Geostrategical View: Russian Interests in Central Asia
Abstract After the collapse of the USSR, independent
Central Asia became an area of interest among world
powers. Russia is one of the closest neighbors, so it
is obvious there are key factors and spheres where it
has a particular interest. There are a lot of researches
related to this issue; however, the authors pay
attention to the main implications for Central Asian
For this reason, the authors decided to test the
wide range of areas for cooperation including
geostrategic, political, economic, energetic and other
vectors. The authors attempt to examine the
cooperation of Russia and Central Asia in the Post
Soviet era and define the most interesting
prospectives for Russia in the CA region.
Key words: Central Asia, foreign policy
interests, fields of cooperation, geopolitical players,
international organizations, region.
In spite of the efforts undertaken to streamline
relations with Central Asian states on the bilateral as
well as multilateral bases, Russia has failed to
develop a coherent long-term policy toward this
region. The main contradiction reflected in political
practices are, on the one hand, the recognition of
exceptional importance of Central Asia for Russian
foreign policy interests, and, on the other hand, the
lack of a developed concept of comprehensive
measures that facilitate the development of a long-
term Russian strategy in the region.
According to the Foreign Policy Concept of the
Russian Federation, “Russia forges friendly relations
with all the CIS Member States on the basis of
equality, mutual benefit, respect and regard for the
interests of each other. Strategic partnerships and
alliances are developed with the States that
demonstrate their readiness to be engaged in them”
It should be noted that the Central Asian states
are so different in the level of socio-economic
development, potential, opportunities and a degree
of political modernization. So, it requires an ever-
growing attention of the Russian Federation, and it is
necessary regarding local culture and mentality.
Geopolitically, Central Asian states are
Muslim-oriented and, at the same time, they develop
their relations with the West. Those opposing or, at
least, diverging foreign policy vectors provide a
certain niche for Russia, which is full of competitors. However, one point has to be recognized
that, in fact, the Russian policy is situational (more responding to other geopolitical players’
actions) rather than being preventive.
However, the trend to extrapolate Russia’s competition with the West to Central Asian
states is becoming visible. As it is interpreted by a number of Russian experts who are reluctant
to recognize the diversification of foreign policy and economic ties as a fact, the development of
Central Asian contacts with the West is nearly automatically equated with an anti-Russian
strategy. At the same time, certain local observers, inspired by nationalistic ideas and notions,
deny Russian influence and stand for Russia’s eviction from the region in principle.
Actually, the interdependence between Russia and Central Asian states is determined by
objective factors. We have mutual borders with the length more than 7,000 km.
The region is a market where Russian commodities are supplied to. Central Asia is a
significant destination of Russian exported foodstuffs, machinery and transport equipment (and
over the recent years, textiles). The major flow of labor migrants to Russia is coming from
Central Asia. The region is a major supplier of energy to the EU markets via Russian networks.
Russia is striving to consolidate its positions in the region focusing on intensified cooperation in
the field of energy and defense. The official Russian position towards the region takes into
account the vital geopolitical position, economic and trade opportunities, Russian cultural ties,
presence of Russian-speaking communities and indigenous people), as well as risks and
challenges which demand adequate Russian response.
In particular, the Russia’s National Security Strategy till 2020 points out such destabilizing
processes as the development of nationalist mindset, xenophobia, separatism and violent
extremism including religious radicalism. Therefore, the document emphasizes the necessity to
consolidate the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Shanghai Cooperation
Organization (SCO) and other institutions to develop bilateral cooperation in the military and
political spheres . At present, it seems rather difficult to differentiate between Russian
economic interests in Central Asia and wider geopolitical considerations to identify the degree of
preparedness to pursue a money-losing policy that does not yield immediate financial gains.
Moreover, incorporation of Central Asia into the list of priority interests, despite the mention of
the region in conceptual documents, did not seem to be substantiated by adequately convincing
arguments justifying the necessity to develop a specific strategy of the Russian Federation in
Central Asia. Apart from the list of necessary measures and assessment of resources required to
implement them the Russian Federation has to look like a generally reliable partner, a source of
investment and technology.
Obviously, those tasks go far beyond the limits of Russia’s Central Asian policy
framework, however, it would be impossible to implement ambitious plans related to the
integration in the CIS space and Russia’s leading role without resolving those issues.
The situation in the world and Central Asia continues to develop dynamically – with a
more prominent role played by the US, EU and China, which sometimes generates competition
with the Russian Federation while, at the same time, offers new fields of interaction (for
instance, with the US in Afghanistan, or with China in the SCO framework, etc.).
Russia has encountered new competitors in Central Asia (Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India)
who can sometimes offer goods and services that Russia cannot. Besides, ethnic and confessional
proximity (if any) makes their relations more confidential, though at times makes local elites
wary of growing influence of culturally-close partners over the local population.
Old challenges remain and new challenges emerge in terms of security of the region. As
before, there is deep concern regarding the possibility of internal political destabilization
basically related to the lack of a transparent system of rotation leadership.
Primarily, Russian interests in the region are determined by the security goals. Apart from
the leadership in multilateral organizations which were either specifically established to ensure
security (CSTO) or partially respond to those issues (SCO), Russia is actively developing its
relations with Central Asian states in the bilateral format. The focus on bilateral relations is
connected with a highly relative homogeneity of the region. Similarity of the historic past and
certain cultural elements does not grant common political targets or does not ensure a lower level
of competition. There is a standpoint that Central Asia can be viewed only as a conglomerate of
national states, where each of them formulates its own national interests and foreign policy
vectors. Consolidated regional interests do not exist practically [3, p.16].
So let’s consider more on the particular interests vector of the Russian Federation in each
country of the region.
The Republic of Kazakhstan is the closest Russian ally in the region. Despite objective
common interests such as economy, energy, trade and social vectors, etc. the development of
bilateral relations is affected by the subjective factor of political transition.
For deeper understanding we have used this term to describe the reality of political
cooperation between Russia and Kazakhstan which is convenient for Russia to apply its
Kazakhstan with its huge territory is a very good geopolitical transit corridor to the whole
Central Asian region, South Asia, Middle East, etc. Big amount of goods, capital, services and
people move through the territory of Kazakhstan to and from Russia.
From the prospective of security, Kazakhstan can be considered as the geostrategic belt
which does not let the territories of Russia be in contact with unstable spots such as Afghanistan,
for example. However, the presence of other great powers in Kazakhstan, its transparency and
openness can cause another effect and let Russia’s opponents become closer to its borders.
Because of close interconnections of two states, it is also important to mention that the
neighbors such as Russia and Kazakhstan are ready to support each other in different initiatives
or create a balance of power on the international arena in resistance to the USA, the EU states
However, it is becoming more visible, that Kazakhstan and Central Asian states are
becoming a field for the clash of interests. Great powers are striven to influence the region using
opposite interests of Russia and China.
Also, it is important to mention the interests of Kazakhstan which is nowadays trying to
follow its goals towards economic growth and development. A shift in Astana’s approach to
build relations with Russia is related to the growing ambitions of the Kazakh political elite. This
seems to be a long-term trend which can be even intensified in the future depending on the
Uzbekistan, as well as Kazakhstan, is one of the most powerful countries of Central Asia in
terms of economic and military potential. Traditionally, it views itself as a major state of the
region and actively materializes its ambitions.
Uzbekistan is striving to enhance its importance among foreign partners to use those
relations to consolidate its positions and, at the same time, is avoiding deep commitment which
could potentially limit its freedom of maneuver. Sometimes its foreign policy seems to be
inconsistent, for example, Uzbekistan’s maneuvering between Russia and the West is, in fact, an
absolutely coherent course which allows safeguarding maximum of freedom in decision-making.
In their relations with Russia, the Uzbek authorities prioritize bilateral ties that permit clear
identification of mutual commitments and limitations.
Uzbekistan sees an eventual threat of pressure in becoming a member of international
organizations where Russia plays a leading role. Generally speaking, Uzbekistan’s withdrawal
from the Eurasian Economic Community, repeated suspension of its participation in the CSTO,
refusal to join the Collective Rapid Reaction Force (CRRF) reflect the negative attitude of the
Uzbek authorities to Central Asian integration under the Russian auspices.
Conceivably, the overwhelming importance of sovereignty is a typical feature of
Uzbekistan, which explains its reject of possibilities to establish supra-national structures.
Moreover, it looks like Uzbekistan always “trying on” the perspectives of joint operations in case
of emerging crises in Central Asian states and is reluctant to deal with any precedents of this
sort. Uzbekistan retains its membership in the SCO, where the Russian influence is
counterbalanced by China, while even in the SCO framework it refrained from participation in
joint military exercises including a large-scale exercise in September of 2010 .
However, it is not only Uzbekistan that is interested in support of the world powerful
nations. The latter, as Russia, for example, cannot formulate their policies or strengthen their
positions in Central Asia without maintaining close ties with Uzbekistan.
Uzbek authorities’ pursue a special status in the region by way of conducting the policy of
sharp turns and smaller dependence on the key partners’ position.
Turkmenistan relies on its natural wealth, advantageous geostrategic position at the
Caspian Sea and original understanding of neutrality policy. Here, the power is concentrated in
the President’s hands even to a greater degree than in the neighboring states. The policy of
neutrality chosen in the early 1990s provided an opportunity to maneuver in the diplomatic arena
among world and regional powers. The strategy has become especially effective in the
conditions of competition among the world leading countries for their presence in Turkmenistan,
a country with the largest reserves of natural gas.
At the same time, the foreign interest in the Turkmen gas was so great that neither
American nor European politicians ever criticized the Turkmen government for human rights
situation. Russia pursued a similar policy.
However, the neutrality status and estrangement of Turkmenistan from Russia and other
CIS members did not entail the re-orientation of its foreign policy toward other major countries.
The republic pursues a strictly independent foreign policy and, at the same time, continues to
cooperate with its neighbors in the fields it considers beneficial. For instance, Turkmenistan
makes use of the Russian know-how technology in building its Navy (the decree on establishig
national Naval Forces was endorsed by President Berdymukhamedov on January 25, 2010) as
well as the training naval personnel.
Despite its neutrality status, Turkmenistan participates in international programs against
drug trafficking, as well as opens its territory for transit of non-military cargo to the Afghan
border within the framework of the anti-terrorist operation.
However, nowadays, Turkmenistan is trying to make relations with Russia and to deepen
them with different international partners.
After the explosion at the Central Asia-Centergas pipeline in 2009 and the suspension of
purchases of the Turkmen natural gas in the volumes prescribed by the long-term contract,
Russia, according to Turkmenistan, demonstrated its unreliability as a long-term partner in the
energy sector . The negative ramification of the incident was that other Russian companies
encountered serious problems in their operations in the republic. At the same time, the Turkmen
authorities are actively seeking new partners in the energy sector. The country enlarged its
exports to Iran, commissioned a gas pipeline to China with a potential annual capacity of 65
billion cubic meters . Turkmenistan holds on all other potential directions: to the EU, to India
through Afghanistan, and to Pakistan.
In the mid-term perspective, Turkmenistan will be trying to go its own way relying on
natural gas extraction and sales and disregarding the requirements of modern development.
Limited influence over disconnected elites in Kirgizstan remains a difficult issue for
Russia. While the governing bodies are generally loyal to Russia (and integration processes
under its auspices), a significant part of the Kyryzstan elite (especially regional) is prejudiced to
the relations with Russia in any form. A specific feature of today’s political situation in the
republic is the growth of the nationalistic mood among the people who deny the Russian historic
and cultural contribution into the national development.
In 2010 Russia raised tariffs on the fuel exported to the republic which, according to local
observers, was one of the reasons of the growing discontent with President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
The President convinced Moscow to reduce the tariffs but in the mid-term perspective, the tariff
issue could be once again tied on the agenda of Russian- Kyryzstan relations . However, if
Bishkek takes into account Moscow’s interests, Russia can say “yes” to the increase of financial
assistance and more liberal prices for energy resources.
There are no grounds to believe that new Kyryzstan authorities would manage to abate
synchronous instability relying on different external forces. The country became weaker, and
those who have come to replace the Bakiyev “clan” will have to apply enormous efforts to
prevent conversion of Kyryzstan into a “failed state”.
Despite a number of common features with other countries of the region, the political
system in Tajikistan was consolidated under the impact of specific factors including the civil
war. It brought new forces into the political forefront, primarily Islamist groups and interrupted
the post-Soviet continuity of power having changed the balance of power among regions,
ensured the replacement of elites.
In the second half of the 1990s the experience of putting an end to civilian confrontation on
the basis of a political compromise provided for the participation of various parties in political
life, including legitimization of the Tajikistan Islamic Revival Party, the only Islamic
parliamentary party in the territory of the former Soviet Union. As the regime consolidated its
power the opportunities of the opposition parties to take part in the political process were
invariably shrinking and the authoritarian features of the regime were becoming more
pronounced. At the same time, Tajikistan remained relatively open to foreign foundations and
The solution of socio-economic problems in the country is progressing too slowly.
However, the current references to the aftermath of the civil war, which has actually inflicted
irreparable damage to industrial production and agriculture, are not actual any longer. Since the
mid-1990s, a new generation has grown up which is unaware of the horrors of civilian
confrontation and can be more tolerant to violence. Consequently, inequality aggravated by a
high degree of corruption, unemployment, an enormous gap in the revenues of various strata of
the population, energy collapse, and the threat to turn the national economy into a “drug
economy” can distabilize the situation and in the event of a new split among the elites can ensure
prompt and effective mobilization of the discontented. The situation is aggravated by the
proximity of Afghanistan with the longest mutual border of 1400 km .
Tajikistan is strongly dependent on Russia, primarily by labor migration. The outflow of
the most active and, as a rule, marginalized population, the money transferred and brought to
Tajikistan has the paramount importance in maintaining stability. Russia also played a significant
role in ensuring national security of the country: the presence of Russian troops became a
significant deterrent to the terrorist and extremist activity.
While diversifying its ties and developing relations with the PRC, US, EC, NATO and
Iran, the Tajik leadership often chooses the option of impairing its relations with the Russian
Federation, being probably convinced that the overall setup of forces is developing in its favor
anyway. Perhaps, the “multiple choice” policy would be helpful to the republic.
Tajik expectations of the new partners’ delivery was the cause of a certain disenchantment
of the ruling circles with the integration potential of Russia and the CIS, which passed into their
evasion from undertaking various commitments in the framework of the CIS, Eurasian Economic
Community and CSTO.
At the political and diplomatic levels Tajikistan is characterized like no other than a
friendly country, but the Russian leadership has also piled up a whole range of complaints on
certain decisions of the Tajik leaders. They were related to the status of the Russian language,
conditions of retaining a Russian military base and installations in the republic, and the
difficulties the Russian business had to deal with.
The impression is that the republican leaders have a somewhat orthodox understanding of
the natural desire to benefit from the orientation to different external forces, probably out of
conviction that the development of relations with other partners would be a deterrent to Russia
which puts forward its own requirements.
Russian economic interests in Central Asia are closely linked with geopolitical
considerations. They are: vast and diverse mineral resources, primarily, oil, natural gas and
Excessive labor resources that could be employed both through attracting labor migrants to
Russia and establishing local labor-intensive production facilities focused on commodity supply
to Russia. For example, Kyrgyzstan has a vast potential in the tailoring industry which is already
largely orientated to the Russian consumer.
A vast internal market with a large development potential opens new opportunities to the
Russian export and expansion of Russian enterprises and banks. So far, it is a less competitive
market with relatively low requirements to the technical level of products, which provides
opportunities to export manufactured goods difficult to sell at other foreign markets.
Opportunities of a wider beneficial transit from Central Asia and neighboring countries to
Europe via the Russian territory are also important. Russia is prejudiced against the construction
of gas and oil pipelines bypassing its territory, but at the same time is prepared to take part in the
construction and operation of Central Asian pipelines. Russian efforts in the aforementioned
spheres imply the solution of the top-priority tasks: to ensure favorable environment to foreign
economic relations and business operations in Central Asia. In order to pursue interests in the
economic sphere a number of economic institutions (apart from political ones) were established:
the Customs Union, Eurasian Economic union, Eurasian Development Bank (EDB), Eurasian
Economic union, Anti-Crisis Fund, CIS Free Trade Zone Agreement and some others. The
establishment of the Eurasian Economic Union held in 2015 replicates the European Union
model of operation. Along with the objective opportunities to widen economic interaction
between Russia and Central Asian states, there are serious obstacles thereto. Among them there
are: activities of new players in Central Asia that impede operations of the Russian companies
facing a more severe competition.
Local authorities employ their administrative potential to protect the interests of domestic
businesses. Formally, the tactic looks like state protectionism.
There are limitations related to the specific features of Russian business. Some of
businessmen, who are afraid to operate in high risk zones, put forward unreasonably high
demands in an attempt to acquire ownership of the most lucrative facilities, they violate the
negotiated terms and schedules, deal wrongly with local authorities and businessmen.
The main products exported from Central Asia are still natural and agricultural raw
materials, as well as chemicals. Primarily, Russia’s exports are manufactured products and,
partially, raw materials. Russia undertakes massive supply of energies from Central Asian
republics to Western Europe. Russia is also interested in Central Asia as a market for its
manufactured goods, namely, foodstuffs, machinery, textiles, transportation equipment, while
generally over the recent years materials prevailed.
On the one hand, a lower percentage of Russian manufactured products exported to Central
Asia is related to the competition of other economic partners. On the other hand, it is a reflection
of an overall weakness of Russian economy acquiring a more pronounced raw materials
orientation. Inadequate development of instruments supporting the Russian exports is another
contributor to the process especially under the conditions where the state system of guarantees
qualifies the region as the highest risk zone with the lowest ultimate guarantees.
In 2010-2011 the Russian authorities started to adjust their strategy in the post-Soviet
space. The final version of the strategy was contained in a new program of the Russian foreign
policy formulated in one of the first decrees of the Russian President V. Putin “On Measures to
Implement the Russian Federation Foreign Policy Course”. The document identifies the policy
toward the CIS countries as a top priority. One of the Russian main goals in the post Soviet space
is the implementation of the CIS Free Trade Zone Agreement of October 18, 2011. The Decree
also emphasizes the strategic course toward the Eurasian integration in the framework of the
Customs Union and the Common Economic Space inside the Eurasian Economic Union.
To conclude, it is important to mention that today the role of Russia in the modern world
and in the region of Central Asia, in particular, is one of the main features of its foreign policy
priorities. Understanding the foreign policy of the Russian Federation in the conditions of
globalization is becoming important for the Central Asian region and Kazakhstan.
As the Russian Federation has a large international and economic weight and is actively
involved in the processes of globalization and regionalization, a detailed study of the foreign
policy of Russia's position towards Central Asia and deep analysis of its impact on the scope of
cooperation among the neighboring countries of the former USSR, as well as assessment of the
potential of Russia in the system of international relations, becomes very important for
Kazakhstan's foreign policy.