Russian President Vladimir Putin during a press conference on Oct. 13,2023, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
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Russia is watching very closely as Western nations try to build alliances in what has traditionally been seen as its “backyard” and sphere of influence.
One top official in Moscow was fuming as he claimed the West was “luring” its “neighbours, friends, and allies” away from Russia.
The latest Western leader to court Central Asia is French President Emmanuel Macron. Visiting oil- and mineral-rich Kazakhstan on Wednesday, he complimented the former Soviet state for refusing to side with Moscow against Ukraine.
“I don’t underestimate by any means the geopolitical difficulties, the pressures … that some may be putting on you,” Macron said as he addressed his Kazakh counterpart, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, in Astana.
“France values … the path you are following for your country, refusing to be a vassal of any power and seeking to build numerous and balanced relations with different countries,” he said.
Macron visited Uzbekistan on Thursday, with a delegation including business leaders as France looks to forge deeper ties in a region rich in natural resources, from oil and gas to uranium.
The French leader’s comments are likely to have enraged Moscow, which is already watching Western efforts to court Central Asia with suspicion and disdain. CNBC has asked the Kremlin to comment on Macron’s trip and is awaiting a response.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview last week that the West was trying to pull Russia’s “neighbours, friends and allies” away from it.
“Look at how Western powers are wooing Central Asia,” Lavrov told the BelTA news agency, in comments published by Russia’s Foreign Ministry.
“They have created numerous formats such as ‘Central Asia plus’ involving the United States, the EU, and Japan … On top of the Central Asia plus EU format, the Germans have created their own format. The French won’t be wasting time and will do the same,” he said.
“These frameworks for diplomatic engagements are aimed at luring our Central Asian neighbours, friends, and allies towards the West which promises them economic and trade incentives and delivers relatively modest aid programmes.”
L-R: Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, Turkmenistan President Serdar Berdimuhamedow, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko enter the hall during the Commonwealth of Independent States’ Head of States Meeting at the Ala-Archa State Residence on Oct. 13, 2023, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
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Lavrov said alliances with the West could not be “compared with the benefits the Central Asian countries enjoy from cooperating with Russia … in sensitive areas such as border security, law enforcement training, and traditional security.”
He claimed that Western countries were “funneling money and resources into equipment and technology supplied to these regions” in a bid to woo them, adding, “We openly discuss these matters with our Central Asian brothers.”
Mark Galeotti, a London-based political scientist, lecturer and author of several books on Russia, told CNBC Thursday that Macron’s visit to Central Asia would have touched a nerve in Moscow but that Central Asia had increasingly been looking elsewhere, to Europe, China and the United States, for trade and security guarantees.
“Yes, the Russians are grumbling at what they see as Macron’s posturing … but it’s more that this kind of initiative reminds them of the fact that, really, they are losing their authority in Central Asia.”
“There clearly is concern [in Russia at Central Asia’s geopolitical trajectory], but more than anything else, I think the concern is driven by a painful awareness, that, in a way, Central Asia has already been lost,” Galeotti said.
“Essentially, Moscow’s main hold on Central Asia had long been, essentially, as a security guarantor,” he noted, adding that “Russia was the country you went to when you were looking for assistance in security matters.”
“But ever since February of last year [when it invaded Ukraine], we’ve seen a very rapid decline in Russia’s authority in Central Asia.”
The degree to which a sense of “brotherhood” is felt in Central Asia’s leadership toward Russia is debatable.
Central Asian states have to tread a fine line with Moscow, being careful not to alienate or antagonize their powerful neighbor while also trying to forge their own independent international trade and foreign policies with the West and China.
This ambivalent position has often led Central Asian states “sitting on the fence” when it comes to certain geopolitical matters, such as the war in Ukraine.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, as well as neighboring Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, were among 35 U.N. members that abstained on a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s annexation of four mostly Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine last year. Central Asian state Tajikistan was absent from the vote.
Voting results shown during a U.N. General Assembly emergency meeting to discuss Russian annexations in Ukraine at the U.N. headquarters in New York City on Oct. 12, 2022.
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Only one of Russia’s neighbors, Belarus — its closest ally in its backyard — was among the five countries to reject the resolution condemning the annexation of the Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions. The other countries were North Korea, Nicaragua, Russia and Syria.
Central Asian states have been accused of helping Russia to dodge Western sanctions imposed on it for the invasion of Ukraine, with European and Chinese products exported to Central Asia and then funneled into Russia.
Nonetheless, the war in Ukraine has created the irony that a distracted Russia has lost a degree of power, control and leverage over its own wider “backyard” made up of former Soviet states, stretching from the South Caucasus region — which includes Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia — to Central Asia.
Russia has already felt aggrieved to see former Soviet republics incorporated into the West, such as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and to watch as others like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova head in the same direction. Kyiv’s leaning toward the West over the past 20 years laid the foundation for the conflict we see today, with Russia looking to reassert its power and influence over its neighborhood.
Russia’s “final backstop of authority was the possibility that it could invade or intervene,” Galeotti noted, “but now, with 97% of the Russian army mired in Ukraine, no one’s really worried about that anymore.”
There’s certainly a tussle for influence that’s taking place in Central Asia, with China also “courting” the region to a certain extent.
China held a summit with Central Asian states in early summer, months before U.S. President Joe Biden met with the leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in September, as part of the first ever presidential summit of the “C5+1” format launched in 2015. The group pledged to expand their economic and security cooperation.
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Alexander Titov, lecturer in modern European history at Queen’s University of Belfast, told CNBC that the position of Central Asian states — “squeezed” between Russia to the west, China to the east and Afghanistan to the south — added complexity and nuance to the region’s international relations.
“Central Asian republics have to play their own game in the sense that they are in this region where Russia is an important player, as well as China. China has become a bigger economic presence than Russia in Central Asia,” he noted, particularly when it comes to oil and particularly gas consumption, with China accelerating the construction of a pipeline to source gas from Turkmenistan, despite Russia’s attempts to push its own pipeline proposals with Beijing.
Still, while Russia has been vocally critical of Europe’s and the U.S.’ engagement with Central Asia, it has been ostensibly less so when it comes to its ally China. Analysts say this is based on Moscow’s calculation that China will remain more of a backseat partner in the region, for now at least.
Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, chairman of the People’s Council of Turkmenistan, at the Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, in Beijing on Oct. 19, 2023.
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“While there clearly is alignment between Russia and China when it comes to Central Asia, and particularly when it comes to keeping ‘the West’ out of the region after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russia is unlikely to relinquish completely its traditional grip on the region, nor is China likely to actively wrestle Moscow for greater control in the near future,” global security analysts Anastassiya Mahon and Stefan Wolff wrote in analysis for the U.K.-based Foreign Policy Centre think tank.
“While there is undoubtedly a rebalancing of power afoot between Russia and China, this is likely to take the form of a gradual power transition.”
The analysts noted that “while the West will hardly be seen as an alternative in such a hegemonic power transition from Russia to China, the transition itself, nevertheless, offers opportunities.”
The U.S., U.K., and EU can strengthen their own engagement and cooperation with Central Asia, they noted, “precisely because this presents the states there with a chance for some re-balancing of their own and for strengthening their traditional aspiration for a multi-vector foreign policy.”