After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia found itself in a challenging aftermath by losing control over the former-Soviet countries. In order to reestablish its military position in the region, Moscow decided to focus on the development of armed forces. Indeed, the field of security is an overarching issue that the Russian government has taken into account seriously. Thus, what are Russia’s and the Central Asian states’ other motivations behind the implementation of military bases in the region?
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It is important to note that not so long ago, in 2011, Russia embarked on a military modernization program until 2020 with the value of 1.2 trillion USD.1 For example, according to the annual report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia spent nearly 84.5 billion USD in 2016. Thus, in Russia’s case, it is an enormous amount of national budget that is being spent: since its GDP is only around 1.3 trillion USD – the 12th place in the world (IMF, 2016). Particularly, military modernization is aimed at enhancing weapons, equipment, training, and healthcare of Russia’s troops at home and abroad. Hence, the aspect of security is a focal point of Russian foreign policy, including establishing of military bases in different states of the world. The most important regions for Russia are the territories of former Soviet countries.
The majority of Russia’s facilities and military bases are located in Central Asia, except for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Yet the two countries have military and security ties with Russia in the purchase of weapons. Currently, Russia has its military bases in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. More specifically, military bases and facilities in Kyrgyzstan are at the Kant airbase, testing basis of anti-submarine weapons in Karakol, 338th naval communication station, and seismic station. Tajikistan has 201st Russian military base nearby Dushanbe and optical-electronic center of space control system “window” near Nurek town. However, the largest military facilities of Russia in the CIS are located in Kazakhstan. The total area leased by Russia in Kazakhstan is more than 11 million hectares. There are seven large military bases in Kazakhstan, including the fifth state testing firing field – Baikonur Cosmodrome, private transport aviation regiment in Kostanay, separate radar node in Priozersk, and others. Moreover, all three countries became members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization led by Russia.2
Although the number of foreign states with Russian military bases significantly decreased to ten states – Abkhazia, Armenia, Vietnam, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Syria, South Ossetia, and unrecognized Transnistria – Russia is considering to expand that number.3 The Kremlin assumes that its foreign policy is ineffective unless its military forces are strong enough to put more impact on other countries.
Position of Central Asian states
On a bilateral level, Russia became the major partner of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. On a multilateral level, it leads the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Nevertheless, the presence of military bases in these countries is necessary not only for Russia but also for the Central Asian countries.
Supposedly there are few factors which allow Russia to establish its military bases in Central Asia. First, the Central Asian states are interested in ensuring their own security. For example, an absence of developed military system in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan is a reason to open foreign military objects.4 Second, political issue is very important for the Central Asian countries here. In other words, such partnership globally can be perceived as an illusion of involvement in “big politics”, including antiterrorist operations. In addition, they can rely on the great powers during political turnoils. Third, economic situation plays a significant role in this case too considering rental payments of Russia.
Assuming Kazakhstan’s territory, the closest geographical position to Russia, and well-established military cooperation with Moscow makes Kazakhstan to be a better solution. It has the largest number of Russia’s foreign military objects in Central Asia, which are the only bases on Kazakh soil. All military bases in Kazakhstan are functioning based on a rent payment.5 Whereas almost all military objects of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan operate basing on compensation or free of charge principle.6
The geographic distance of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan from Russia and small territories limit the creation of firing grounds for Russia. Moreover, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have lower investment attraction, while Kazakhstan’s economic position is much higher. Another factor is that Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are very dependent on Russian immigration policy, which impacts “gastarbeiters” working in Russia. Most Tajiks and Kyrgyz people work in Russia and create a significant value of GDP in their countries through remittances. Therefore, if governments of these countries raise the question of rent payment, Russia can toughen immigration laws in response.
As it was mentioned earlier, the major reason for Russia to be engaged in Central Asia is security. There are two categories of danger that Moscow takes into account: non-traditional threats and strategic uncertainties. Non-traditional threats are unregulated migration and drug trafficking, while strategic uncertainties are potential quick shifts of its neighbor countries. According to the authors, “the South (the North Caucasus, Transcaucasia, Central Asia, Iran, and Afghanistan) combines both non-traditional threats as well as strategic uncertainty” (Laruelle and Peyrouse 2013). This can be the most important region to establish military objects in for Russia. In this respect, Russia can employ hard or/and soft security to promote in the South, including Central Asia.
Furthermore, Moscow defines the four main military dangers, which could potentially generate a national security threat: the expansion of NATO to the East, strengthening of foreign troops in the neighboring countries, the destabilization of the political and strategic situation on the borders of Russia, and international terrorism. According to the estimates of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, in 2030 the war for resources in Central Asia and the Arctic can be added to this list.7 In fact, the last argument is very appropriate considering the IV Caspian Summit held in Astrakhan, Russia in 2014.
The five littoral states discussed security issue around the Caspian basin. The major concerns are “to ensure sovereignty, territorial integrity, and border security, while also defending maritime economic interests such as ports and offshore oil and gas installations” (Contessi 2016). Basically, these states built a consensus ruling out any possible involvement of NATO forces in this territory. This way, Russia has been highly successful at blocking any effort to expand NATO into post-Soviet republics. Furthermore, it illustrates that Russia controls Caspian Sea resources through hard security by establishing military bases in Kazakhstan. Through the use of hard security, Russia wants to use hydrocarbon mines, fish stocks, and trade shipping. Yet, soft security is also significant for Russia because of drug trafficking coming from Afghanistan. Heroin is one of the influential factors that can impact the demography of Russia. For example, 10 tons of drugs a year (21% of world consumption) was consumed by Russia, which affected the spread of HIV and AIDS in the state. In other words, Russians die early and had very poor health. This is another threat that comes from the South.
There is no doubt that Russia’s priority is – defense, considering its colossal spendings during an economic crisis. However, such spending can be one of the mechanisms to enhance the country’s economy. Therefore, Russia’s military motivations can be economically as well as politically driven. Yet “soft power” is becoming more effective than “hard power”. In other words, sometimes it is more useful to employ transnational companies, international and non-governmental organizations abroad. It is questionable whether today it is still rational to spend such amount of budget on hard power anyways.
Probably Russia cares about its long-term security only, expecting the potential threat from outside. Its major goal is to restore the authority in the region that it lost. In other words, reasons are the same as they were during the Cold War: to be close to a theater of operations and to protect its allies. Yet another aspect is that the US decreased the number of military troops in Afghanistan in 2014, which increased potential threats for Russia. Thus, the existence of Russian military bases in Central Asia can provide them some leverage over the United States by supporting US logistics via Central Asia.
In general, the presence of foreign military bases in Central Asia significantly impacts the internal as well as international relations of these states. It is important for Russia’s defense capability to establish military bases in Central Asia. Yet the military bases are also significant for Russia’s economic and political development on the international arena. It is important to understand how the Central Asian states interact with Russia. Each one of the five countries differs in terms of their cooperation. These countries care about their security and at the same time, they try to increase their status in front of other superpowers. In most cases, the establishment of military bases abroad is only perceived to be about the issues of security and defense. In fact, it has many other motivations behind it for all the parties involved. It is the matter of time and geopolitics to see how long Russia’s current military bases will be located in Central Asia.
Contessi, Nicola (2015). “Traditional Security in Eurasia. The Caspian Caught between Militarisation and Diplomacy.” The RUSI Journal 160, 2, 50-57.
Laruelle, Marlène and Sébastien Peyrouse (2013). Globalizing Central Asia: Geopolitics and the Challenges of Economic Development. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.
Written by Arman Mussin