When Moscow threw its weight behind the 2008 war against Georgia under the pretext of protecting the self-proclaimed Republic of South Ossetia, some commentators thought that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had simply miscalculated and made the wrong move. Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, by contrast, fuelled quite an outrage across the world. It also provoked growing uneasiness over the Kremlin's geopolitical ambitions in the former Soviet republics, sending shock waves throughout the Eurasian region, where President Vladimir Putin's seeming grand plan to create an exclusive "sphere of influence" for Russia has come under the spotlight once again.
Central Asia is of specific geopolitical importance to Russia, which has invested significant resources in retaining influence over the former Soviet republics in the region. The key question now is how far Moscow can go in pursuing its interests in Central Asia and, at the same time, how much the Central Asian republics can resist Russia’s encroachments.
Water, gas and missiles
Undoubtedly, China's westward economic expansion has counterbalanced the Kremlin's grip on Central Asia, forcing Putin to adjust his regional strategy. However, despite being economically outmatched by China, Russia is still a major player in the region plagued by interstate disputes. From this perspective, the Kremlin's strategic efforts have been particularly successful in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia’s weakest links: The former suffered a civil war in the 1990s, while the latter went through two revolutions in the last decade alone. Russia has had a hard time reining in Central Asian states with energy resources - Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan - which have used oil and gas wealth to transform themselves into relatively independent regional players.
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Disagreements over water resources between the Central Asian republics have often resulted in diplomatic rows or even in short-lived border clashes, primarily between Uzbekistan and its water-rich neighbours, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Unsettled grievances over border delimitation in the Ferghana Valley constantly resurface, only to be swept under the carpet until the next crisis turns violent. The Kremlin has seized the initiative and approached each state on a bilateral level, thus turning regional divisions to its advantage.
Russia has skilfully manoeuvred on disagreements between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan over water resources redistribution, striking a series of hydroelectric power generation deals with the former. Kremlin-controlled giant Inter RAO agreed to invest $2bn in the construction of the massive Kambara-Ata 1 hydropower station in the Kyrgyz Republic. In June 2013, state-run RusHydro started construction of a $425m hydroelectric station, which business analysts had previously expressed scepticism about, calling it "a political, rather than business" venture. Questions about the project’s financial viability have only increased following the G7 announcement in Brussels about broader sanctions against Russia's trade, finance and energy sectors over the situation in Ukraine.
Once holding a monopoly over gas deals in Central Asia, the Kremlin has been losing its grip on pipelines in the last decade due to China's advancement in the region. Resource-rich Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have successfully diversified their gas delivery routes away from Russia towards the Chinese market, while cash-strapped Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan remain dependent on Russian oil and gas imports. Kyrgyzstan, for instance, sold its state-run gas company to Russia's Gazprom for the symbolic price of $1 (including conditional clauses for debt repayment and future investments) in exchange for a guaranteed supply of natural gas. Likewise, landlocked Tajikistan receives its duty-free oil from Russia.
Russia retains its military presence in at least parts of Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are home to the largest Russian military installations in the region. Defence Minister Sergei Shoygu recently declared that "in recent years, we have worked to strengthen the Russian military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan: we have increased the number of air defence units at Kant airbase, and the 201st base now has a divisional structure."
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Arguably, President Putin scored a major victory in Kyrgyzstan with the recent closure of the US airbase at Manas airport in Bishkek, which Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft plans to take over. Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov has long expressed anxiety about Russia’s military presence in the neighbouring states. While Moscow’s strained relations with Tashkent explain the former’s desire to use Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as buffer zones, the Uzbek leader remains a vocal critic of Russia’s aggressive comeback in Central Asia. The Uzbek leadership opposed the annexation of Crimea.
For its part, the Kremlin justifies its bases in the region in the light of the deteriorating political situation in Afghanistan. In fact, Russia has managed to exploit fears over an Afghan spillover in Central Asian countries to its favour. In recent months, Russia’s strategic missile forces moved their "Iskander" short-range ballistic systems to the border with Kazakhstan. It is clear that Moscow is serious about protecting its Collective Security Treaty Organisation partners from possible external threats in Central Asia.
The Ukraine crisis in Central Asia
Russia reportedly threatened a number of countries, including Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, ahead of a vote on Ukraine’s territorial integrity at the UN General Assembly in March. It is no coincidence, then, that the two Central Asian republics abstained from voting, as did Turkmenistan - a country with a history of discrimination against its Russian population.
While the Kremlin has justified its actions in Ukraine, saying that it wants to to protect "threatened" Russian minorities there; Turkmenistan also has Russian minorities. However, Turkmenistan enjoys multi-billion deals in natural gas supply with China. Beijing's presence is a decisive factor in Putin’s reluctance to meddle in the gas-rich country. The Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov's personal relationship with state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) grabbed the world's attention in 2013 when the Chinese giant hired American singer Jennifer Lopez to perform on the Turkmen leader's birthday in the capital Ashgabat.
The Ukrainian crisis has sparked a reassessment of the regional dynamics by political elites in Central Asia, in view of Russia’s encroachments on its former Soviet backyard. Uzbekistan has been particularly worried about what the recent developments in Ukraine would mean for its own border disputes. The Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s recent remarks at the fourth summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), held in Shanghai on May 20-21, reflected Uzbekistan's attempt to address ongoing interstate hostilities in the Ferghana Valley. Karimov expressed the view that, unless conflicting parties engage in serious efforts to solve outstanding problems, "virtually all negotiations will turn into mutual complaints, and this can go on endlessly."
At the same venue, Kazakh President Nazarbayev upped the ante on issues of regional security and development by proposing the creation of an Organisation for Security and Development in Asia, the Asian alternative to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Such declarations may offer a glimpse into Central Asia’s future dynamics, as leaders appear to develop a common understanding of current regional political realities in light of the changes emanating from the conflict in Ukraine. If Russia has a master plan to restore its empire, its advancement ahead - easy as it may appear in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan - may be met with serious hostility from some Central Asian leaders.
Ryskeldi Satke is a freelance contributor with research institutions and news organisations in Central Asia, Caucasus, Turkey and the US. Follow him on Twitter: @RyskeldiSatke
Franco Galdini is a freelance journalist and analyst.
The views expressed in this article are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.