On July 29, hundreds of troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military organization that encompasses the post-Soviet states of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, began joint military exercises outside the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek. The display was primarily aimed at illustrating the soldiers’ readiness to counter terrorist threats. These CSTO military exercises, along with a “snap inspection” of 65,000 troops conducted by Russia’s Central Asia military district at the end of June, signal an increasing interest in the future of Central Asia by Russia and other post-Soviet states. While recent events have thrown the conflict in Ukraine and Russia’s attempts to expand its influence in Eastern Europe into sharp relief, a further security crisis may be brewing following the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan.
Security threats to Russia and other regional actors have prompted post-Soviet leaders search for methods to address these common threats to regional stability and their national security. The end of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, the recent closure of the United States’ Manas base in Kyrgystan, and decreased U.S. funding for joint security and anti-trafficking efforts with Central Asian have galvanized post-Soviet nations to take over where their Western counterparts left off. Amidst wariness of the increased flow of refugees, drugs, and militants spilling over into the region, Russia is rapidly moving to fill the void left by Washington’s apparent policy and military withdrawal from the region.
The need for additional border security has given Russia the opportunity to take a more assertive role in post-Soviet Central Asia while also gaining the right to veto the establishment of any foreign military bases in CSTO member states. Russia’s regional influence is particularly visible in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both of which host Russian military bases and are heavily dependent on access to Russia’s labor market. Moscow currently spends $1.3 billion training and supplying the armed forces of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan with radar, armed vehicles, and helicopters that can be utilized for border security.
As the poorest post-Soviet state, Tajikistan is viewed as particularly vulnerable given its extensive border with Afghanistan and the current instability of the region as a whole. A period of unrest and civil war enveloped Tajikistan following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the collapse of Soviet power in the region in the early 1990s. CSTO Secretary Nikolai Bordyuzha recently announced that the number of clashes on the Afghan-Tajik border doubled in 2013. Meanwhile, heroin trafficking is a major component of the Tajik economy, with only an estimated 5 percent of trafficking operations intercepted by authorities. Tajikistan is also now home to around 4,500 refugees from Afghanistan, and an additional influx of Afghans could further strain the impoverished country’s already weak economy.
Kyrgyzstan, a nation plagued by instability and revolution since its independence, has also received major attention from Moscow. The Kyrgyz government admitted last summer that it lacks the resources to properly secure its own borders, and continuing border disputes with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, alongside memories of the 2010 anti-Uzbek pogroms in Osh, continue to cast a cloud over regional security. Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have expressed interest in joining the Eurasian Economic Union, a post-Soviet trade bloc directed by Moscow that is set to launch in 2015. This would provide Russia with another incentive to keep the region secure as well as help cement its authority over the economic futures of its most vulnerable former Soviet allies.
Central Asian states have also quietly established connections with various factions within Afghanistan itself in an attempt to contain potential security threats. General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the unofficial leader of Afghanistan’s ethnic Uzbek population and a recent Vice Presidential candidate in the 2014 Afghan Presidential elections, visited the capitals of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in January 2014 as part of an effort to raise his public profile in the region. Turkmenistan has begun arming ethnic Turkmen along the border it shares with Afghanistan, which remains tense after attacks by Taliban forces killed three Turkmen border guards in February 2014.
The CSTO has also used the precarious security situation in post-NATO Afghanistan to push for greatly expanded collective armed forces, which would include a joint air force and a special operations unit, as well as greater authority to react to “crisis situations” within member states. These measures complement the Collective Rapid Reaction Response Force, which was formed in 2009.
The withdrawal of NATO and decreased strategic interest from Washington have allowed the balance of power in the region—and responsibility for its security—to shift back to Moscow. Russia has taken full advantage of this vacuum by expanding the size of its military bases and pushing for deeper military and economic integration in the region through both CSTO and the nascent Eurasian Economic Union. While Western leaders preoccupy themselves with managing the Ukraine crisis and countering aggressive Russian policy in Eastern Europe, they should not overlook the fact that security threats in post-Soviet Central Asia could also pose a major threat to international peace in the none-too-distant future.