Opinion / Politics

Putin Expanding Russia’s Reach in Central Asia

AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis

putinAs 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.


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Hal
12 days ago

Plans of the Ruskies is to be Pootin’ on Central Asia … China excluded. But the Pootin’s troops better be careful not to irk the Chinese!!!! It is tempting to wish for a clash twixt those two Commie regimes. I marvel at times how the manage to avoid each other … probably knowing it would have ultra-long unsavory consequences. So, they each try to bedevil other Nations that they think they can bully.

Philip Hammersley
13 days ago

As long as Putin is staying in his zone, China likes it. Should Putin get into conflict with Xi’s goals, he will find China will take care of him permanently. Russia has a weak economy while China will, if Biden has any say in it, overcome America’s preeminence economically and become #1.

Hal
12 days ago

You have a good point. It exposes Pootin’s choice to go after Ukraine.

MJB
15 days ago

If we had a competent leader, Putin could have been eliminated when he went to Iran a few weeks ago! Until someone cuts the head off of the snake, then the snake will continue to bite innocent people and inflect harm.

Putin’s aim is to reconstruct the former Soviet Union at any cost.
We should talk to Israel and ask them to use their Mossad to do what needs to be done to rid the world of tyrannical leaders like Putin! God knows that the USA doesn’t have the leadership to do anything about Putin!

anna hubert
13 days ago
Reply to  MJB

That is the aim of his game

Hal
12 days ago
Reply to  MJB

Yes, Pootin has determined it would be politically easier and safter to do his pootin’ on the Ukraine

Sid
15 days ago

Who cares?

Cindy
15 days ago
Reply to  Sid

God cares , Which is beyond earthly understanding. Eventually even YOU will benefit from God’s responses. Can’t you see LITTLE UKRAINE IS STILL STANDING, not just from USA’S HELP it’s all GOD?

Hal
14 days ago
Reply to  Sid

I can’t get it out of my mind that China should be “caring” a lot. But they know it would be devastating for both Nations to go to war with each other because if that happens, it would be almost unbelievably savage and put both Countries in a weakened state of economic capabilities. The leadership and much of the citizenry has a brutal and savage tolerance for human destruction of enemies. But world peace would probably be nicer for a few decades without those pugilistic Commie Nations threating the world’s Nations.

Max
16 days ago

This move by the Russians should be no surprise to anyone. Putin want the emergence of the Russian empire by any means. Intimidation and threats have been constantly used by the Russians.

PaulE
15 days ago
Reply to  Max

Putin has no intention of giving up on that goal. It is essentially is lifelong dream to reconstitute the old Soviet Union in all its glory or at least as much as is viable with the means at his disposal. The so-called sanctions against Russia only effect about half the world, when you look at who is abiding by them and who is ignoring them. Even for the half that are abiding by the sanctions, the sanctions themselves have so many exceptions, intentional ommissions and other holes, that they are accomplishing little but punishing the people of western Europe at this point. Just look at the list of exceptions for countries like Germany and France and then say with a straight face that the sanctions are really going to impact Russia in a major way.

So as long as India, China and several other economically significant countries around the world continue to refuse to be part of the nations economically sanctioning Russia, the net effect on Russia is ZERO. India and China are buying up multiple times of their daily purchases from Russia as elevated proces that still are cheaper than the open market price of oil. I’ve looked at the available data on the volumes of oil India and China from Russia and Putin is actually making more money now than he was before he invaded Ukraine.

That’s the problem with most of these articles written by political commentators. They only skim the surface and either don’t report or don’t understand the underlying economics of the conditions on the ground. The smaller former Soviet satellite countries or marginal players are largely irrelevent in the broader economic picture that allows Putin to not only continue this war, but actually prosper as it drags on. Of course third world countries will continue to buy Russian oil at somewhat discounted prices compared to the spot market, but that is still multiple times of what the price of oil was say just a few years ago.

Max
15 days ago
Reply to  PaulE

Agree.

Hal
14 days ago
Reply to  PaulE

You say that Pootin’ wants to restore Russian to its former “glory”… so far all he has restored is Russia’s penchant to restore its “gory.”

Buster Rabbit
16 days ago

Vlad “choose” to cut oil

David Millikan
16 days ago

Keep up the good work AMAC. You’re reporting and articles are excellent.

Admin
16 days ago
Reply to  David Millikan

Thank you, David. Your feedback is greatly appreciated.

Good day!

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