How do Post-2014 Spillover Fears and Russian Foreign Policy Goals Align?

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by Reid Standish on 6/24/2013 · 7 comments

“Thousands of terrorists and fundamentalists will seek refuge in Afghanistan as well as the region around the country,” said Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin on a visit to India back in October 2012. “It [Afghanistan] may change the situation drastically around the region and for countries like Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Central Asia.”

In response to spillover fears from Afghanistan, Russia has been making its case for taking on the role as the leading security provider in the wider region, as the U.S. and the rest of the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) downgrade their presence come 2014. Moreover, in anticipation of the spread of Afghanistan’s security issues into Central Asia, an effort is underway to redraw security arrangements in Central Asia in order to stall off future destabilization along the southern frontier.This has come in the form of military base deals, military aid and training, and of course, strong rhetoric about the security challenges that that will face Central Asia after 2014.

As the deadline looms closer, this rhetoric has been growing. In October 2012, a report released by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) warned that the pullout of international forces from Afghanistan may turn northern areas of Afghanistan in to a bridgehead of terrorist activity against Central Asian countries. Since then, vocalizing post-2014 fears have continued from Russian officials and from Russian-dominated security organizations. Just last month, at a Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) summit held in Kyrgyzstan, the gathering’s centrepiece was the regional tensions and dangers after the 2014 drawdown. In the lead up to the summit, the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, issued a statement that it expects the influence of extremist Islam and the reach of the Taliban to grow in Afghanistan after the ISAF drawdown.

However, ever since ISAF military operations began in Afghanistan, Russia has been weary of a NATO—particularly U.S.—presence in its backyard. Over the past decade, Russia has managed these fears to varying extents, but the general norm has been to block any U.S. security initiative—regardless of whether it aligns with Russia’s interests or not. This, of course, makes Russia’s alarmist rhetoric of the dangers that will face Afghanistan after 2014 curious, and naturally leads to two key questions: how credible are the spillover fears being expressed for Central Asia? And what purpose does spillover rhetoric serve for Russia?

First off, beyond any issues spreading from Afghanistan, Central Asian states have a host of their own domestic issues. In recent years, there have been indications of growing violence in Central Asia with serious clashes in Tajikistan in 2010 and 2012, the violent overthrow of presidents in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 and 2010—which was later followed by ethnic conflict—the 2011 supresison of protests in Zhanaozen, and the bloody crackdown by Uzbek authorities in Andijan in 2005. All of these events have had major domestic and geopolitical ramifications and none of them have been related to causes originating in Afghanistan.

However, that isn’t to say that there aren’t conditions in Central Asian states for spillover from Afghanistan to manifest. One such scenario is the return of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) to the region. Originating in Central Asia, in 1999 and 2000, the group launched devastating raids from Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Over the past decade much of the original group has been destroyed—by coalition forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but more recently authorities in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan have claimed that the IMU has been involved in terrorist events in their countries, although the evidence presented to back these claims is thin. While the IMU remains a force in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the group appears to be small. It is also far from certain that Central Asia is a principal target for current or future operations.

Still, fears emanating from radical Islam are not wholly unfounded. “The religious situation in Uzbekistan is much worse than any other Central Asian country,” said Dr. Anar Valiyev, Dean of International Affairs at Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy, “and if Uzbekistan blows up, the whole of Central Asia will blow up” he added. Population appears to be big factor in its strategic importance in spillover scenarios. Not only is Uzbekistan Central Asia’s largest military power, it is also the region’s most populous country with a population that is approximately 45% under the age of 25.

“The population is mostly young people, there are no political parties, it is pure disenfranchisement. This is the perfect ground for religious extremism, as religious extremism remains the only real form of power that can go against the [Karimov] regime.”

After the 2014 withdrawal, a lot depends on what will happen with Afghanistan. If Afghanistan is able to stabilize after the drawdown, extremists will not be able to spillover into Central Asia or Russia. “Everything depends on Afghanistan” remarked Dr. Valiyev, “If a civil war between Taliban and the government happens, then the spillover of religious extremism is a very real threat.”

However, the likelihood of these scenarios taking place still remains up in the air. Depending on whose analysis you decide to accept, Afghanistan may be able to stabilize or the country is destined to erupt back into conflict. There does appear to be some credibility to spillover fears, but many of these scenarios currently remain confined to hypotheticals. Moreover, the biggest threats posed to Central Asian states appear to be from within. So, why the strong rhetoric from Moscow?

The answer could be related to the Russian-initiated Eurasian Union. Currently, Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have all signed on to the proposed union and calls for further security integration could be a move to bring stalwarts Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan into the fold on security matters and then push for integration into the Eurasian Union. Already, some steps towards further security integration in light of Afghanistan are being taken, and in this vein, Russia’s strong rhetoric can be seen as a means to unite former Soviet Central Asia under Russian leadership. Russia has been trying to minimize U.S. influence in Central Asia for quite some time, and with the 2014 drawdown set in motion, Russia may finally be getting its wish.

Yet, there is the possibility that Russia may be biting off more than it can chew. “They [Russia] are happy that the Americans are leaving without understanding that the Americans leaving is bad for the Russians also,” said Dr. Valiyev. “Sooner or later something will happen in Afghanistan and spillover, and Russia will not be able to contain it,” he added, “The enemy that comes after the Americans will be much worse than the Americans themselves.”

2014 may in fact be very dull year. Afghanistan still has the possibility of holding itself together and if things do fall apart, it is unlikely that Afghanistan will erupt the moment ISAF and U.S. troops are minimized. But in putting itself in place to become the main security guarantor for the region, Russia may be taking on more responsibility than it is capable of handling. Whether it is spillover from Afghanistan or domestic instability from Central Asia, Moscow will now be holding the reins in terms of security.

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This post was written by...

– author of 7 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Reid Standish is a freelance journalist and grad student at the University of Glasgow in the Erasmus Mundus International Master's in Russian, Central and Eastern European Studies programme. Reid has travelled extensively throughout Central Asia and is a longtime student of the region's politics. Currently, he is researching his thesis on counternarcotics and foreign assistance in Kyrgyzstan and is a visiting student at Kazakhstan's KIMEP University. Reid currently lives in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

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Franklin June 24, 2013 at 8:51 am

Interesting article. Overall, I like your analysis. It will definitely be interesting to see how Russia will be able to manage as the main security player in the region after the U.S. downsizes. Although, as you said, much is still up in the air in that regard.

I’m curious about the Eurasian Union though. What would be necessary to get Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan on board? Uzbekistan left the CSTO and seems weary of Russia and Turkmenistan doesn’t seem to want much of anybody, unless it involves selling off resources. How can Russian bridge that gap?

Reid Standish June 24, 2013 at 12:44 pm

Hi Franklin.

Thanks for reading. Monitoring the progress of the Eurasian Union will definitely be interesting to follow and I too am curious to see if Russia can make more progress in the next few years. Uzbekistan’s economy is in bad condition and there is no doubt that they could benefit from more economic activity. However, they seem pretty adverse to being part of Russian-led security organizations at the moment, but that could change in the future, especially if things start to spillover from Afghanistan.

Turkmenistan is kind of an enigma. They seem content to be neutral and just be closed off and grow their economy through their energy resources. Perhaps as the region changes, it could be in their interests to move closer to Moscow if the regional security situation changes. But at the moment, that is a big if.

joe June 25, 2013 at 7:01 pm

can afghanistan be part of eurasia union?

Reid Standish June 26, 2013 at 5:26 pm

So far, the Eurasian Union outline looks like its just former Soviet countries. In Central Asia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan appear on board and Tajikistan is coming around. Ideally, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan would be desired members, but no one has made motions of integrating in Afghanistan.

Martin Doyle June 24, 2013 at 11:01 am

The author points to several major concerns for those states in the region as well as those with commercial and strategic interests. Indeed, with the current instability within Russia, the author’s finding that Russia may be overextending it’s capacity to adequately contain any serious conflictual situation in the Central Asian ‘stans’. There remains the issue of China’s growing involvement and the interaction between Russia and China. As one with scholarly background related to Central Asia, it will be interesting to follow this author’s future publications.

Reid Standish June 24, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Hi Martin,

You are right. The rise of China in Central Asia is a big issue and will be interesting to follow in the years to come. I hope to be able to look at it in my future articles.

Thanks for reading!

Ubuntu June 27, 2013 at 9:34 pm

Russia is in the happy situation of not having messed-up central south Asia lately. She’s certainly in more position to ‘help’ than the Americans, who won’t want to do that anyway. The big danger is dope. But there’s no reason that can’t be steered to the more lucrative markets in Europe and North America. If there is anything of NATO left behind after 2014 it will be the drug networks. That money is too easy to earn and too hard to give up.

Tight security on the border states should see Russia along the way to regional influence, while minimizing the the risks from an unstable Afghanistan.

Iran and India are potential development partners. Ditto Iran and the Moslem republics. Played right Russia’s century in Asia looks far more promising that the neocon’s wet dream.

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