By Deirdre Tynan
With the planned US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 looming ever closer, Russia is pressing to solidify strategic relationships with Central Asian states, especially with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Since the start of 2012, Moscow has provided military hardware worth $16 million to the to the Kyrgyz National Security Committee’s border service. Russia also has ratified an agreement covering border-control cooperation with Tajikistan, a pact signed in Dushanbe last September. That agreement ensures “the preservation of the Russian presence in Tajikistan [and] participation of Russian representatives in the improvement of state border protection and the operational border security of the Republic of Tajikistan.”
The bulk of US and NATO forces are supposed to be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, with Afghan security forces taking the lead in battling the Taliban insurgency. Confidence is not running high in Moscow, or in other world capitals, that Afghan forces are equal to that task. The extent to which the scheduled US and NATO withdrawal in Afghanistan will create or exacerbate regional security issues is still difficult to measure, said Paul Quinn-Judge, the Central Asia director of the International Crisis Group.
“Psychologically, the US drawdown in Afghanistan could impact security in Central Asia quite a lot. In actual terms, however, it is hard to tell,” Quinn-Judge said. “It is not clear how much of a threat will emanate from Afghanistan. Will this free up Central Asia Islamists to return to Central Asia, for example? Do they have the capacity to challenge security in a country like Uzbekistan? These sorts of questions are completely open. No-one seems to have enough reliable information to make a plausible case either way.”
Moscow’s gift of military hardware to Bishkek makes it clear that Russian leaders are worried about the ability of Central Asian states to address regional security threats. Speaking at a hand-over ceremony in Bishkek , Vladimir Pronichev, the head of Russia’s border service, warned; “There are tough tasks ahead of us. Trans-border crime is gathering pace in Kyrgyzstan. We know what kind of difficulties Kyrgyz border troops are facing. We intend to continue developing cooperation and our friendship.”
The equipment delivered in mid-January represents about half of the Russian military aid to be delivered to Kyrgyzstan under a program dubbed Brothers Fighting for Fixed Borders, according to Col. Artur Bayduletov, deputy commander of the border service at the Kyrgyz National Security Committee.
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev has often described Russia as Kyrgyzstan’s “main strategic partner,” and has stressed that cooperation between Moscow and other former Soviet republics is essential for future regional security. “It is only jointly developed and implemented measures that will be effective in our fight against terrorism, extremism, drug trafficking, illegal migration and other threats,” he said.
The current level of Russian border assistance to Kyrgyzstan does not indicate that the Kremlin is embracing a “worst-case” scenario for the region, Quinn-Judge said. “If the Russians were seriously worried, you would expect a more serious deployment of forces and equipment. Absent that, the weapons delivery seems more like a gesture of good will towards a government that, Moscow hopes, will be a little more consistent and compliant than its predecessor,” he said.
Deirdre Tynan is Bishkek-based reporter specializing in Central Asian affairs.