Saturday, June 29, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Now Arming Both Sides in Yet Another Post-Soviet Hotspot

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 29 – Moscow’s decision to sell arms to Azerbaijan while continuing to be the main weapons supplier to Armenia has attracted widespread attention given the potential for a renewal of fighting between those two countries, but now the Russian government is selling arms to two countries in Central Asia that also are involved in a serious conflict.

            This past week, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu announced that Moscow intends to begin supplying arms to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.  Kyrgyzstan will get 1.1 billion USD in arms, while Tajikistan will receive a fifth of that amount, extraordinary figures for two small and poor countries.

            This decision has prompted Andrey Ivanov, a commentator for “Svobodnaya Pressa,” to ask “against whom” are these arms being directed and to conclude that these sales are less about conflicts among the countries within the region than between the Russian Federation and the United States for influence there (

            But even if that is the primary motivation, such provision of weapons systems to countries already engaged in border skirmishes has the potential to escalate such violence among these countries and also to implicate those supplying them with weapons in conflicts that they may not want or even understand.

            Border conflicts involving Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan and Tashkent’s recent decision to withdraw from the Russian-led Organization of the Collective Security Treaty, Ivanov suggests, “provide a basis for suggesting the possible rapid split of Central Asia,” something even more likely after the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan.

            But the situation is even more complicated, the commentator continues, because what is taking place in the region is “the formation of blocs of states oriented toward varioius world powers,” with the US wanting “Uzbekistan as a place des armes for the dissemination of its influence” and Russia seeking to prevent that from happening.

            Tensions are rising between Uzbekistan, on the one hand, and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, on the other, with Dushanbe charging Tashkent with attacking its territory and population and proposing to withdraw Tajiks from the frontier. At the same time, Tashkent has indicated that it “does not exclude” the possibility of war with Tajikistan if the latter doesn’t change its position on water flows.

            Given that division of the region, Ivanov continues, Moscow’s decision to supply arms to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan “looks completely logical,” although the amount of equipment seems astronomically high given the size of the militaries of those two countries. But of course, some of the money is payment for Kyrgyzstan’s decision to expel the US from its base there while keeping the Russians in theirs.

            Ivanov spoke with two experts about these various moves, Valery Korovin, the director of the Moscow Center for Geopolitical Analysis, and Dmitry Verkhoturov, an orientalist who writes frequently on the geopolitics of Central Asia and adjoining regions of the world.

            Korovin said that the arms sales now reflect divisions among the Central Asian countries that have arisen since the demise of the Soviet Union. For most of the last two decades, Moscow was “passive” and Washington succeeded in “re-orienting” many of those states toward the West. The arms sales show that Moscow is now back and ready to play an expanded role.

            This is no easy task, he continued, and as a result, there is “a real geopolitical battle” going on, in the first instance in Kyrgyzstan.  “We almost lost this country,” Korovin said,” but each attempt by Moscow to recover its influence has ended with another ‘color’ revolution.” Nonetheless, the Russian government has to continue to try in order to keep US bases as far away from the country’s southern borders as possible.

            Working in Russia’s favor in this regard, he suggested, is that those countries which have chosen to be allies of the US have suffered from instability while those that have selected “Russia as their main partner can guarantee themselves both security and relative economic stability as well.”
            Because of this, Korovin argued, “the situation in the post-Soviet space is arranging itself in such a way that all the former republics will return to the orbit of influence of Russia,” not by sacrificing their sovereignty but precisely because the governments in these countries want to maintain it.
            Verkhoturov reinforced that view. He suggested that Uzbekistan leader Islam Karimov is not interested in playing the role of regional hegemon in the way that the United States wants and consequently, a more general split and conflict among the countries of Central Asia is not very likely.

            And the orientalist concluded that after the US withdraws from Afghanistan next year, Uzbekistan will be even less interested in playing the role that Washington wants it to and that Tashkent will once again look to Moscow to be the arbiter of water and security issues in Central Asia.

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