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How Two Years Of War In Ukraine Have Changed Central Asia

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) talks to his Kazakh counterpart, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, upon arriving in Astana on November 9.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) talks to his Kazakh counterpart, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, upon arriving in Astana on November 9.

As Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its third year, its effects have been global as the grinding conflict upended political assumptions, battered economies, and opened the door to geopolitical realignment.

Perhaps nowhere have the ripple effects from Russia’s invasion been felt stronger than in Central Asia, where Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have found themselves navigating a very different looking world since February 24, 2022.

Moscow has long been the region’s leading external player, but the war has changed perceptions about Russia within Central Asia that has created openings for China, Turkey, the United States, and the EU.

But after two years of important economic, social, and political changes in Central Asia, what’s next?

To better understand how the war in Ukraine has altered Central Asia, RFE/RL asked five leading experts and journalists to explain how they think the region has changed and where it may be going in the future.

Finding A New Normal With Russia

Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Russia-Eurasia Center in Berlin

Initially, there was a prevailing belief in Central Asia that Russia would become a toxic partner, meaning that cooperation with it would be impossible. However, the past two years of war have revealed a different reality, one where despite Russia's isolation and economic challenges, it remains an important partner for the region.

Temur Umarov
Temur Umarov

Two years on, there are still some sectors of partnership where Moscow is a valuable partner for the authoritarian regimes in Central Asia, while Russia itself also finds the region’s five countries increasingly useful as a window to the unsanctioned world.

Within Central Asia, societal views toward Russia have evolved. People now perceive Russia through a different lens. Surveys conducted by the Central Asian Barometer and Demiscope confirm this shift, highlighting a new trend of prevailing disapproval of its northern neighbor. The war in Ukraine has played a pivotal role in reshaping public sentiment. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has drawn increased attention from the global community toward Central Asia and the region now finds itself in the international spotlight.

Looking ahead, Central Asian nations face a critical agenda. First, they must engage proactively with the international community, but the challenge lies in transforming these external financial and political opportunities into internal progress. Secondly, they need to strike a delicate balance in their relations with Russia and other global players. Avoiding the perception of blind support for Russia's actions while simultaneously avoiding accusations from Moscow of becoming anti-Russian. Achieving this equilibrium will be pivotal for Central Asia's future stability and prosperity.

Putting Kazakh Diplomacy To The Test

Chris Rickleton, RFE/RL Central Asia correspondent in Almaty

In Kazakhstan, just weeks before Russian forces began their bombardment of Ukrainian cities, Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev’s regime required an intervention from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) -- a Moscow-led military bloc -- just to stay afloat, as 238 people were killed in January 2022 during the Central Asian country’s worst independence-era turmoil.

Chris Rickleton
Chris Rickleton

But on the eve of the war, Kazakhstan defied expectations by firmly ruling out the prospect of recognizing Russia-backed separatist entities in eastern Ukraine. Many commentators had seen Toqaev as indebted to Putin for his intervention and Kazakhstan’s neutral stance incurred the collective wrath of Russian lawmakers and Kremlin propagandists.

Some of those commentators made unsubtle references to the 7,600-kilometer border the two countries share -- the longest continuous land border in the world -- and the large ethnic Russian population in Kazakhstan’s northern provinces. But despite the tense rhetoric, Toqaev has managed to keep ties between Moscow and Astana largely stable.

So how has Kazakhstan managed to “sit on two stools,” as Kazakh political commentators put it?

Backing from China has helped.

In September 2022, Chinese leader Xi Jinping made Kazakhstan his first foreign visit since the onset of the coronavirus to Astana. While there, he issued a noteworthy pledge that Beijing would “categorically oppose the interference of any forces in the internal affairs of your country” -- a message, perhaps, to Moscow as much as the West. After that, the hyperaggressive taunting from the north somewhat died down.

This episode highlights how Russia’s war in Ukraine has inspired an international relations renaissance in Central Asia with Toaqev -- a seasoned diplomat -- and Kazakhstan at the center.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (third from right) meets with the five Central Asian presidents in Berlin on September 29.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (third from right) meets with the five Central Asian presidents in Berlin on September 29.

The Kazakh president occupied pride of place next to Joe Biden at the first-ever meeting between a U.S. president and his five Central Asian counterparts on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York in September. Talks in the same format between the five leaders and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz came next, followed by a visit from French leader Emmanuel Macron to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Toqaev has also been sure to strengthen rapport with countries like Turkey, and the Middle East more broadly.

For the Kremlin this diplomatic maneuvering represents a vexing and contradictory new status quo.

On the one hand, the last thing Moscow needs is more isolated, sanctions-stricken allies. But on the other hand, it is becoming impatient for Kazakhstan to pick a stool.

Harnessing New Opportunities

Luca Anceschi, professor of Eurasian Studies at the University of Glasgow

The Central Asian states seem to have successfully navigated the far more polarized geopolitical environment brought by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the regions’ key players, adopted a posture of calculated distance from the Kremlin where they are not seen as Russia’s supporters despite issuing no significant criticism of the ongoing invasion.

Luca Anceschi
Luca Anceschi

This middle ground has come with other benefits and has been kind to leaders with nondemocratic outlooks, as seen by the success experienced by the region’s governments in their drive to regenerate their authoritarian agendas at home.

Since 2022, we have witnessed Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan find ways to prolong the time in office of their established leaders; Turkmenistan complete its dynastic succession; Tajikistan lay the groundwork for its own such succession; and Kyrgyzstan to centralize and personalize the power of its president.

When we look at the economic dimensions of the war, Central Asia has also received some benefits from the invasion. Rises in remittances from Russia -- vital for the region’s poorest economies, namely Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- have dovetailed with increases in bilateral trade with Russia and boosting the region’s prospects for economic growth in the process.

Much will depend on how the West responds in the future and whether these favorable conditions will stay in place in the medium-term. Increased attention on sanctions busting may, for instance, reduce Central Asia’s economic gains from the war, while a more assertive West may make occupying this middle ground more uncomfortable for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

China, Russia, and Central Asia

Giulia Sciorati, fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science

Two years after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, China's stance on Moscow remains a balancing act, although Chinese diplomats have attempted to develop more cohesive rhetoric about the war and stepped up their diplomatic efforts toward Ukraine through high-level meetings and indirect economic support.

Giulia Sciorati
Giulia Sciorati

In the last year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba and a new Ukrainian ambassador to Beijing was appointed -- a position that had been vacant since 2021. Notably, in July 2023, Ukrainian Deputy Economy Minister Taras Kachka visited China, marking the first ranking visit from a Ukrainian official since the war.

This search for balance is no straightforward task. Beijing and Moscow declared a “no limits” partnership shortly before the Kremlin’s invasion and China has at times awkwardly tried to prioritize its relationship with Russia, which is seen as important for jointly pushing back against the West, and its other interests.

In Central Asia, this has seen China carry out a landmark summit with all five countries in May that was followed with a road map for an enhanced economic and political partnership. Beijing has also looked to reshape its global image around the war, selling itself as a neutral peacemaker and unveiling its own outline for how to end the conflict.

Central Asian leaders are welcomed at a ceremony in Xian, China, in May for a high-profile summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Central Asian leaders are welcomed at a ceremony in Xian, China, in May for a high-profile summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Moving forward, one key question for the Central Asian states is how much distance there actually is between China and Russia for them to move through. While Beijing and Moscow do not see eye to eye on every issue, they share many key interests when it comes to the region and the wider neighborhood, as evidenced by their overlapping positions on Afghanistan, Gaza, and Iran.

This limits China’s positive image-building in Central Asia and globally, which remains overshadowed by the country’s prominent cooperation with Moscow.

An Opening For Eurasian Trade

Emil Avdaliani, professor of international relations at the European University in Tbilisi

The war in Ukraine made the Central Asian states become bolder in their foreign policy and has boosted the region’s importance as a corridor for global trade.

Emil Avdaliani.
Emil Avdaliani.

Before February 2022, both the European Union and China found the northern trade route between Asia and Europe via Russia sufficient, as they leveraged Moscow’s extensive rail network and lenient customs practices. At that time the Middle Corridor, stretching from the Black Sea across the Caspian to Central Asia, was largely overlooked, receiving minimal investment or attention from major powers.

But that’s changed since Russia’s invasion, with Western powers, China, Turkey, and smaller states along the route all making efforts to expand it.

For the countries of Central Asia, this means more space. In the case of Kazakhstan, the war gave Astana an opportunity to reassess and reduce its heavy economic reliance on Russia, despite their official alliance and membership in various Russian-led groupings. Kazakhstan has been one of the main drivers behind the Middle Corridor, which has seen new investments and trade volumes rise.

More broadly, the war and subsequent Western sanctions imposed on Moscow have turned Russia into only one among many key players in Central Asia, including the United States, the EU, India, Japan, Iran, Turkey, China, and the Gulf states.

In this vein, the war in Ukraine might have ended an era of Russian domination in Central Asia, which will continue to be eroded by new alternatives, whether they be in the form of trade routes or political partners.

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.