Russia’s New Central Asia Strategy

Russia’s interest in Central Asia has remained valid for centuries. Although five independent states were established in the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Moscow administration, which overcame the trauma it experienced following the Cold War through the leadership of Vladimir Putin, has recently been closely interested in Central Asia. Moreover, as the region has rich natural resources, it attracts not only Russia but the attention of all great powers.

In this context, Ankara Center for Crisis and Political Studies (ANKASAM), presents the opinions of leading experts and academicians in the field to the attention in order to evaluate Russia’s recent policies towards Central Asia.

Asst. Prof. Emre OZAN (ANKASAM Turkish Foreign Policy Advisor)

In a statement on the subject, Asst. Prof. Emre Ozan said, “Russia sees Central Asia as its near abroad and wants to prevent the influence of other great powers, especially the United States of America (USA), in the region. As a matter of fact, the countries of the region are dependent on Russia, albeit to varying degrees. Central Asian countries do not want to confront with Russia and find it beneficial to have good relations with Russia. However, the economic leg of Russia’s relations with these countries is considerably weak. In other words, from an economic point of view, relations to be established with the West or China offer more opportunities to the Central Asian countries.”

Ozan concluded his statements, “Russia cannot maintain its influence in Central Asia with only power-based relations. Because, after a certain point, the Central Asian countries will express their various demands on the grounds as they are independent states vis a vis Russia. As a matter of fact, we see that Kazakhstan stands out at this point. But this demand does not imply an anti-Russian policy. However, Moscow will have to acknowledge that the aforementioned countries have interests that are independent from Russia. In other words, in the long run, Russia will have to offer more facilities and opportunities to these countries in the economic and social field in order to maintain its influence on Central Asia. Therefore, it is not possible for Russia to maintain its regional influence only through power relations.”

Prof. Dr. Toğrul İSMAYIL (Kahramanmaraş Sütçü İmam University- Political Sciences and International Relations)

Prof. Dr. Toğrul İsmayıl said in the evaluations he made regarding the issue, “After the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia tried to maintain its influence in the former Soviet geography. Although it has not been very successful in the South Caucasus in this regard, it is arguable that Russia has reached its goals in Central Asia at a certain level. The reason of this is the region in question is geographically far from the West and Turkey. Because Central Asia is a region located in the triangle of Russia, Iran and China and separated by the Caspian Sea.”

Ismayıl commented, “Russia does not want Turkey, the USA and the European Union (EU) to become effective geopolitical actors in Central Asia. Therefore, it tends towards cooperation with China in the region. In doing so, it focuses on regional projects. For example, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is a concrete example of this. Because of the border problems between Moscow and Beijing in the past, a middle way was tried to be found through the SCO. Although Putin’s idea of ​​‘Eurasian Union’ constitutes the basis of his policies towards the region, Kazakhstan’s insistence that any union to be established should include only the economic field in order to preserve its independence, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) has founded. However, despite this, Moscow has succeeded in bringing the countries of the region together under a security umbrella thanks to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).”

Remarking that Russia’s anti-Turkey and anti-Western policies in Central Asia are beneficial for China, İsmayıl said, “China has surpassed Russia in many areas, especially in economic projects. Because Beijing is economically much stronger than Moscow and is geographically closer to Central Asia. The aforementioned factors have benefited China more and especially China’s investments in the energy field put an end to Russia’s monopoly in the region. Because, alternative routes have been created for Central Asian countries to sell their natural resources. For example, in the past, Russia was buying and selling Turkmenistan’s natural gas cheaply. Today, Ashgabat is trying to develop its trade with Beijing. Moreover, China is investing in numerous energy and pipeline projects in the region. All these are important points.”

Lastly, İsmayıl reminded that EEU also has some internal problems and argued, “Some issues between countries have not been resolved. Moreover, it is seen that some extremist politicians in Russia made territorial claims from Kazakhstan, the country’s largest neighbour. These issues seriously undermine the trust within EEU. Therefore, it is not possible for Russia to be the only hegemonic power in the region through its current Central Asia policy. Actually, Moscow needs to restructure its politics as soon as possible. Because the old tactics no longer avail. For example, Russia is jealous of Turkey’s relationship with Central Asian countries. However, Turkey acts very sensitively in all its works in Central Asia, taking into account the interests of Russia. This approach of Russia, above all, harms itself. As a result, Moscow’s anti-Turkey and anti-Western policies worked well for Beijing and allowed China to increase its influence in the region.”

Prof. Dr. Sait YILMAZ (Dean of Esenyurt University Business and Management Sciences)

Claiming that Russia’s Central Asian policy cannot be separated from global developments and the world visions of the country’s leaders, Prof. Dr. Sait Yilmaz, “To summarize, with the Ukraine Crisis in 2014, Russia officially entered the enemy list of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the optimism that maintained after the Cold War, albeit a little, was replaced by the struggles of the great powers; in other words replaced by the geopolitical competition. As a matter of fact, the West is now explicitly doing its efforts to shape the security environment around Russia which it did covertly until this time and trying to weaken Russia with the containment strategy, as in the Cold War period. On the other hand, China’s Belt and Road Project has an appearance that tries to surround Russia from both Central Asia to the Black Sea and from the Arctic Region. In the face of these developments, Russian decision makers aim to make Moscow a prominent actor among the global powers and to gain an influence in the former Soviet Union geography except Eastern Europe. In this context, the Russians regard foreign intervention in regions such as the Caucasus and Central Asia as hostile.”

Yılmaz stated, “Russia’s Central Asia policy has entered a concrete phase in 1924, when Turkistan, which was the name of the region, was changed to Central Asia. Due to the “nationalization” strategy of the Soviet Union, Turks in this geography were given separate nation and state names which led to dissociation. The Turkish states, which gained their independence after the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, were exposed to the indirect influence of Russia due to their inadequate capacity. In this context, the method applied by Russia is based on; creating problems between countries, inciting controversial issues and being effective by supporting one side when necessary but same time by selling weapons to both sides in the face of the aforementioned problems. This approach is a manifesto for Turkish states in Central Asia to follow Russia’s lead. Otherwise, the regimes in the countries would change and someone who would be loyal to Russia is favoured. In this context, Russia actively uses the covert operation strategy, which is the legacy of the former KGB, in these countries. In particular, it engages with compelling methods to appoint government officials at the ministerial and general level.”

Finally, Yılmaz conclude his assessments, “The reality of today is that the Turkic World of 280 million people is largely under Russian blackmail. The physical distance of the outside world to Central Asia and the distinct culture of the countries in this geography make it difficult for the West to penetrate the region. However, it is observed that China has started to become an active actor in the geography extending from Central Asia to the Black Sea with the aim of reviving the historical Silk Road; which is the region that covers Russia’s sphere of influence. It is predicted that Russia’s ongoing decline will come to an important turning point in the next 20 years ahead. Because in order to remain a great power, two things are vital: human and economy. Russia will not be able to control this geography for a long time, with its population of 142 million (30 million of whom are Muslim and / or Turkish) and its economy relies solely on the export of energy and weapons. Turkish states will leave their marks on Central Asia in the future. Turkish states in Central Asia have made significant progress in the fields of education, culture and economy in recent years. The driving force in the modernization and development of these states should be Turkey; economic and cultural unity should be strengthened.”

Assoc. Prof. Fahri ERENEL (Retired Brigadier General)

Retired Brigadier General Fahri Erenel stated that today Central Asia is the scene of a power struggle between Russia, China and the USA and said, “We can say that Russia came to the fore in the mentioned struggle compared to China and the USA, especially during the Putin era. Russia continues its efforts to consolidate and increase its power in Central Asia, which it considers as its backyard. While implementing these policies, Russia avoids ideological approaches and follows a neo-realist policy in line with its interests depending on the conjunctural conditions.”

Erenel commented, “When Putin takes office he said, ‘We don’t want a second Afghanistan in Central Asia, thus, we will be very careful.’ These statements of Putin reveal Moscow’s Central Asia policy. At the same time, Putin’s statement that priority will be given to the members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) constitutes another dimension of Central Asia policy.”

Reminding that Russia has many military bases in Central Asian countries, Erenel said, “In addition, the fact that these countries are included in the SCO, EEU, Customs Union and CSTO has seen as strong signs of Moscow’s policy of keeping the Central Asian countries under its control. In short, Russia does not intend to abandon its achievements in these countries, which it considers as its near abroad, and is determined to persist it.”

Finally, highlighting that things are not easy for Russia, despite all his policies, Erenel said, “Central Asian countries maintain their relations with Russia at different grounds through various means of interaction. As a matter of fact, the unity that was tried to be established during the Soviet period and wanted to be maintained in the post-Soviet period and consequently the Russian influence began to disappear. Developments such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan preferring the Latin alphabet instead of Cyrillic alphabet, the role played by Kazakhstan under the name of the Astana Process in the Syrian alliance, the idea of the Eurasian Union by the Nur-Sultan administration, and Uzbekistan’s suspension of the CSTO membership confirms that Russia’s task is getting more and more difficult. In addition, Russia perceives the importance China attaches to Central Asia as a threat, especially considering the Belt-Road Project and the cooperation it has developed with the countries of region.”

Hulusi KILIÇ (Retired Ambassador)

Expressing that Russia is trying to protect its interests in Central Asia, Retired Ambassador Hulusi Kılıç said, “Russia wants Uzbekistan to become a member of CSTO and EEU after Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and increases its efforts for this end. Even though Uzbekistan decided to join the EEU as an observer, it keeps the membership issue on hold for now.”

Kılıç said, “Moscow desires to keep the Central Asian countries under control. However, some nationalist circles in Russia create unrest in the countries of the region with their populist statements. For example, a few months ago, some famous political experts of Russia made statements referring to Kazakhstan, indicating that those lands are belong to Russia. These are populist statements. Because while Kazakhstan became a member of the UN, its existing borders were recognized and its membership was accepted. Therefore, the claims of the Russian experts are baseless and lacking legal basis. Such statements which are inconsistent with facts received with concern by Kazakhstan’s political circles. In addition, the Kremlin expects President of Uzbekistan Shevkat Mirziyoyev to adopt positive policies towards Russia. However, Uzbekistan does not want to carry out its foreign and security policies with a focus on Russia. Due to the distant attitude of the countries in the region against Russia, Moscow threatens these countries by stating that it will send back Central Asian nationals working in Russia. For example, it is among the news that 120 thousand Azerbaijanis working in Russia will be sent back to their country.”

Recalling Moscow’s claims that Central Asian nationals work in Russia illegally, Kılıç said, “Russian decision makers are trying to create political pressure in this way. In fact, Russia’s population is gradually decreasing and therefore it needs employees from Azerbaijan and Central Asia. On the other hand, there have been some conflicts on the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border recently. The conflict in question caused casualties in both countries. However, a ceasefire was achieved and the crisis ended with the withdrawal of soldiers from both sides on May 1, 2021. Moscow did not intervene in the conflict between the two countries. Because Moscow has strategic relations with both states considering Russia has bases in both countries who are the members of the CSTO, which Russia led the establishment. However, the existence of conflicts damaged the reputation of both Russia and CSTO. In addition, Russia is not in a position to interfere to the political and military relations between Central Asian countries and Turkey. The first reason for this is that Russia is in favour of maintaining good relations with Turkey. The second reason is that Russia does not ignore that Turkey, Central Asian countries and Azerbaijan belong to the common lineage, language, culture and religion.”

Gürkan DEMİR (Journalist-Ulusal Channel Ankara Representative)

Journalist Gürkan Demir said, “In a period when the world’s economic pendulum is shifting to Asia, each of the Central Asian countries constitutes great importance. Some of these countries stand out with rich and fertile agricultural lands; some of them with their natural gas and oil reserves. Besides, the countries in this region attract attention significantly with the borders they control. Russia’s relationship with the countries of the region has maintained since the Russian Empire. A good economic relationship has been established between Russia and the countries of the region, primarily through natural gas and oil. In addition to trade, Moscow has followed policies which also take into account the interests of Russian minorities. Both are still up to date.”

Demir said, “On the other hand, for Russia, which is wanted to be besieged by the Atlantic front, the Central Asian region constitutes vital importance in terms of security. Therefore, Russia will eliminate the instability plans that the USA aims to create in the region. For this end, Russia will be constructive and emphasize cooperation in order to conclude the disagreements between some Central Asian countries.”

Reminding that the countries in the region are constituting important transit route in terms of Russia’s connection with Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and even Africa, Demir stated, “In short, Central Asia, as air-tube for Russia, is a crucial region due to its significance in economic, political and security aspects. If Moscow does not want to be chocked, it must establish substantial partnerships regarding this region, with Ankara and Beijing as well as regional capitals. Because Turkey increases its effectiveness with the “Asia Anew Initiative” and China with the Belt and Road Project. These developments paves way to comprehensive cooperation against the USA and its allies. Within the frame of these relations, ending the sovereignty of the dollar and trading with national currencies is an issue that needs to be adressed. In addition, the position of the SCO is also important for establishing military cooperation. In this process, Turkey’s SCO membership should come to the fore.”

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Özge Eletek 1999 yılında İzmir’de doğdu. İlk ve orta öğretim hayatını İzmir’de tamamlayan Eletek, 2017 yılında Ankara Hacı Bayram Veli Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nü kazandı. Çeşitli düşünce kuruluşlarında birçok konferans ve seminere katılan Eletek, Ankara Kriz ve Siyaset Araştırmaları Merkezi’ndeki stajını sürdürmektedir.