Central Asia: Forward Defence of Freedom

China, Geopolitics, and the Global South

Uwe Hoering, November 19, 2022

The Euro-transatlantic view of the Russian invasion of Ukraine largely ignores its significance for Central Asia. The Kremlin’s martial stop signal for further NATO expansion should probably also send a message to Russia’s eastern neighbours: We are still capable of defending our sphere of influence and interests in the region – and thus your autocratic regimes. The outcome of the Ukraine war therefore also has a decisive significance for the future credibility of this claim.

The Putin system is cracking

It was only recently that Moscow used troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation to save the government in the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan.  With the mobilisation of the CSTO, the autocrats in Moscow and Kazakhstan once again relied on a heavy-handed solution to social protests. This briefly gave Moscow another big boot in the door of the self-confident neighbouring country. At the beginning of the year, Moscow could also regard itself as a stabiliser in the permanent conflict between Armenia and Azerbeijan. But the invasion and the looming defeat have called into question the economic and military capabilities of Russia, the regional hegemonic power, to secure its ‘hinterland’ in Central Asia.

For one, this threat to its hegemonic position in the region opens up grim prospects when one recalls its brutal approach to save its fading empire in Chechnya, for example. Moscow has underlined several times in the past that it obviously has difficulties in taking seriously the claim of other successor countries of the Soviet Union such as Georgia, Moldova or Armenia as sovereign states and to territorial integrity. Similar to Ukraine, Russian troops already invaded Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 to prevent pro-Western ambitions of the Georgian government.  At the time, this was accepted without much Western protest.

But the Russian approach collides with the growing national self-confidence of Central Asian states. In recent years, they have benefited as energy suppliers not only to China but also to the West from the continuing boom of fossil energies and Beijing’s New Silk Road, and have been able to free themselves to some extent from the structural and political dependencies of the Soviet era. The speed with which an accelerated procedure for EU accession has now been opened up to Ukraine and Moldova could also feed similar expectations further east, for example in Georgia.

“The thaw in Russia’s periphery has already begun”.

In mid-November, a commentary on the Foreign Policy page of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace had already claimed that “the thaw in Russia’s periphery has already begun”. This assessment may also be based on wishful thinking. But the invasion of Ukraine is also proving to be a strategic miscalculation. At least it is probably true that “the geopolitical landscape in Eurasia could prove dynamic”.

Tightrope walk between Russia and the West

This ‘new dynamic’ that Western observers (want to) see could open doors for the West. The war makes the countries of the region realise that they themselves are in the focus of future conflicts between Russia and the West. “The United States and Europe should not miss the chance to quietly but energetically exploit Russia’s colossal strategic mistake”, advises the Foreign Policy article. One writing on the wall: when fighting broke out again between Armenia and Azerbaijan in September 2022 despite Russian ‘peacekeepers’, it was US diplomacy that took Moscow’s place as a mediator, according to Foreign Policy: The US Secretary of State personally brokered between the two adversaries, it says. And Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, sensing an opening, this time travelled to Yerevan, the Armenian capital, to announce her support. “Armenia seems to have given up on Russia as a security guarantor and is looking to the West for political support and receiving it,” Foreign Policy believes.

The West can also build on military cooperation with countries in Central Asia, which began with the Afghanistan mission two decades ago and was justified with ‘security and stability’ and the fight against drug trafficking and terrorism. Military bases in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were used to provide air transport for the troops of the International Security Assistance Force ISAF. After the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the USA considered maintaining military bases in Central Asia. While the war in Ukraine escalated, military exercises of several armed forces from Central Asia as well as Mongolia and Pakistan took place in mid-August this year with the support of the Central Command of the US Armed Forces (CENTCOM). One of the exercise objectives was to repel a simulated violation of the border between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Relations are particularly close with Kazakhstan, the region’s heavyweight. Kazakhstan has conducted the military exercise ‘Steppe Eagle’ involving US and NATO units as well as regional formations every year since 2006, until Corona forced a ceasefire. The US wants to resume this ‘partnership for peace’ programme against Russian opposition. An article published by the US Marshall Center in March 2018 clearly expresses the expectations: “Military professionalization in Kazakhstan will have significant impact in assisting the United States with achieving ist goals in the region”. The cooperation would be a building block for the expansion of an important strategic partnership in Central Asia and would inspire the countries in their democratic advancement.

China – the elephant in the room

The situation becomes really dramatic with the prospect of a direct confrontation with China, which already finds itself under pressure in Southeast Asia and through the economic warfare of the USA. Economically, the Central Asian regions are becoming increasingly important for Beijing, which has long been firmly anchored in the region, for its own development and as a hedge against Western containment attempts, having recently lost a lot of sympathy in Eastern Europe. An important playing field here is the competition for raw materials, especially fossil sources of energy, which is fuelled by the efforts of European countries to open up new supply routes replacing Russian deliveries. Thus, European politicians are courting Azerbaijan to diversify their supplies, whereby, as in other cases, cooperation with authoritarian regimes is not a real obstacle.

“An important playing field here is the competition for raw materials, especially fossil sources of energy.”

For most countries in Central Asia, China has so far been the more attractive alternative as an investor and trading partner to the erratic, slow-moving European Union or to Turkey, which is stepping up its efforts to replace the weakening Russian bear to some extent. Especially for Kazakhstan’s aspired authoritarian modernisation, China’s digitalisation and governance of state-owned enterprises are a role model. It is no coincidence that Xi Jinping’s first foreign trip since the outbreak of the Covid 19 pandemic brought him to the Kazakh capital, coupled with references to Russia not to destabilise Kazakhstan. However, as a helpful counterbalance against too much encroachment by both China and Russia, the Central Asian governments can now increasingly play the cards of ‘Western economic relations’ and ‘prospects of military assistance’.

An intriguing issue is how Russia and China now define their ‘borderless friendship’ against the background of the war in Ukraine, given their different interests and yet important commonalities. A key role will be how European and especially US policies advance their presence, threatening both Russian and Chinese regional hegemony and thus the prospect of a multipolar world order. With the revival of the Heartland Theory from the early 20th century, according to which control over Central Asia would secure world domination, hardliners in Moscow and Beijing are in the process of reinforcing a fortress mentality, according to the motto: ‘When Russia and China march together’, …..

One finger at the button will be green

It doesn’t appear that the effects of the Ukraine war are merely “dynamic”. Rather, the regional and geopolitical fields of conflict could shift to this region and intensify.

It was precisely here that Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock now tried to show her colours with ‘value-oriented foreign policy’. By paying a flying visit to the autocrats in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, she is escalating the resource conflicts in Russia’s backyard. She hopes not only for substitute supplies for Russian natural gas and, in the medium term, for green hydrogen, which could be produced from 2030 onwards with wind turbines and water from the Caspian Sea. Uzbekistan also offers resources for e-mobility in the form of rare earths and copper. With Global Gateway, the EU believes it can compete with China’s Belt&Road. Baerbock’s announcement of economic relations that would be “fair, on an equal footing, without gag loans and without a hidden agenda” obviously targets China.

“One can argue whether Baerbock’s visit was a trip to the wrong place at the wrong time.”

One can argue whether this visit was diplomatically wise or a trip to the wrong place at the wrong time. In any case, it is a signal that Germany and the EU would like to position themselves in the explosive situation. Baerbock’s claim that closer cooperation with the Central Asian states will only be possible with a ‘value-oriented policy’, however, rings rather hollow in view of the potential Central Asian partners and previous attempts to embrace authoritarian regimes. It appears that instead of promoting freedom around the Caspian Sea, another step is being taken towards block formation and geopolitical escalation in the shadow of the Ukraine war.

Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)

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