories that are indeed ours will soon be returned to us.” Although it seems unlikely that the Kremlin would dare play this card, it sours relations at a time when Russia needs all the friends it can get.
Russia is not the only player with reasons to fear what might come. As American Russia expert Stephen Blank has said, “what happens in Central Asia does not stay in Central Asia.” The risk of a proliferation of terrorist organizations should give pause to the U.S. as well. Yet, even before the election of Donald Trump, it was hard to see a coherent American strategy for the region.
Washington’s ambitions of “democracy promotion” have largely failed, and it has vacated the military bases that were established to support the war in Afghanistan. The Karshi-Khanabad (K2) air base in Uzbekistan was closed in 2005, and Manas in Kyrgyzstan followed in June 2014. Pundits who wish to see a more prominent U.S. role spend more time bemoaning the absence of a commitment than producing a blueprint for what could realistically be done. And the absence of clear direction from the Trump White House is not exactly helpful.
What remains to be seen is whether Beijing has the capability and political will to undertake serious policing
With Moscow and Washington bereft of new ideas, the designated winner in today’s version of the Great Game is Beijing. In the scramble for energy assets, China is outflanking both Russia and the U.S., while the BRI is cementing its influence over governments in the region. What remains to be seen is whether Beijing has the capability and the political will to undertake serious policing, should the region appear in danger of succumbing to large-scale drug trafficking, terrorism and sectarian violence.
Perhaps this is where the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation will finally find a serious mission, allowing Russia and China to join forces against a common enemy. Even under this scenario, however, it remains doubtful that the Kremlin could resurrect its former role as master of Central Asia. The imbalance between the two Eurasian powers, both in economic clout and in strategic vision, has now become too great, and too much in Beijing’s favor.
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