IS RUSSIA STIRRING UNREST IN CENTRAL ASIA?

By Nicklas Norling (07/01/2009 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Over the past few months, the Russian FSB and other state organs have been pouring out warnings on the imminence of a military conflict and insurgency in Central Asia. These warnings proved partially correct when a border post in Uzbekistan was attacked by militants in late May and a suicide bombing struck Andijan a few days later. To prevent further incursions, Uzbekistan even began digging a 10 feet wide "anti-tank" trench at its border with the Kyrgyz Republic. The FSB's history of staging terrorist acts in Russia and elsewhere, in conjunction with the geopolitical benefits it derived from the violence in Andijan in 2005, beg the question, at worst, of whether the accuracy of Russia's forecasts is a consequence of its own involvement.

BACKGROUND: "Central Asia prepares for big war!" Thus read the headline of Russia Today's report from the recent CSTO meeting in Moscow. To some, this may appear as little more than an irresponsible product of some Russian spin-doctors. To Central Asian officials, however, it merely repeated the same warnings they had heard from Russian officials for months. Already in March, the Russian Defense Minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, noted that "the military-political situation (in Central Asia) suggests an increasing likelihood of armed conflict" adding that the West's aspirations are aimed at "getting access to natural, energy, and other resources of CIS countries [and] squeezing Russia out of its traditional interests." In the same month, Aleksey Sedov, the head of the Anti-terrorism unit of the FSB, stated that Russian forecasts expect Islamic extremists to "break away" and expand as vastly as the territories of northern Russia, Central Asia, and western China.

These warnings were subsequently inked and formalized last month with the adoption of Russia's new National Security Strategy. The strategy explicitly states that "military forces" could be used in "the competition for resources" and that the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is the main entity in charge of any such operation. The fact that Russia is about to reinforce its military presence in Central Asia, from 5,000 to 10,000-15,000 troops, further serves to underscore the seriousness with which Moscow views current regional developments.

These concerns are echoed among the Russian analytic community. Andrey Grozin of the CIS institute in Moscow, for instance, recently noted how Central Asia "should be concerned of its security", that "more certainty will be demanded" from the Central Asian countries, and that "the fate of the countries will depend on this choice". Another analyst bluntly claimed that the "preservation of Russia's wholeness begins in the Ferghana Valley". While these Russian statements have been ignored in the West, they irk the regional countries, and Uzbekistan in particular given its recent efforts at rapprochement with the West. Tashkent's offer to the United States on May 12 to use the Navoi Airport as a forward base for  the mission in Afghanistan, together with its recent defiance of Russia-led organizations, have heightened Uzbek fears of a Russian counter-reaction.

Coincidentally, exactly two weeks after the Navoi agreement, Russian forecasts of an impending insurgency in Central Asia proved accurate. On May 26, a number of armed men attacked a checkpoint at the Uzbek town of Khanabad by the Kyrgyz border, the town's Police Department, and the local branch of Uzbekistan's National Security Service, killing at least a dozen people and thus making it the worst attack in Central Asia since 2005. A few days later, a suicide bomber struck the eastern city of Andijan in the Ferghana Valley, claiming the life of a local policeman and wounding several others.

Observers quickly held Uzbekistan responsible for these events. While Russia accused Tashkent for failing to promote stability in the region, Western observers argued that Uzbekistan's hard-line methods were fanning radicalism. Others were content merely to conclude that this upsurge of violence in Central Asia is correlated with the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, seeking no further explanation. Even if there probably is an element of truth in each of these factors, no one asked if Russia is stoking tensions in Uzbekistan deliberately and whether the recent events are but another expression of the infamous "sticks" employed against the Central Asian states.

IMPLICATIONS: The proximity between the attacks in Uzbekistan and its agreement with the United States may be a pure coincidence, or it may simply reflect effective Russian intelligence. Yet the spring of 2009 has witnessed far too many similar coincidences to ignore questions of a potential Russian involvement. The cyber-attack against the Kyrgyz Republic in January, occurring in the midst of President Bakiyev's ongoing negotiations over the future of the U.S. use of Manas airbase, is one example. The pipeline explosion in Turkmenistan, happening four days ahead of Ashgabat's meeting with the German energy company RWE, is another. But would Russia really go so far as supporting forces seeking to destabilize the region?

Given the absence of evidence binding Russia or the FSB to this (or any other similar event, e.g. the cyber-strikes etc.), one should be careful in speculating on its involvement. At the same time, Russia is likely to have acknowledged the fact that the one event which assisted its regional aspirations most in the past decade was the violence in Andijan in 2005. The West's subsequent isolation of Uzbekistan, the U.S. retreat from the country, and Tashkent's U-turn back to Russia served Russian interests more than anything it could have accomplished on its own. And, better, all of it accrued Russia at no cost.

As Uzbekistan is again tilting back to the West and the Russian economy is bleeding, Russia would indeed have the motive to provoke a similar event. A survey of history also suggests that the Russian FSB has used radical Islamic groups earlier, most notably in the apartment bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk of 1999 that triggered the second Chechen War. Some have also accused the FSB of recruiting Daghestani militants to stage the attack on Azerbaijan's Abu-Bekr Mosque in 2008. Moreover, promoting incursions across the borders in the Ferghana Valley has the added benefit of sowing discord among the Central Asian states. Following intensified coordination among the Central Asian states to raise the bargaining power vis-à-vis Russia, most evidently in the recent natural gas negotiations with Gazprom, Russia likely has an interest in rekindling local border conflicts to prevent healthy ties between them, and to find an excuse to militarize the region itself.

The same preparatory gestures of a "military conflict" have also been employed elsewhere. The invasion of Georgia last summer and other interferences in the frozen conflicts throughout the past two decades have been accompanied by similar "forecasts." During the Chechen War, Russian military and law enforcement officials accused Georgia of hosting terrorist groups and threatened to intervene in the country. Even if Russia did not launch a military invasion at that time, Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan got very accustomed to hearing Putin's talk of "pursuing terrorists" in their countries and feared similar treatment as Chechnya.

Russia is today boosting its military presence in Central Asia and is for the first time explicitly threatening to use its military forces to protect its interests in the region. The West has so far failed to acknowledge these warnings but Central Asian officials are constantly attuned. Interlocutors in the region fear, indeed, a conflict brewing – albeit one launched by Russia. That Russia is consciously and selectively inventing the threats it proclaims to combat was perhaps most palpably expressed ahead of the recent SCO summit. While Sedov proposed that the SCO should launch an initiative on preventing cyber-attacks against member-states, another proposal concerned pipeline security. Kyrgyz officials must have been puzzled.

CONCLUSIONS: Given that the Kyrgyz Republic and Turkmenistan both have been targeted this spring in attacks bearing Russia's trademarks, would Russia let Uzbekistan slide to the West with impunity? If not, then one must ask what potential action Russia could undertake against Uzbekistan that would serve all of its goals at once in the cheapest possible way. Stirring instability in the Ferghana Valley and provoking the Uzbek government is a method with proven success. It fans border tensions and prevents Central Asian cooperation, triggers violence from organs of the interior ministries which has proven so effective in deterring Western engagement, whilst simultaneously legitimizing a Russian military presence. In total, this gives Russia a carte blanche to dominate the region and "divide and rule" among the republics. At best, threats alone may be sufficient for Russia to strong-arm Uzbekistan and the other Central Asian states to toe Moscow's line. At worst, Russia may consider sponsoring groups that could do the work for them. So far, the West has failed to adequately acknowledge these Russian gestures and the constraints under which the Central Asian countries operate. As Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are signaling a willingness to engage with the West even in the face of these threats, now is the time to do so.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Nicklas Norling is a Research Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center and a PhD Candidate at Johns Hopkins University-SAIS.