AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
As the war in Ukraine enters its sixth month, Western sanctions are beginning to exact a devastating toll on the Russian economy, particularly its all-important energy sector. As a result, Vladimir Putin has been forced to look beyond Europe for energy export markets, resulting in increased pressure on Russia’s neighbors in Central Asia – a prospect that should be alarming for Western leaders concerned about the expansion of Russian influence in the region.
This emerging dynamic was on full display earlier this month during a meeting of the foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, five Central Asian nations who have in recent years worked to develop closer cultural and economic bonds. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was a top concern of the conference at Cholpon-Ata, a summer resort in Kyrgyzstan.
Yet, in an acknowledgement of Russia’s dominance of the region, leaders of these nations have had little choice but to work with Russia. Kazakhstan, for example, experienced Russia’s bullying when the Kremlin, annoyed by Kazakh policies that frustrated Russian ambitions, denied access to the Caspian Pipeline Consortium that transports a significant part of Kazakhstan’s oil. Putin himself openly called Kazakhstan an artificial state, the exact phrase he often uses when discussing Ukraine.
Just this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov traveled to Uzbekistan to meet with Central Asian leaders ahead of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit. After a meeting with his Uzbek counterpart in Tashkent, Lavrov told reporters that the two countries had agreed to develop closer bonds with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan – no doubt eager for another market to export Russian energy supplies.
The SCO summit is expected to host a number of high-profile Russian and Chinese leaders along with Central Asian dignitaries – a concerning prospect for the West given closer Russo-Chinese cooperation elsewhere in the world. Notably, no Western leaders were invited. China has already embarked on several major infrastructure projects as part of its “Belt and Road” initiative in Central Asia, and the destabilizing effect of the Ukraine war could lead to these nations in effect becoming vassal states of a Russian-Chinese alliance.
Russia has also proposed a number of projects in the region that could largely reduce its reliance on purchases of energy supplies by the U.S. and Europe, thus executing an end-run around Western sanctions.
One top concern for Western leaders is Russia’s plan to construct a railway connecting Pakistan with Russia via Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Currently, road transport from the Russian border to Pakistan is not only dangerous due to the road and weather conditions, but extremely slow. The mountainous routes are often covered by snow and ice, and it can sometimes take more than six weeks for oil to reach consumers. But with this new track in place, Russia could cut that time to just 22 days, massively increasing profitability.
Russia has also proposed a natural gas pipeline connecting Russia and India via Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, as well as additional smaller pipelines from Russian energy producers to population hubs in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. With the United States and Western Europe cutting economic ties with the Kremlin, India in particular has massively expanded its consumption – and thus its reliance – on Russian oil. Securing an agreement to build pipelines through Central Asia to the country of 1.38 billion could be a game-changer for Putin. With India and China alone, Russia has access to 36% of the world’s population, meaning that if it can build the infrastructure – through Central Asia – to supply those nations with cheap energy, it will no longer rely on Western purchases to keep its economy afloat.
The biggest challenge for Russia in expanding its reach has been financing, as the country has been largely cut-off from the global banking system – something which has also affected economic development in Central Asian countries. Before the eruption of war with Ukraine, for example, the World Bank announced that it agreed to Uzbekistan’s request to finance a 350-mile railway from Mazar-e-Sharif to Peshawar, via the Kabul line. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to a halt in funding over fears that the project could empower Moscow economically.
The Kremlin hopes to have found a new solution by replacing state-run companies – which have all been sanctioned – with new “private” businesses that thus far have avoided sanctions. Additionally, with China as an ally, Russia could gain access to desperately-needed capital to finance its projects.
Ultimately, Central Asian nations stand little chance of fending off Russian influence on their own. With drastically less capable armies, political unrest, and extensive land borders with Russia, concerns about their sovereignty are very real.
For the United States, ignoring this emerging dynamic could prove costly. As it has for thousands of years, Central Asia is at the heart of the globe’s most important trade routes. For Russia, it is the gateway to the Middle East and the rest of Asia, potentially unlocking literally billions of new customers for Russian oil and gas supplies. The Biden administration – and any administration that comes after it – would be wise to address this threat before it grows out of hand.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, and researcher.