Putin's Ploys in Central Asia

And His Weakening Influence in the Region

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R), Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev (C), and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko take part in a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Union in Astana, May 29, 2014. Mikhail Klimentyev (RIA Novosti, Kremlin) / Reuters

Even with Russia’s recent intervention and bombing campaign in Syria and its annexation of Crimea in eastern Ukraine in the spring of 2014, the country’s largest external military presence, at least officially, is still in Tajikistan. Russia has 5,900 troops stationed there and aims to raise that number to 9,000 by 2020. Next door, at its air base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan, Russia is renewing its fleet of fighter jets and attack helicopters.

Russia claims that its buildup in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan comes out of concern for the growth of Islamist terrorism along Central Asia’s southern border with Afghanistan. But there is more to it than that. The moves are part of Russia’s goal to assert its influence over the entire region. In line with that effort was the proposal, a month after the Taliban seized Kunduz in September 2015, to create a shared Commonwealth of Independent States border force to respond to such threats along the Central Asian border with Afghanistan.

At the same time Russia has been expanding its security borders, it has been closing its physical ones, mostly to migrants from the very countries in which it has built a military presence. Since January 2015, Russia has introduced more stringent visa regulations for migrants, including admission tests and higher fees. Immigration authorities have deported thousands of migrants and added hundreds of thousands of names to the country’s reentry ban list, which prevents those named from returning for three, five, or ten years for infractions such as overstaying a visa. Besides being a human rights issue, the closing of the borders is an economic problem for the Central Asian countries. Tajikistan is, by share of GDP, the most remittance-dependent country in the world. Kyrgyzstan is the second. Uzbekistan is in the top ten. Restricting migration to Russia is, in many ways, the same as cutting foreign assistance, except perhaps more damaging.

The pressure, Russia hopes, will compel the Central Asian states to join its Eurasian Economic Union, which was founded in 2014

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