Ukraine: Impact of War on Central Asia

With the region’s fortunes deeply linked to the Russian Federation, analysts assess how Russia’s invasion is likely to affect economic and geopolitical realities.

Ukraine: Impact of War on Central Asia

With the region’s fortunes deeply linked to the Russian Federation, analysts assess how Russia’s invasion is likely to affect economic and geopolitical realities.

Smoke is seen rising from buildings on February 26, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Explosions and gunfire were reported around Kyiv on the second night of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Smoke is seen rising from buildings on February 26, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Explosions and gunfire were reported around Kyiv on the second night of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. © Pierre Crom/Getty Images

Kazakstan: Multiple Projects Now in Doubt

How will the invasion of Ukraine affect relations between Russia and Kazakstan? Should we expect any adjustments within the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) or Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO)?

Political scientist Dauren Aben: To date, Kazakstan has not made a single official statement about the invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine and has not even expressed its usual concern and readiness to act as a mediator. Media statements about the alleged refusal of the Kazak authorities to send troops to the combat zone in response to Russia’s request are most likely an interpretation of the words of foreign minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi about the neutrality of Kazakstan in recognizing the DPR and LPR [de facto Donetsk and Luhansk republics] as well as senate speaker Maulen Ashimbaev about the impossibility of the CSTO peacekeeping forces’ participation. Akorda’s [the president’s office] very cautious approach is apparently due to unwillingness to irritate the Kremlin, but it puts our country in a very ambiguous position against the backdrop of strong condemnation of Russian aggression by the world community. 

The wait-and-see tactics of Kazakstan, which has not yet recovered from the events of January, is caused by the vulnerability of its strategic position and increased political and economic dependence on Russia. 

Ukraine’s defeat is not in Kazakstan’s interests as it will further strengthen the country’s dependence on Russia, effectively turning us into an aggressor’s satellite along with Belarus.
At the same time, the failure of the Russian military campaign may lead to a radical breakdown of the existing system of interstate relations in the post-Soviet space, calling into question the very existence of military-political and economic associations under the auspices of Russia, including the CSTO and the EAEU, on the ruins of which more equal and mutually beneficial regional projects may appear.

How interconnected are Kazakstan and Russia, and what bilateral projects are likely to be called into question?

Obviously, Russia will find itself in complete diplomatic isolation and under the pressure of comprehensive sanctions. Due to the fact that Russia is our closest ally and largest trade and economic partner, since 2014 Kazakstan has been indirectly affected by anti-Russian sanctions. The current crisis is no exception, and led to another collapse of the national currency following the Russian rouble… in the context of the aggravation of the military-political and sanctions confrontation between Russia and the West, the negative economic impact on Kazakstan will only intensify.

It is likely that Russian-Kazak cooperation projects in the field of digitalisation, the development of nuclear energy and other areas will be suspended.

As for possible political consequences, they will entirely depend on the further actions of Kazakstan. If Akorda follows the Kremlin’s lead and gets drawn into the conflict or helps Russia bypass the restrictions imposed on it, then our country itself will become the object of sanctions. 

What can we expect in terms of the relations between Kazakstan and Ukraine?

Relations between Kazakstan and Ukraine have always been friendly and based on mutual respect, but in recent years bilateral ties have weakened somewhat due to Kazakstan’s orientation towards partners in the EAEU, artificial obstacles created by Russia and the negative impact of the pandemic. However, the parties have always expressed their readiness to intensify trade and economic cooperation, primarily in the energy, transport and logistics and agricultural sectors, as well as cooperation in the humanitarian sphere. The relationship was somewhat overshadowed by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s words that Kazakstan does not call “what happened in Crimea an annexation,” but in the end, Akorda managed to assure the Ukrainian side of its respect for its territorial integrity. Whichever way the Russian invasion goes, Kazakstan will strive to preserve friendly relations with Ukraine.

Kyrgyzstan: Labour Migrants Face Tough Times

Should we expect any adjustments in Bishkek’s foreign policy following the Russian invasion?

Political scientist Medet Tyulegenov: Russia’s invasion to Ukraine will not fundamentally affect Kyrgyzstan’s foreign policy - because Kyrgyzstan does not currently have a clear and coherent one. Russia will remain a strategic partner, because our leadership will not take any radical steps, considering all the possible real risks. On the part of Russia, for sure, there will be some pressure on allies to recognise the territories that broke away from Ukraine as states. However, I think that these attempts, like in 2014 or about the recognition of South Ossetia or Abkhazia, are likely to fail.

It remains to be hoped that the country’s leadership, gently maneuvering, will avoid pandering to what Russia is doing now in relation to Ukraine. They will try to avoid making careless or bold decisions that could spoil our international image; but at the same time, they will try to not annoy the Kremlin regarding their policies over Ukraine.

What consequences will there be in Kyrgyzstan? What bilateral projects are likely to be called into question?

Regarding sanctions, there will most likely be a large effect due to the fact that sanctions will worsen the economic situation in Russia as a whole. And this, first of all, will affect the situation with our migrants and their opportunities to earn money and, accordingly, the transfers they send to Kyrgyzstan. Therefore, the financial inflow through this to Kyrgyzstan will decrease. This will, of course, affect the solvency of people in Russia and the commodity preferences of supplies that come from Kyrgyzstan or through Kyrgyzstan to Russia. This will have some effect on those of our suppliers in the business that supply to Russia. We see an effect regarding the unstable exchange rate, how the rouble collapsed, accordingly, the som also reacted. 

The extent to which Russian foreign policy assistance to countries like Kyrgyzstan will remain a priority may also be in question and, accordingly, it will become more and more difficult to receive some funding, even the small amount that Russia has for Kyrgyzstan.

Russia does not have any high-tech investment projects in Kyrgyzstan. Accordingly, Western sanctions that relate to high technologies are unlikely to affect our country. Therefore any of Russia’s investment projects in Kyrgyzstan will not fall under threat. 

How might these events affect civil society in Kyrgyzstan?

An alarming signal for Kyrgyzstan… is the general feeling that one can easily violate various international norms and not consider the opinion of the population, including your own. We already observe such a trend not at the international, but at our internal level in Kyrgyzstan. We already have pressure on civil society… and the opinions of citizens and civil society are not considered.

Accordingly, what Russia is doing can give more confidence to various autocrats, including in our country, who may feel that this is becoming the norm both in the international arena and in domestic politics. Accordingly, this can have a rather bad effect on how the government will treat civil society. 

Tajikistan: Trading Partner Number One

How will the Russian invasion of Ukraine affect cooperation between Tajikistan and Russia, and how interconnected are their economies?

International relations specialist Rustami Suhrob: Tajikistan, in terms of its economy, is strongly connected and dependent on Russia. The statistics speak for themselves: the Russian Federation ranks first for our country in terms of total foreign trade volume.

Over 2021, the trade turnover between Tajikistan and Russia amounted to more than 1.3 billion US dollars. Tajikistan has a strong dependence on Russian oil products, wood supplies and metals. Any changes in these sectors in the Russian Federation will directly affect our country.

Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine will have very negative consequences for the economies of both countries - if the ongoing military operation continues for more than a month, most likely the Russian Federation may partially or completely close its borders. Everything will depend on Western sanctions, which will halt the activities of many Russian enterprises in which our citizens work. Perhaps the Russian leadership, with a wave of mass unemployment, will begin a tough migration policy in order to provide its citizens with jobs.

It is also possible that the US and the EU will require Dushanbe to not cooperate with Russian enterprises and companies that fall under their sanctions list, such as Sberbank, Gazprom, Rosneft, RosAtom, VAZ, KAMAZ and RUSAL. It is possible that TALCO [the Tajik Aluminium Company, the largest of its kind in Central Asia] may become a bargaining chip for the US and EU.

Which bilateral projects could be put at risk?

Due to the fact that over the past decade Tajikistan has redirected its economy towards China, a small number of joint projects are today being implemented between Moscow and Dushanbe. Plans for the construction of Russian language schools may come under attack. There is also a possibility that the creation of a so-called unified air defence system between Tajikistan and Russia will be postponed.

Will Dushanbe support Moscow politically or will it prefer neutrality? 

Tajikistan is not in a position to support Moscow’s actions. Dushanbe understands that any positive statement about Moscow at the moment can lead to international isolation, sanctions, suspension of all Western grants and projects, especially social and humanitarian ones. Thus, the Tajik leadership will never recognize Crimea as part of the Russian Federation, and the LPR and DPR as independent republics.

There can be no question of neutrality; Dushanbe is not a regional power with that sort of luxury. Dushanbe’s position is very simple, it will adhere to the position of the UN. However, if Moscow demands Central Asian countries recognise the LPR and DPR as independent republics, then the Tajik leadership is unlikely to be able to disagree. 

Uzbekistan: a Problem of Balance

What are the consequences for Uzbekistan of the Russian invasion of Ukraine? 

Alisher Ilkhamov, director of the Central Asia Due Diligence think tank: President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s first, though not direct, reaction to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine [was to] visit Karakalpakstan and say that Uzbekistan needs to increase its economy and defence capability. Here you can see a hint that the country should be able to repel aggression from the outside, the likelihood of which from Russia, in one form or another- for instance, hybrid - cannot be ignored. The government has not fully understood that the development of the economy is very dependent on factors such as the rule of law and an administrative system that meets modern standards. In these two areas, reforms are still stalling.

As for foreign policy, there is a concept that was adopted under Karimov in 2012… that Uzbekistan would not join any political blocs and deploy foreign military bases in the country. It is on these two fundamental issues that Mirziyoyev apparently has not yet come to a final decision, reserving the possibility of joining the CSTO and allowing Russia to deploy its military base in the country.  

In practice, the government tried to develop beneficial relationships with a whole range of countries and powers, including both Russia and China, the US, Turkey and EU, as well as with regional neighbours. In general, it would be desirable to maintain this multi-vector course.

On the one hand, after the Kazak events and with the end of his second presidential term approaching, Mirziyoyev would be interested in assistance from the CSTO as a police structure that would help suppress protests if he wanted to indefinitely extend his rule. 

On the other hand, the invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine cannot but frighten Mirziyoyev. There is certainly a growing fear that Putin’s apparent desire to restore a semblance of the USSR and his willingness to achieve this not only by a system of incentives, but also by force, will one day put the sovereignty of Uzbekistan at stake.

If Mirziyoyev decides to completely subordinate Uzbekistan, at least its foreign policy, to the dictates of Moscow, this will undermine the legitimacy of his rule in the eyes of the population and a departure from the ideology of independence.

I think Mirziyoyev will strive to achieve a certain balance between these two mutually contradictory priorities. It won’t be easy. 

Which areas of cooperation between Uzbekistan and Russia may suffer?

A question is how strong the ties are today between the financial and banking sectors of Russia and Uzbekistan. Unlike the members of the EAEU, they are apparently not so strong that it will make Uzbekistan think about whether it is even worth joining this structure, which is so toxic given Russian dominance.

Will pressure increase on Tashkent concerning joining the EAEU and the CSTO?

I think so, but for the time being Moscow will use hybrid methods, combining diplomacy, soft power, economic incentives, blackmail - especially on the labour migration front- and various kinds of scaremongering, for example, in the form of exaggerating threats from the Taleban. 

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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