Russia’s Military Operations in Ukraine: The Central Asian States’ Decision Was Obvious

2 March 2022, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning Russia’s  “Invasion” to Ukraine and demanding the immediate withdrawal of Russian armed forces from that country. Russia on its behalf calls it the “ Special Military Operation”. By the result of votes its clear how regional aspects, historical past of Central Asian countries influence their “choice”.

By accepting Russia’s big influence in their economic and security lives, Central Asian countries have tried to conduct “multi-vector” foreign policies. These countries know that having good (or at least balanced) relations with Russia, China and the United States is important in the long term. But this time that balancing act became much harder, almost not impossible, after the conflict between  Ukraine and  Russia.

In the final tally, UN General Assembly resolution  was supported by 141 of the assembly’s 193 members, with just five voting against it and another 35 abstaining. The countries who voted against are Russia itself, Eritrea and Russia’s three reliable friendly states – Belarus, Syria and North Korea. Despite close economic ties with Russia, not a single Central Asian country has supported President Vladimir Putin’s Military operation in Ukraine. But none of them voted against Russian operation: Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan  abstained and Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan did not participate in the vote at all.

Russia’s Military Operations in Ukraine caused a mixed reaction in the post-Soviet countries, including Central Asia. In some countries, the level of this reaction can only be judged by social networks. In other countries, the reaction against Moscow’s actions has even gone as far as protests and demonstrations. At the same time, the presence of a sufficient number of supporters of Vladimir Putin who support the attack of Russian troops on the territory of a neighboring country is striking. However, at the official level, all countries in the region adhere to an uncertain position until the end of the conflict. But Moscow can demand a clearer position from its allies. None of Central Asian states willing to harm their relations with West under the threat of sanctions but at the same time they are willing to preserve their relations with Russia, especially after they have seen the Ukraine “experience”.  

 “The reaction of the countries of the region to Ukraine is expected and shows that the issue is very sensitive and controversial. All countries know that in fact they do not recognize the grounds for starting hostilities in Ukraine. At the moment, they are all very close and dependent on Russia, and they cannot speak negatively about the situation in Ukraine,” said Emil Juraev, a professor at the American University of Central Asia from Kyrgyzstan.

With close economic ties and millions of migrants working in Russia, it was widely expected that Central Asia would see the negative impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine and the Western sanctions that followed to punish Moscow for the Military operations. According to Russian government figures, more than 7.8 million migrants from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan were registered in 2021. Migrants from Central Asia used to work not only in Russian Federation but also in Ukraine, most of them from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. By now they had to go back to their countries and look for job there if its possible to find any.  Even the  largest economy of this region- Kazakhstan felt the strain as its national currency- tenge, rapidly lost its value, largely following the ruble.

These 5 states decided to take this position and the officials prudence  is expected . Three countries in the region – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – are members of the CSTO military-political bloc supervised by Moscow. Uzbekistan is not a member of the CSTO, but the Uzbek and Russian economies are still closely linked. Turkmenistan almost never speaks out on foreign policy issues, and its  officials strongly advise against speaking out in public about anything at all.

Due to the historical community and geographical, socio – cultural proximity – which is primarily associated with a long coexistence within the framework of the Russian Empire and the USSR the relations between Russia  and Central Asia are the closest in all spheres. Undoubtedly, it is also important that Russia maintains and seeks to develop with the states of the region a number of joint integration institutions which are platforms for interactions. Among them, the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Eurasian Economic Union (formerly the Customs Union) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. At the same time the deepening crisis in relations with the West, the Russian Federation reserves the right to be the main external partner for the Central Asian countries.

Moreover CA is the market for Russian goods. Here, a significant share of Russian exports of food, machinery and transport equipment and, in recent years, textile products. The main flow of labor is sent from Central Asia to Russia-migrants. The region is a major supplier of energy resources, which are transported through Russia to the EU markets. Russia seeks to take a stronger position in the region, focusing on strengthening cooperation in the energy and defense sectors.

 One more platform of tight relations of Russian Federation and Central Asian countries is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)-the members are four of the five countries of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan). And although Turkmenistan is not formally a member of the SCO, nevertheless, it is de facto also involved in the processes of interaction with the member countries of this Organization – Russia and China.  So the Central Asian countries’ connection is very strong with Russia within Shanghai Organization also because  of Chinese presence-which is the biggest economic investor to Central Asian countries by One Belt One Road programme. After the Ukraine and Russian conflict we can clearly see that by the need to jointly confront the United States, China has chosen to form a strategic alliance with Russia. Before the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin  signed 15 significant cooperation agreements covering a wide range of geopolitical and trade areas.  This kind of cooperation at such a time is undoubtedly an expression of commitment to and support of Putin, which increases Russia’s ability to resist Western economic sanctions.

According to these circumstances Central Asian countries have to keep neutral position in order to save good relations with two neighbouring countries which they are dependent to.

Aisulu Duishalieva
Aisulu Duishalieva
Aisulu Duishalieva, was born in Kyrgyzstan, a PhD student at Zhou Enlai School of Government in Nankai University, China. After the graduation from Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University came to China for Research work by UNESCO/China “The Great Wall” Programme (2011-2012). 2015- got the the Master’s Degree at Nankai University, major International Relations. Took part in composing the first “Politological encyclopedia of Kyrgyzstan”20, published 6 papers about the Culture of Political protests in scientific journals of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Russia.