Central Asia: big Russian manoeuvres



Against a background of Russian-Western rivalries, struggles for influence to control the immense energy resources of Central Asia, and because of the many uncertainties, even worries that the Afghan adventure of the Western powers raises, the most recent summit of the Organisation of the Treaty of Collective Security (OTCS) on 4 February in Moscow took on special importance.


If we add to the decision taken during this summit- creation of a rapid reaction force – the various military agreements over air defence that Russia and its allies are in the process of putting through and the ambitious plan for rearmament announced by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on 17 March, we see clearly how the geo-strategic landscape of a key region which Moscow has never stopped watching over jealously is being redefined.



A) The OTCS summit


  1. 1.    A respectable show of unity…


The summit concluded with an agreement over the creation of an inter-army rapid reaction force capable of dealing with ‘a wide range of threats and challenges by means of dissuasion, response to aggression by conventional forces, defence of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the member countries, carrying out special operations, taking into account asymmetrical threats such as international terrorism, radical Islamism and other forms of violent extremism, the fight against organised crime and arranging emergency help in case of natural or man-made disasters.’[1]


Joint peace-keeping missions already figure among the missions envisaged for the OTCS. Documents adopted in 2008 at the initiative of the Russian authorities aimed at conferring on the OTCS a dimension of ‘maintaining the peace, with or without an international mandate, on the territory of one of the member states.’ They also opened up the possibility of participation in peace-keeping missions under an international mandate outside the area of Central Asia. But such a differentiation between the ‘OTCS area and the rest of the world’ demonstrates very well Moscow’s care to appear as the unchallenged leader in the matter of peace-keeping within the OTCS area of responsibility.


The heads of state or of government of the OTCS member states signed a plan according to which they committed themselves respectively to making available a battalion sized unit. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has announced that his country will provide one division and a brigade supplied with modern equipment similar to what is now used in NATO. According to his diplomatic advisor Sergei Prikhodko, ‘the two principal units of these rapid reaction forces will be Russian units – an airborne division, the 98th Airborne Division based at Ivanovo, and the 31st Airborne Assault Brigade in Ulianovsk.’[2] In a later stage, there are plans to add to these two military units troops from the Ministry of Emergency Situations and, probably, those from the Ministry of the Interior. Sergei Prikhodko also says that this force will have a permanent and common general staff. Up to now the rapid reaction forces were located solely under national command.


However, the catalogue of missions that he gave seems to be excessive compared to the forces specifically identified for them if they are to be effectively assigned to the OTCS in case of need. Apart from the low volume of forces dedicated to this project, it has to be said that for the moment the units identified have not yet trained together and that one could reasonably have doubts about their real immediate operational availability.


For Gleb Pavlovsky, Director of the ‘Russian Foundation for an Effective Policy,’ a think-tank based in Moscow, this rapid reaction force ‘will contribute to the security of a region which, comes just after the Near East and is classed as second-ranking with respect to political-military risk.’  According to him, such a decision is acknowledgement of the ‘reality of the threats which weigh on the national security of the young Central Asian republics and Moscow’s interest in having a security zone along its borders.’ Sergei Markov, Director of the Institute of Political Studies and someone said to be close to the Kremlin, believes for his part that this new military structure is intended to ‘counter radical Islamism and international terrorism’ and that it should not be considered as ‘a counterweight to other political and military unions such as NATO, for example.’[3]


From the Russian point of view, the OTCS certainly seems to constitute the best tool possible to remind the whole world of the continuity of Moscow’s ambitions for this former space, symbol of its past glory, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. When he was President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin said that  ‘the fall of the Soviet Union was the worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,’ and in 2002 he was an originator of the creation of this organisation. At the time, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan,  Kirghizistan, and Tajikistan joined up with Russia. Uzbekistan joined them in 2006.


Aside from the main strategic area, Central Asia, the OTCS also intends to act in other important strategic areas: the European area (Belarus and Russia) and the South Caucasus (Armenia and Russia). These two zones also have their own groups of forces.


  1. 2.   … which does not conceal some weak points…


During the Russian-Georgian conflict of August 2008, not one of Russia’s allies within the OTCS came to the aid of Moscow. With the creation of this rapid reaction force, Moscow seems to hope to change the course of things. But if there is now an agreement on paper, there are, however, still quite a few obstacles to overcome. The apparent united front of the heads of state who took part in the summit barely conceals the hesitation that appeared and which expresses the tensions which exist within this organisation. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are the first countries to have made their different views heard.




a) Tajik haggling


Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon long hesitated before coming to Moscow for the summit. Alluding to domestic problems, he even announced he would not participate[4] before changing his mind the next day.[5] Certain observers believe that in doing so he probably sought to raise the bidding for use of the base in Dushanbe by Russian armed forces – the  201st motorised division of riflemen. During a bilateral meeting in November 2008, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev expressed the wish to see a second, similar base put at the disposal of his troops.


What seems most likely is that he visibly was looking for a way to display his disagreement with the Russian-Uzbek rapprochement of the past few months. In the course of his last official visit to Uzbekistan in January, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in fact recalled that the ‘hydroelectric projects in Central Asia must take into account the thinking of neighbouring countries.’ [6] This kind of statement could worry the Tajik authorities, who saw in it an open questioning of their Roghun hydroelectric project.  This is a project for which  Tajikistan has been waiting 5 years for Russia to honour its promise of 1.5 billion Euros of financing and which Uzbekistan views with displeasure, fearing it will aggravate its problems with water shortage.


b) The hesitant Uzbek waltz


By bringing to the fore technical considerations rather than political ones like Tajikistan, Uzbekistan has shown a more subtle approach. For Andrei Denisov, Russain Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, the position of Uzbekistan is motivated by ‘purely technical reasons’  linked to its national legislation. Nonetheless, it seems that the Uzbek diplomats are not on the same wave length as their Russian counterparts. The reservations expressed signify clearly that Tashkent will only participate in OTCS operations on a case by case basis and that its contribution to emergency operations and to the joint struggle against illegal immigration is not on the agenda.


Officially these restrictions are explained by the lack of any national legislation in this domain. Consequently, according to Vitaly Strugovets, OTCS spokesman, the participation of Uzbekistan must be coordinated separately. The position of Uzbekistan is not definitively established, but in the present state of affairs, its President, Islam Karimov, excludes placing an Uzbek unit permanently at the disposal of the OTCS and he envisages any joint action only in the framework of the struggle against narcotics trafficking. This position, standing back, does not surprise anyone. It has been known for a long time.


If, apparently, with this agreement the divergences seem to be temporarily smoothed out, there are still many uncertainties which continue to weigh on the future of this new military  structure of the OTCS. The rivalry between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan over leadership in Central Asia, the endemic ethnic rivalries between Kirghizstan and Uzbekistan over the region of Osh and the incessant and growing quarrels around the problem of water are no guarantee of success for this military alliance, which takes its inspiration from the model of KFOR, the international peace-keeping force in Kosovo under NATO command.

  1. 3.   … despite some enthusiasts


a) The credo of Armenia


On the practical level, out of all the member countries of this organisation, Armenia is the one which considers this treaty as especially beneficial for it. General Haig Kotanjian, Director of the Institute of Strategic Studies attached to the Armenian Ministry of Defence in Yerevan, hailed the creation of the rapid reaction force which, in his view ‘should dissuade those who hope or envisage a military solution to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.’  As this statement underlines, Yerevan considers the OTCS as a conventional military actor and guarantor of Armenian territorial integrity.


This traditional view and an expression of the nearly obsessive enthusiasm of the Armenian authorities, differs completely from that of the heads of the Central Asian states who expect the OTCS to deal with the delicate problems of asymmetrical threats and the challenges of  terrorism.


b) The unclear game of  Kazakhstan


The Ministry of the Interior of Kazakhstan recently reported on the details of a violent clash between an anti-terrorist detachment and a group of extremists in the district of Zelenov in the west of the country.[7] The incident comes at the right moment for the National Committee of Security of Kazakhstan, which regularly denounces the threat posed by extremists and terrorists and calls for closer cooperation with Russia via the good offices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation  - SCO - and, above all, those of the OTCS.


Many analysts are surprised by the stated determination of Kazakhstan to join this alliance under Russian domination. It seems in fact incongruous to see President Nursultan Nazarbayev commit himself so clearly to a military alliance with Moscow at the very moment when he is lined up to assume the presidency of the OSCE in 2010 and his relations with the EU and Washington are taking a new turn, more calm and bearing hope. The fact of his joining this military alliance is, to say the least, in contradiction with the multipolar line of Kazakh policy and its recently displayed determination to develop its ties with NATO.


Kazakhstan is committed to provide nearly one quarter of the men in the rapid reaction force. On 12 February, the Minister of Defence of Kazakhstan, Daniyal Akhmetov, surprised many observers by announcing that ‘the airborne assault brigade assigned to the rapid reaction force of the OTCS is fully operational’ and that it already constitutes  ‘a weighty element of this force.’ The only really operational airborne brigade which Kazakhstan has is the  KazBrig, which is taking part in the Partnership for Peace programme  of NATO. If in his statement of 12 February the Minister of Defence was making reference to this KazBrig, that would constitute a serious snub for NATO, which history will record ironically as having made its  ‘active contribution’ to setting up, training and equipping a Kazakh unit for the benefit of the OTCS !


The growing importance of Astana on the geopolitical and economic levels in the view of the EU is one of the possible explanations of this. Over the past three years, cooperation over energy and transport of Kazakh energy resources to Europe have constituted the main vectors of Kazakh diplomacy in discussions with European officials. The importance of Astana was once again made clear during the latest gas war which broke out at the start of the year between Moscow and the Ukrainian authorities. The indirect consequence was the putting aside of Western demands of democratic reforms. Benefiting from the continuing Russian-Western tensions, Astana can, at its leisure, use its gas and oil as a very effective means of pressure.


Another explanation for the resolute commitment of the Kazakh authorities to the sides of the OTCS is the uncertainties surrounding the Western military campaign in Afghanistan. Presidents Medvedev and Nazarbayev appear deeply convinced that intensification of the fighting and military operations in Afghanistan must not be allowed to unleash a political and military tsunami in Central Asia. This comes out very clearly from an interview with Dmitry Rogozin, the Russian representative to NATO, in the newspaper Liter of 7 February. In this interview, the diplomat stressed the ‘catastrophic character for Russia of a Western defeat in Afghanistan.’  Foreseeing that such a defeat could provide the signal for an Islamist revolution in Central Asia and in the Caucasus, he added that the American presence in  Afghanistan served ‘the interests of Moscow and that it would be good if it lasted indefinitely.’ The Russian authorities fear an early departure of the Americans, and this is where the agreement of Moscow over the rapid reaction force of the OTCS derives all its sense. It is a matter of containing the Islamic threat which any precipitous withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan would not fail to amplify.


c)  The alignment of Kirghizstan


On the eve of the summit in Moscow, Kirghizstan announced its decision to terminate the rental contract for the Manas air base used by the USA in the framework of its operations in Afghanistan. On the same day, the Kremlin put a loan of 1.6 billion Euros and a financial assistance package of 120 million Euros on the scales for the eviction of the American troops from the base.[8] Through its spokesman Bryan Whitman, the Pentagon tried to sound reassuring: ‘The closing of this base – with around a thousand American soldiers and several dozen French and Spanish – which allows monthly delivery of 500 tonnes of freight and the rotation of 15,000 soldiers for the benefit of operations in Afghanistan - will not have an excessive impact on logistical support.’ [9]


The Russian representative to NATO indicated that Kirghizstan could lodge part of the troops of the rapid reaction force on its territory, especially on this very same base at Manas. According to the director of the National Security Council, the decision of Kirghizstan is irreversible, whereas several weeks before the commander in chief of American forces in Afghanistan and in Iraq, General David Petraeus, believed that the future of the base did not seem to him at all threatened.  


While the countries of Central Asia do not presently face any real external threat, on the other hand, they all face certain internal threats. The autocrats who preside over their fates will certainly appreciate the ‘all risk’ insurance – covering especially the Islamist threats – that Moscow is proposing. But they nonetheless do not seem ready to commit themselves militarily to the side of Moscow. It would be hard to deny that in the context of a conflict which is still possible in the Caucasus or in the Western frontiers of Russia, the Kremlin will find itself once again constrained to act alone.


Thus Russia is committed to an alliance where the Kremlin holds the role of guarantor of security of fragile authoritarian regimes who do not have a great deal to give back in return. And the price to pay is high. Moscow announced its decision to create a joint fund of nearly 8 billion Euros to support its allies in the face of the financial crisis, a fund in which Russia’s own commitment is at the level of nearly 6 billion.







B. The air defence of the CIS


  1. 1.     Recasting the agreements


On 10 February, General Alexander Zelin, chief of the Russian Air Force’s general staff, announced that in three strategic areas – Eastern Europe, the Southern Caucasus and Central Asia – Russia and its allies are presently in the process of building their air defences. Preliminary agreements, modeled on the joint system of air defence between Belarus and Russia, are being drafted for the other members of the Community of Independent States (CIS).


In February 1996, an initial joint system of air defence came into being. Consisting of seven brigades of air defence, forty-six units of anti-aircraft missiles equipped with weapon systems S-75, S-125, S-200 and S-300[10], 23 squadrons of Mig-29[11], Mig-31[12] and Su-27[13], twenty-two transmission units and two units of electronic warfare. In the course of the past decade, the integration of command systems and of information has been erratic and has suffered from an obvious lack of the political determination which is indispensable to the success of such a large-scale project. Georgia quickly withdrew from this programme. As for the Ukraine, its  attitude has been more ambiguous. Belarus is the notable exception, the only country to have maintained and reinforced its capabilities of air defence and to have cooperated closely with Russia. Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan and Uzbekistan meanwhile concluded deals with Russia on the principle of an inter-army air defence.


General Zelin cites as an example Kazakhstan, which launched a programme of modernisation and development of its air defence systems with political and technical support from Moscow. In the context of this ambitious plan in the matter of inter-army cooperation, the actions taken are aimed at implementing the Zaslon[14]project, automating commands and headquarters of the joint defence of the member states of the CIS through bilateral programmes. Moscow has reflected on the possibility of extending the benefits to Armenia, Kirghizstan and Tajikistan. In saying that the Russian Air Force will stand by the CIS states, General Zelin is reaffirming a bit more Russia’s role of overlord in defence matters in the Southern Caucasus and in Central Asia. On 13 February, Nikolai Bordiuzha, Secretary General of the OTCS, announced that Armenia and Russia have agreed to set up a joint system of air defence and he described this agreement as one further step towards a common air defence encompassing Belarus, Central Asia and the Southern Caucasus.


  1. 2.   Kazakhstan, the favoured partner


Implementation of this joint system in Armenia, Belarus and Kazakhstan will enable Moscow to gather intelligence on air space in three strategically important areas – Eastern Europe, the Southern Caucasus and Central Asia – and will require the training of staff of these countries in Russia, where they will receive training in setting up integrated command and control systems over operations, information systems and communications systems. It will also serve to dissuade these same states from individually resorting to force and will reconfirm Russia’s position as regional guarantor of security.


Kazakhstan has an air defence system of the S-300 type for the protection of Astana and Almaty. Minister of Defence Daniyal Akhmetov has confirmed the delivery soon of new systems of the same type and would even like to be equipped with Russian S-400 systems. According to him, this reinforcement of air defence capabilities will strengthen the integration of his country within the OTCS.


This is all the more important given that NATO envisaged cooperation with Kazakhstan in this domain. Since then, with the consent of the Kazakh authorities, Moscow has locked the door to the Western powers in this matter.  While leaving the door open to military cooperation with NATO, Daniyal Akhmetov has never put in doubt his cooperation with Moscow.


It clearly appears that the solution of strengthening ties with Russia is the only one to be prevail at present. In September the member countries of the OTSC will participate in multilateral inter-army exercises in Kazakhstan.[15] For Akhmetov, there can be no doubt that  leadership will return to the Russians. Essentially this is due to the quality and quantity of the troops they are making available and the equipment envisaged.





With the announcement on 17 March of their ambitious overall plan to modernise their armed forces – the most important step in many decades – the Russian authorities have driven in the nail and are clearly showing their colours.  Raising the spectre of the Cold War and that of many potential conflicts in the region,[16] criticising the expansionist designs of a NATO that is nearly at the doors of Russia (Ukraine and Georgia), President Dmitry Medvedev surprised many by the aggressive tenor of his speech.


The timing of this announcement is far from being innocent. Coming less than one month from the financial summit of the G20 in London, the Kremlin has warned that it has opted for a hard-line policy with respect to the United States and their allies within NATO and has shown that Russia intends to participate in the discussions in London on an equal footing. It is true that the military reinforcement of the OTCS, the modernisation of the air defence of the CIS, rearmament and radical adaptation of the Russian armed forces give it solid advantages for making its voice heard on all the many geopolitical problems of the day:  Iran, Afghanistan and the Near East, among others.


In parallel, President Medvedev has sent a conciliatory signal to Washington[17] by announcing his intention to contribute to the stabilisation of Afghanistan, though it came nonetheless with a demand for political concessions as a ‘return on investments.’ The list of these concessions includes tacit recognition of the Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet space, the end of  Washington’s support for the Ukrainian and Georgian authorities and freezing if not cancelling the missile defence shield in Europe. Moscow is now playing with Washington the same musical score it played at the beginning of the year with Europe during the Russian-Ukrainian gas conflict. The face to face encounter which is about to take place with the young Obama administration will be, without a doubt, one of the most interesting.


While adopting a vigorous diplomacy which hits the accelerator in its cooperation with the Western powers, Russia is actively pursuing its regional policy, directed either at blocking the objectives of NATO or making NATO’s possible engagement in this region much more difficult without its consent. This is a kind of ‘virtual cold war’ which allows Moscow to combine reduction of Western influence in its ‘sphere of influence’ with display of its determination to cooperate with the West.




Copyright© ESISC 2009

[3] Ibid.

[7] Zhas Qazaq, edition of 6 February.

[8] http://www.jamestown.org/ (archives du 4 février 2009)

[10] Ground-to-air missiles of medium to long range. S-75 NATO Code: SA-2 Guideline, S-125 NATO Code: SA-3 Goa, S-200 NATO Code: SA-5 Gammon, S-300 NATO Code: SA-10 Grumble.

[11] The MiG 29 (NATO Code Fulcrum) is a fighter aircraft of air supremacy.

[12] MiG 31 (NATO code: Foxhound) is a Russian interceptor. It is a derivative of the famous MiG 25 Foxbat

[13] The Sukhoi 27 (NATO Code Flanker) is a twin-jet, single-seater fighter plane.

[14]From the name of Doppler effect radars, all weather,  multi-mode, mounted on the supersonic MIG-21 interceptors.

[17] http://www.jamestown.org/ (archives of 5 February 2009)

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