Since 2002, geopolitical struggle in Central Asia has become a multifaceted affair. Alongside the formerly hegemonic Russia, China has become a regional economic force, and the United States is trying to balance the game with its military supremacy. The struggle for influence that determines Asia today will become more concrete over the next 10 years.
Apart from these two nations, the presence of second tier powers pursuing their own strategic interests in the region both demonstrates the region’s strategic significance and suggests that the future will see Central Asia become the arena for even larger struggles, since interests to be achieved in dynamic multiple interactions include geopolitical power, national and religious influence, security and economic opportunities. Currently, the struggle in this region, which can be seen as the heart of the world, focuses on the factors that connect the region to the outside world: roads, pipelines and the management of natural resources, as well as political issues. Whoever can control these factors will be the region’s geopolitical and economic conqueror.
For political and economic reasons, the Russian Federation still has imperial designs on its former territories, and it is seriously concerned about the United States’ goals in the region since the occupation of Afghanistan made that nation the second force in the region. For this reason, Russia established the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) with China and the four nations of Turkestan in 1996. In 2001, Uzbekistan joined the organization.
This organization has made successful moves in recent years, proving its ability to maintain security in Central Asia and to resolve border disputes, and increasing its political significance during the process. Major Asian powers such as India, Pakistan and Iran felt a need to join the organization as observers, and this significant fact is proof of the SCO’s increasing power.
However, the organization, which came on the international scene with the slogan of “Eurasia for Eurasians,” has as a primary deficiency for becoming a balancing mechanism against the US and NATO superpowers, and it has have always been known: its lack of a joint military force.
Military Developments and the Region’s Future
Although the militaries of the nations of Turkestan continue to use Russian hardware, training and structure, these nations have not become Russian political and military satellites. Thus, the emergence of the United States as a balancing force and a political alternative in the region has helped these states to avoid full dependence on Russia.
Nevertheless, we may still assert that, to some extent, Russian military influence persists. Thus, for a variety of reasons, the bulkiness, underdevelopment and technological inadequacy of these states’ militaries is clear. Their obvious military dependency forces the nations of Turkestan to modernize their militaries as their financial situation permits and to toe the Russian political line.
While the nations of Turkestan are dependent on foreign connections and their militaries need material aid, the rising world power, China, is also militarily dependent on Russia, in The rapid modernization of China’s military is due to the Russian Federation, which compensates for China’s technological weaknesses, especially in aerospace and electronic military systems.
In particular, the EU and US arms embargo, imposed on China since 1989 is the most important reason for China’s dependency on Russia. Chinese military doctrine is improving, and indicates a serious need for technology transfer. This reason makes it clear that the military and political dimensions of the relationship between China and Russia will last for a long time.
Since the nations of Turkestan have no other options, they are preparing to establish new and closer military relations with Russia. In the same fashion, China needs Russia due to its lack of sophisticated technologies. In other words, due to the advanced military technological legacy of the Soviet Union, Russia will be more influential in Turkestan and China will be its dependent. This is the reality behind the strengthening of the SCO in recent years.
The Emergence of a New Military Alliance in Central Asia
Although China is dependent on Russia for military technology, we should not forget that China also feels a need to develop its political and economic relations with the US. China’s situation requires that it maintain balanced and calculated relations with Russia. Consequently, despite China and Russia’s participation in the SCO’s military exercises with considerable forces, due to China’s recent lack of enthusiasm, this year’s exercise was extremely lifeless.
China’s reluctance led Russia to initiate a new policy, which primarily concerns the US and secondarily, China.
Since Russia announced in February 2009 that it will establish a Rapid Reaction Force under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. According to this new plan, all members of the CSTO, except Turkmenistan, will join the new Rapid Reaction Force.
Plans call for the new force to protect member states from possible foreign threats, to conduct operations against terrorism and to combat organized crime and drug trafficking.
Although the nations of Turkestan have various reservations and difficulties regarding their participation in such a military force, Russia clearly has high hopes for it, since, Russia’s President Medvedev has indicated that the new force will be no weaker than NATO. With this in mind, Russia announced that it allocated one airborne division and one attack brigade to the new force. After this step, Kazakhstan is expected to join the new force with a brigade, and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will join with various battalions. The military capabilities of the CSTO will increase over the next 10 years. Thus, its strength may reach twenty-thousand men. Uzbekistan remains uncommitted to the force, expressing its doubts about the CSTO’s effectiveness as an organization. However, this new force will be established anyway and it would compensate the SCO’s one of the main weaknesses.
Political Implications of the New Military Alliance
Positive results from this new development have come quickly, and we expect more new developments in the future. For instance, Kyrgyzstan, home to both US and Russian military bases, made the significant step of asking the US to leave Manas Airbase, due to its improved military relations with Russia and the promise of 2 billion dollars in military aid from Russia.
Furthermore, the new agreement included the Russian decision to modernize Kant Airbase, near Bishkek, raising US concerns so much that in order to stay in Kyrgyzstan the US offered new financial and military aid. In return, Kyrgyzstan allowed US to continue to use Manas Airbase and increased the base’s annual rent to 60 million dollars, with the additional promise of 117 million dollars in military aid.
While these events transpired, Russia modernized and strengthened the Kant Airbase, in particular, by increasing the numbers of Sukhoi SU-25 and Su-27 fighter planes. Due to the new security agreement spearheaded by Russia, Kyrgyzstan’s essentially weak military began to be modernized, and its most important unit, the Third Special Forces Battalion, received new equipment and training. In Turkestan a new military chess match between US and Russia has begun, as we have noted, and Kyrgyzstan was not its only beneficiary.
While Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan restructured their foreign policy and made political moves in accord with the new alliance, they also took new steps in military arena.
During the four years since Uzbekistan decided to shut down the American owned Hanabad Base, we have seen it reach out to the West to some extent and soften its policies. Thus Uzbekistan allowed NATO to use Nevai airport as a transit hub for equipment being sent to Afghanistan. We should underline that while this happened, Uzbekistan refused to join the CSTO’s Rapid Reaction Force. Simultaneously, Russia shut down the Cargo Aircraft Manufacturing Plant in Tashkent, where IL-76’s were built. This shows the chill in relations between Russia and Uzbekistan. However, we should not forget that Uzbekistan is still dependent on Russia, especially for the modernization of its fighter planes, T-72 tanks and BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles. All these foreign pressures on Uzbekistan open the door for the terrorist activities of Islamist organizations, causing difficulties for Karimov.
It is important to point out that Tajikistan, like Kyrgyzstan, also wants to acquire military and financial aid from both Russia and the US, and is seeking new ways to accommodate the new developments. Tajikistan is home to Russia’s most important foreign military base, where the 201st Mechanized Division, along with one independent tank battalion, air defense units and a small fighter plane group, was stationed. Although it is said that Tajikistan rents the base to Russia, there is no conclusive evidence of this. The Imamali Rahmanov regime utilizes harsh military measures in the country, and, like Karimov, is a susceptible target for Islamist organizations, since the worsening economy is strengthening the radicals. Requests for public donations to a hydroelectric plant construction project show how dire Dushanbe’s economic situation is.
Turkmenistan is dependent on Russia for military hardware. Although Turkmenistan wants to buy military hardware from Russia, especially tanks and gunboats, due to its foreign policy’s neutrality principle, Turkmenistan has cautious and limited relations with both Russia and the US. The American presence in Turkmenistan is limited to a small military station at the Ashgabat Airport. It refuels American aircraft that are carrying non-military cargo to Afghanistan.
Although Kazakhstan is the richest Central Asian nation and closest to the West, since it does not share a physical border with Afghanistan, it has been militarily and strategically sidelined by Russia and the US.
Despite its close relations with NATO and the US, and the military hardware it acquires from the West, Kazakhstan’s close political relations with Russia are evident in the military domain. Consequently, Kazakhstan’s decision to send one brigade to the CSTO’s Rapid Reaction Force is significant. Furthermore, we should not forget that Russia is still this nation’s primary arms supplier.
The Future of Natural Resources
In the short term, global policies of energy diversification increase the value of every kind of raw material. We should not forget that China’s leaping industrialization has already increased demand for all sorts of materials. In the future, Central Asia, with its vast and unused natural resources, will play a crucial role in supplying the raw materials the world needs.
The energy hungry world’s demand for fossil fuels will shift to nuclear fuels in the distant future. Central Asia can supply both types of fuels in significant amounts for a long time. However, this would move the nuclear challenge that occurred during the twentieth Century from the Atlantic to the Pacific, since the mass of nuclear warheads in Russia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, India and China will have to be taken into account.
On the other hand, 520 million barrels of oil reserves in total and an estimated 105 billion cubic meters of natural gas reserves increase the significance of the Caspian region, which is important for both Russia and US. According to other estimates, oil reserves in Central Asia and the Caspian region could be as large as 150-200 billion barrels. The neighboring states of the Caspian: Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan, have 4.5 billion tons of proven oil reserves and estimated reserves of 18 billion tons. These nations are expected to export 140 billion ton in 2010 and 215 billion ton in 2015. In 2015, Caspian region would reach the oil production rate of 4.7 million barrels and would export much of it. This is a significant increase when we consider export rates of Saudi Arabia (7.6 million), Iran (3.5 million) and US (1.9 million).
Pipeline routes for transportation of the region’s rich natural resources to the global market and the construction of these pipelines have become a major area of struggle between oil companies and major powers. The oil and natural gas routes of the Caspian region will determine the geopolitics of twenty-first century. For this reason, the world’s 25 largest oil companies are actors in the region. They have either invested already or are planning to invest more than 100 billion dollars in the region. So, multinational companies’ interests intersect in the region. The current problem is how to transport oil and natural gas to Western Europe, where the majority of customers are located. To this end, various pipeline projects have been crafted with economic and political concerns in mind. The main future players in the pipeline game have, to some extent, been identified. However, even if the rules of the game and the conditions for resource sharing have been determined by global capital, and leading investors, there are still unresolved issues. In these days the region’s former powerhouse, politically and geographically, the Russian Federation, wants to gain a larger share of production and distribution by using its geopolitical advantage. However, Turkey, Iran and China are joining the competition, thus EU countries also want to get their share either directly or through proxy states.
In these lights, the transportation of Caspian and Central Asia oil to the world does not suit Russia’s short term interests. What Russia plans to do is to control oil reserves and supply the international market when reserves in the Middle East and North Africa are depleted. As long as Russia controls the Caspian region, it plans to use its energy resources to control the West, since the West has poor relations with the Middle East.
The former Russian President, Vladimir Putin, once said, “We will export our oil and gas, but while doing this, we will produce our electricity in nuclear power plants. To this end, we will construct 26 new nuclear power plants over the next 10 years.” The Russian Federation has 870,000 tons of proven natural uranium reserves (including low quality ore). Besides Australia and Canada, who have the world’s largest uranium reserves, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are important countries with their proved uranium reserves. Even today, we expect that new uranium fields will be discovered in Kazakhstan,
which has 860,000 tons of proven uranium reserves, and in Uzbekistan, which has 150,000 tons. We also expect low quality uranium to become commercially viable, thus significantly increasing the strategic position of these two countries. The world’s attention is on Kazakhstan due to its oil, natural gas and strategically important uranium reserves.
Uzbekistan’s known reserves, approximately 150,000 tons, may soon surpass Russia’s reserves, thus when we consider the 40 new nuclear plants that Putin ordered, apparently uranium becomes increasingly important from day to day. Russia, for the reasons noted, will be forced to acquire more uranium sources whatever the cost. Although Uzbekistan’s gold mines have great significance, uranium’s potential to surpass gold is the main reason behind the intensification of Russian efforts in Uzbekistan.
The Russian Federation is no doubt the biggest profit winner among the foreign powers of Turkic Eurasia, from the Balkans to East Turkestan. While the Russians, who claim to focus on regional stability, but failed to do so in the westernmost section of the region, Eastern Europe, continue to have some degree of influence in the Caucasus, west of Turkish Eurasia, they are increasing their influence in the east Caspian. This is the result of Vladimir Putin’s determined policies, coupled with the mistakes of the US and the EU, Iran’s neglect of the region and Turkey’s shift of interest from this region to Africa and the Middle East. Furthermore, to some extent, the Russians, knowing the geopolitical significance of Eurasia by experience, have blocked foreign powers from the heart of this region, Turkestan, by establishing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). On the other hand, in the early 1990s, the US and Western powers set their eyes on the region’s rich hydrocarbon resources. In order to acquire natural resources, the region should be controlled and the region’s states should be made semi-dependent. Thus, natural resources will be controlled and the security of transport routes will be maintained. To this end, the US, with the assistance of NATO powers, occupied Afghanistan, the most strategic region in Central Asia. Bases were established in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. However, the occupation that the US initiated in Afghanistan, and planned to expand, came to a standstill, and bases in Uzbekistan were shut down. It is important to note that US military strength, an important tool for proving political and economic dominance in this region, with its strategically significant place in world geopolitics, was offset by the Russian SCO initiative. In order to prevent US domination, a military presence was necessary and Russia used this strategy wisely. To elaborate, it is necessary to point out the benefits of a military presence to a foreign power that enters a region. These benefits are;
Geopolitically, foreign powers that have a military presence in the region become influential in the host country and enable the host country to serve the foreign power’s interest
Economically, a military presence enables control of natural resources, especially in Central Asia, and their use according to the foreign power’s wishes and interests.
From this perspective, the US has failed in the region due to preventive measures by Russia and China, and especially Russia’s advantage: political and economic control of the international transport of the region’s natural resources.
Since Vladimir Putin’s presidency, Russian foreign policy has changed significantly, with Russia beginning to pursue more active policies in line with their reignited desire to become a regional power.
Russia, without doubt the most powerful strategic partner for states in the region, skillfully used its cultural power. The official use of Cyril alphabet in most nations, the use of the Russian language in communication, and the extensive use of Russian in education are some indicators of the continuity of Russian cultural dominance. This situation also Russia power over Turkey, which was consciously blocked from the region by putting Armenia and Georgia between them, as well as foreign powers.
While discussing regional political developments, we must mention Russia’s Asia policy. We also have to stress that Russian political effectiveness in the Central Asia depends ethnic and cultural elements and Russia’s relations and experiences with the peoples of the region. Russia effectively uses both their former bureaucrats; i.e., leaders in Central Asian nations, and people across Asia who are in the Communist parties of varying strength and are devoted to Marxist ideology.
The most significant element of Russian diplomacy in Central Asia is cooperation with China. This cooperation was strengthened, especially with the 2001 China-Russia Friendship and Peace Agreement, and concrete steps have been taken under the auspices of the SCO. While China could have been Russia’s most important competitor in Asia, these two giant regional powers are united against a more powerful competitor. Thus Russia, which feels confined by US, has opened a space for struggle against the Americans. Thus China and Russia will continue to be as powerful as the US, and we can say that do not expect more radical change for at least ten years.
Since the socioeconomic crisis during the early years of its independence, Central Asian nations have attracted the interest of global capital due to their rich natural resources and consumer markets. Initiatives that would shape regional and global relations intensified during this period. However, the pangs of transition from a communist system to a liberal system continued for a long time. The Soviet Union’s industrialization policy built dependent, rather than integrated, economies, preventing Central Asian nations from developing self-sufficient production capabilities, and leading some industrial plants to close down. Consequently, continuous international cooperation was needed and it needed to be rapidly intensified. Thus, initially international cooperation to this end was arranged without Russian supervision when the Central Asia Economic Community (CAEC) was established.
Tajikistan later joined the original members, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. This economic community worked to foster the free flow of goods, services, labour and capital. Within this framework, standardization of taxes, prevention of double taxing, utilization of water resources and ecological security was also aimed. Although, EU-like cooperation was planned for this economic community, for various reasons, its goals could not be realized. Perhaps the most important obstacle was the Russian Federation’s policy of preventing the interference of foreign powers. In addition, Uzbekistan’s prioritization of domestic politics and Kazakhstan's policies in favor of regional integration and nation-building led these two countries, which could have been the motors of economic integration, to neglect the community.
We can see that, due to their geographic and political effectiveness, China and Russia are the primary players in the region, and South Korea, India, Japan and Turkey are secondary in a few economic sectors. In particular, China’s initiative to fill the economic and political gap in Central Asia shows that it aims both to control the new markets for the sake of its growing economy and export needs, and to offset Russian influence in the region by establishing its own new zone of influence. This is why China is making it a priority to complete transportation infrastructure establishing direct links between China and the region and developing trade between the region and the province of East Turkestan, which borders the region.
Thus in 2006, Uzbekistan’s textile sector received 84.5 million dollars in international investments and 18 new plants were opened, and Uzbekistan, which exported 3.5 million dollars worth of textile products in 1994, has reached its current 441 million dollar export capacity. The administration, aware of Uzbekistan’s rich natural resources and the importance of opening up to foreign markets for industry and trade, has taken significant steps in past years. To this end, Asia Development Bank has planned the realization of the 173 million dollar “Guzar-Buhara-Nukus-Beinau” motorway project, the north-northwest “Alma Ata-Bishkek-Tashkent-Termez,” the “Nevai-Uckucuk,” and the south-southwest “Semerkant-Nevai-Buhara-Alat” road projects. The “Silk Road” to the Gulf of Basra and the Black Sea would be realized. Moreover, the “Tashguzar-Baysun-Kumkurgan” railroad, which is under construction in the Surkhamderya region, is about to be completed. This road would connect difficult to reach regions in Uzbekistan, and also reach the Indian Ocean via Afghanistan and Pakistan. All of these are not only beneficial for Uzbekistan, but for all of Turkestan’s nations, because as long as transportation and pipelines continue to pass through Russian territory they will continue to be dependent on Moscow. On the other hand, breaking this monopoly and activating new transportation routes, like Baku-Ceyhan, will enable these nations to be more independent and help them to develop more quickly. Consequently, Russia will not be able to maintain control as it desires, and exclude other players like it has in the past. In the next ten years, Russia may lose in the region, both economically and politically.
It is important to note that, as long as seventy years ago, the region’s nations began to realize that they are the inseparable parts of West Turkestan and that they need to support and complement each other. Despite the rich natural resources of the nations of Turkestan, transportation issues make it difficult for them open up to foreign markets. This fact will force them to further integrate. Especially and first of all, the Kazakh-Kyrgyz Union will make it possible to resolve the region’s problems and, depending on the reduction of autocratic tendencies, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and even Tajikistan could join the union.
All of these relations and developments shows that in the next ten years the sole superpower, for the time being, the United States, will not give up on the nations of Turkestan and will maintain its presence in Afghanistan. Similarly, the US will compete in fiercely with Russia in Central Asia for the next ten years.
ART - Foreign Policy Director of Eurasian TV