Vladimir Putin’s Russia has made a concerted effort to expand its influence into Central Asia. As the Ukraine crisis worsens, the region endeavours to remain neutral.
The official Central Asian reactions to the Russia-Ukraine conflict is not unlike Schrödinger’s cat — uncertain, apprehensive, and extremely sensitive to external observation. The region’s leaders do their best to keep the cat’s box closed. They either claim neutrality or, in the case of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan which are going through a domestic power transition process, remain completely silent.
Maintaining impartiality is a tough political act for the local power elites. On the one hand, most countries in the region are Russia’s formal allies, as members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) comprising Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, or on the basis of bilateral agreements — like for instance, Uzbekistan. On the other hand, they do not want to spoil relations with the West and become hostage to the Ukraine crisis. In typical fashion, a top military official from Kazakhstan stated, “the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has no relation to Kazakhstan. We do not support either side.”
So far, Central Asian countries have withstood the geopolitical pressure to choose sides. Moscow has been content to see them abstain or fail to show up when the United Nations General Assembly voted on a resolution deploring Russian aggression. The West has refrained from slapping sanctions on them despite suspicions that Russia is using the region as a loophole against the West’s economic chokehold.
Complete distancing from the crisis is, of course, impossible. The Central Asian republics scrambled to evacuate their nationals stuck in the combat zone, with Uzbekistan alone rescuing more than 5,000 people. Dozens of trucks belonging to Kazakhstani companies are still trying to find their way to safety.
While ostensibly respecting the region’s neutrality, both Russia and the West have put pressure on its governments to toe their respective lines, at least in the discursive realm. The Kremlin tried to orchestrate expressions of sympathy and understanding from Central Asian leaders towards its actions in Ukraine but largely failed, with the partial exception of Kyrgyzstan. In a similar vein, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s push for moral condemnation of Russia at a C5+1 conference with the Central Asian foreign ministers fell on deaf ears.
There has been a spike in the amount of propaganda and fake news targeting the region. Given that the greater part of Central Asia still lives in a Russophonic information space, the Russian media are the chief culprit. A major theme in the slanted coverage by Western and Ukrainian outlets is the putative deployment of Central Asian troops to Ukraine. The American NBC reported, without any corroboration, that Putin had made such a request of Kazakhstan but was denied. The Ukrainian media insinuated that Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan had actually agreed to help the Kremlin militarily. A TV station in Bishkek that broadcast the fake story was closed. Across the region, the authorities warn journalists to be careful about their sources and exercise restraint when writing about the war, although this moderation is heavily tilted towards not offending Russia.
It is the economic fallout from the conflict, however, that affects the region most, and seriously. Should Russia go into a financial tailspin due to Western sanctions, the Central Asian republics will experience collateral damage in the form of diminished Russian investment and trade, inflation, and the disruption of production chains. A reduction in remittances from labour migrants by up to 33 percent towards the end of 2022 will hit Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan especially hard, leading to greater poverty. Anti-crisis plans enacted by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan emphasise the need for increased revenue from the resource sector — particularly oil and gas — and welfare measures for the most vulnerable sections of the population. Tajikistan may be forced to sell its gold reserves, already depleted by the COVID-19 emergency.
The domestic public opinion on the conflict is divided. The majority of the population, particularly in rural areas, does not appear to take a strong moral stance, one way or the other. Local social media is abuzz with discussion on the depreciating rouble and national currencies, the difficulty of international travel, and strategies of survival for labour migrants, with a common refrain: “Don’t do a disservice to our compatriots in Russia! Stay neutral on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.” In the cities, especially in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, there are plenty of supporters of Putin, as well as opponents.
Authorities do not take kindly to public displays of partisanship, with fines imposed on vehicles carrying signs resembling Russian tactical military marks. The only major anti-war demonstration so far took place on 6 March 2022 in Almaty. Despite being officially sanctioned by the mayor’s office, it attracted only slightly over 2,000 participants, perhaps because it was held away from the city centre. It is likely that as the conflict draws on, and more activists fleeing from Russia arrive, the intensity of anti-war protest in broadly pro-Putin urban places will increase.
For the time being, the Central Asian states are pursuing a wait-and-see strategy, refusing to open Schrödinger’s box. Neither solidarising with Putin nor questioning the existing regional system of economic and security agreements operated by Moscow, they hope that the conflict in Ukraine will be over soon. Whether and how long they can maintain such masterly inactivity depends largely on Russia’s performance in the face of crippling economic sanctions imposed by the West.