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Camouflaged Russian soldiers take part in a joint anti-terrorist exercise with the armed forces of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states. Photo: EPA

The ‘American factor’ drives Russia and China together in Central Asia

  • The Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a Moscow-led security alliance consisting of several former Soviet republics, has held military drills near Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan
  • Russia and China have ‘every incentive’ to work together on keeping the US out of the region, analysts say
Two months after the Taliban regained power in Afghanistan, Russia is bolstering its military positions in neighbouring Central Asia.
But Moscow’s build-up in the region has also had ramifications for the United States and China, the two other great powers with aspirations for greater influence in Central Asia.
Whereas Russia has moved to block the Joe Biden administration’s attempts to establish a US military presence in the region, it has embraced China as a potential partner in the battle against terrorism.

The Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Moscow-led security alliance consisting of several former Soviet republics, launched military drills near Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan on October 18. The six-day exercise features more than 4,000 troops and 100 artillery systems, making it one of the bloc’s largest in recent years.

According to a description by Russia’s Central Military District, the drills were rehearsing a scenario in which militants from an unnamed “international terrorist organisation” attempted to cross the Afghan-Tajik border.

The exercises coincided with the visit of a high-level Taliban delegation to Moscow on October 20 to take part in Russian-led international talks on Afghanistan.

Even three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow remains Central Asia’s primary security provider. Thousands of Russian troops are deployed at bases in three out of five Central Asian republics: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Those three countries are also members of the CSTO. At the same time, Russia is the top weapons supplier to Central Asia, accounting for more than half of the region’s arms transfers between 2015 and 2019, according to data from the Washington-based Oxus Society.
A Taliban soldier in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo: Reuters

The return of the Taliban poses new challenges for Russia’s role in the region. During its first time in power from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban provided sanctuary and training to Islamist militants in Central Asia that sought to topple the region’s secular governments. In recent years, however, the Taliban has sought to reassure its Central Asian neighbours and Moscow by vowing that upon returning to power, it would not allow anyone to use Afghanistan’s territory to plot attacks against other nations.

Stanislav Pritchin, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Post-Soviet Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, warned that keeping this promise would be easier said than done. He said that although the Taliban itself was unlikely to launch incursions across its northern border, some of the Central Asian militant groups under its command were far more eager for a fight – and there was no guarantee the Taliban would succeed in restraining them.

“Although these groups are not particularly large in size, they have battlefield experience and are well-motivated, which could allow them to become a serious headache for Central Asian militaries,” Pritchin said.

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Another concern is Islamic State (Isis). Russian President Vladimir Putin said recently that Russian intelligence estimates showed there were at least 2,000 Isis fighters based in northern Afghanistan. Putin claimed the group’s leaders were planning to infiltrate Central Asia and Russia, including under the guise of refugees, to provoke religious and interethnic strife.

Moscow has sought to counter these potential threats by expanding its military footprint in the region. Just days before the fall of Kabul on August 15, Russia held two concurrent exercises in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan involving a total of 4,000 troops from all three countries. Several weeks later, on September 7, Russia sent hundreds of soldiers to take part in CSTO drills in Kyrgyzstan.

Troops abseil from a Chinese military helicopter during a joint military exercise held by Russia and China in the Ningxia Hui autonomous region. Photo: AP

Russia has also moved to re-equip its 201st military base in Tajikistan with new rifles, infantry fighting vehicles and anti-aircraft missile systems. On September 10, Russia’s Central Military District announced it would deliver 30 new tanks to the 201st base by the end of the year.

Promoting closer ties among its Central Asian allies is another priority. During a CSTO summit in Tajikistan’s Dushanbe city last month, the bloc’s members agreed to establish a joint budget for defence-related research and development. They also unveiled plans to create a common military police force, military investigation team, and military prosecutor’s office and courts.

Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, a research group that advises the Russian government, explained that these moves were meant to erect a “solid barrier” between Central Asia and potential instability from Afghanistan.

“Russia wants to ensure that even if something goes wrong in Afghanistan, that those problems will remain inside the country,” he said. “To do that, you need capable military forces in neighbouring countries supported by Russia.”

Chinese troops at a counter-terrorism military drill held by the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation member states in Russia’s Orenburg region. Photo: Xinhua

Convergent interests?

Deterring militant groups is not Moscow’s only priority in Central Asia, however.

Even before US forces fully withdrew from Afghanistan on August 31, the Biden administration began exploring options for repositioning some of its troops and aircraft to Central Asia. Former senior US defence officials told The Wall Street Journal that a military presence in the region would provide Washington with a geographically convenient base of operations for reconnaissance missions or potential air strikes over Afghanistan.

Putin reportedly brought up the issue during his June 16 meeting with Biden in Geneva, telling the US president that Moscow was completely opposed to any American military presence in Central Asia. Although Putin also allegedly offered Biden to instead use Russia’s bases in the region for intelligence gathering, the Kremlin appears to have walked back that proposal.

Following a meeting with US Under Secretary Victoria Nuland in Moscow, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told reporters that he “emphasised the unacceptability of a US military presence in Central Asian countries in any form whatsoever”.

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Some in Washington are still holding out hope that a deal with Moscow can be reached. During a virtual dialogue organised by the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute on Tuesday, David Petraeus, former head of the CIA and US Central Command, argued that the US, Russia and China had “convergent interests” in Afghanistan on issues such as counterterrorism and cracking down on the illegal drug trade.

But Lukyanov of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy said that there were very few prospects for Moscow and Washington to work together on Afghanistan, since Russian policymakers believed that continued US involvement in the region would only serve to destabilise the situation.

“No one prevented the Americans from doing whatever they wanted in Afghanistan for 20 years,” Lukyanov said. “We now see the end-product of that experiment. On what basis should anyone expect the US to behave more effectively and correctly going forward?”

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe watch a joint military exercise by their forces in the Ningxia Hui autonomous region. Photo: AP

Receptive to China

When it comes to cooperation with China on Afghanistan, however, Russia has been far more receptive.

In early August, while the Taliban rapidly encircled Kabul, more than 10,000 Russian and Chinese troops rehearsed counterterrorism drills in China’s northwest Ningxia Hui autonomous region. Last month, the two countries held another joint counterterrorism exercise at a training ground near Russia’s border with Kazakhstan.

Moscow and Beijing have also sought to coordinate their diplomatic efforts on Afghanistan. On September 15, the CSTO and the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation held a summit in Dushanbe to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. In an interview several days earlier, Russia’s Ambassador to Afghanistan Dmitry Zhirnov revealed that he talked to his Chinese colleague Wang Yu on a daily basis, sometimes speaking with him by phone several times a day.

Alexei Maslov, director of the Institute of Asian and African Studies at Moscow State University, said that although Russia and China had been traditionally perceived as economic rivals in Central Asia, the crisis in Afghanistan was forcing both countries to set their differences in the region aside and rally together against a common threat.

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Maslov said Moscow and Beijing had different, but highly compatible instruments for defusing threats from Afghanistan. He proposed that while Russia’s military could serve as a bulwark on the country’s northern border, China could help stabilise the situation within Afghanistan itself by providing Kabul with economic aid.

At the same time, Maslov added, the two countries had every incentive to work together to keep US forces from returning to the region.

“Central Asia is perhaps the only region in the world where Russia and China’s interests will always align against the US because they regard it as their historical sphere of influence,” he said. “As in other parts of the world, the ‘American factor’ is the main force driving Russia and China closer together.”