How Russia Lost Its Grip on Central Asia

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Russian President Vladimir Putin demonstrated with the invasion of Ukraine in February of this year that he will go to extreme lengths to preserve, even reinvigorate, what he considers the rightful legacy of the Russian Empire.[1] However, Tsar Putin’s[2] seemingly countless military setbacks in Ukraine[3][4] point towards a truth not as broadly apparent until this year: Russia is in full decline as a political power. Nowhere is a better example than Central Asia. With little fanfare, the dominant power in Central Asia has already changed. Russia is out, and China is in. Through a combination of China’s targeted infrastructure investment into the region,[5][6][7][8] Russian economic deterioration,[9][10] and China’s meteoric economic rise,[11] the states of Central Asia underwent a decades-long shift that brought them out of the Russian orbit and into that of China. Russia now stands as a weakened state, and China is stepping into the vacuum, reaping the benefits in the process

A History of Dominion

The region commonly referred to as Central Asia encompasses the states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan[12] – a swath of territory spanning over three million square kilometers with just over 70 million inhabitants.[13] Residents from these countries have long lived at the crossroads of great empires and are as diverse in language and culture as their historical occupiers. Notably, the arid steppes nd mountains of Central Asia conceal vast natural resources, the foundation of the region’s primarily export based economy.[14] Over the last century and a half, Central Asia has primarily been the domain of Russia, first under the rule of the Tsars as a part of the Russian Empire and then as member states of the Russian-dominated Soviet Union.[15] However, Odd Arne Westad, Elihu Professor of History and Global Affairs at Yale’s Jackson School of Global Affairs, says, “the period of Russian ascendancy has been a kind of aberration in a broader historical pattern.”[16] Professor Westad, who specializes in the history of the Cold War and China-Russia relations, says that Central Asia had been the realm of various Chinese empires up until the late 19th century, when the Russian Empire expanded eastward.[17] The close proximity of the Soviet Union’s Central Asian holdings to China’s western frontier, Xinjiang, and Mongolia (a key buffer state between the two countries) contributed to rising tensions between the two communist superpowers in the mid-20th century.[18] “China clearly regarded Soviet domination in Central Asia, including Soviet Central Asia… as being illegitimate, and underlined the need of these peoples to have their own states and their own futures,” Westad states, describing a fundamental opposition in China held during the 20th century over Russian control of the region.[19]

China Steps In

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the newly independent Central Asian states found themselves in a new regional order very similar to the last.[20] Russia remained the dominant economic power early in the century, purchasing a plurality of Central Asian exports and contributing billions to the economies of Central Asia both in direct investment and remittances from migrant workers.[21] But even as Russian investment kept flowing into the region, the Russian domestic economic situation fluctuated greatly, subject to downturns as a result of the 2008 financial crisis and instability in the oil markets.[22] While undergoing slight economic growth throughout this period, the Russian economy lagged behind increasingly prosperous neighbors in Eastern Europe, and, more importantly, China.[23][24] This relative decline opened up an opportunity for China to replace Russia as the dominant economic partner for the region.

It is no secret that China has undergone explosive economic development over the past several decades.[25][26] A combination of increased free market regulations domestically and a surge in the demand for cheap manufacturing produced overseas allowed the Chinese economy to take off with unprecedented growth.[27] China’s growing economy has expanded trade on all fronts, including in Central Asia. By 2016, China had traded more yearly with four of the five Central Asian states than Russia did.[28] China was also the number one trading partner for three of these states.[29] This illustrates a level of economic supremacy in the region that has superseded Russia’s. China has not only increased trade with the region but has placed special emphasis on direct investment and support of infrastructure projects in Central Asia. Chinese President Xi Jinping announced China’s new “One Belt One Road” initiative in 2013, or more simply the Belt and Road Initiative,[30] a program with specific emphasis on developing infrastructure in Africa, Central Asia, and other parts of the globe.[31] China has since spent billions of dollars in direct investment payments to Central Asia. This includes working on projects from a China-Central Asia Pipeline[32] to rail and highway linkages between China and Europe across Central Asia.[33] The nations of Central Asia have also increasingly racked up larger and larger amounts of debt owed to China in large part because of these projects. China holds almost half the debt of Tajikistan, and billions of dollars more in the other states.[34] The near uniform decline of Russian economic power in Central Asian states combined with military weakening due to the war in Ukraine has begun to lead to the diminution of Russian political dominance in the region as well.[35] This is a trend that will only continue as Russian authority in the region continues to deteriorate.

But Russian influence in the region is not entirely diminished. Take the crisis earlier this year in Kazakhstan. When widespread protests threatened the survival of the regime there, Russian troops poured across the border to intervene.[36] The presence of Russian soldiers played a large part in quelling the dissent and demonstrates the hard power the Kremlin still has in the region. However, this military action should be seen as a remnant of the past political order in the region, not an indicator of continued Russian dominance, Arne Westad argues.[37] “If you look at everything, starting with economic relations but also now moving into political and strategic relations, it’s pretty clear that China is the one on the ascendancy” he asserts.[38] China’s grip on Central Asia is only more likely to solidify as Russian soldiers remain bogged down in Ukraine and sanctions limit Russia’s ability to exert significant economic influence beyond its borders.

The Central Asian Perspective

China’s replacement of Russia has been met with mixed reactions by the people of Central Asia. A key concern held by some people in Central Asian is China’s pattern of human rights abuse in Xinjiang.[39] The people of Central Asia share deep cultural connections with the Uyghur people of China’s westernmost province.[40] This has inspired much citizen activism in drawing attention to the indoctrination camps in Xinjiang, which also imprison numerous people of non-Uyghur Central Asian ethnicity, such as Kazakhs.[41] Central Asian governments, afraid of angering China, have responded to citizen attempts to draw attention to the abuses by harassing and suppressing activists looking to draw attention to this issue.[42] Much like the Chinese government, the Central Asian states are largely regarded as authoritarian and engage in their own human rights abuses.[43] The regional realignment with another authoritarian power is likely only to reinforce this status quo.

There is also alarm in the region about how two-sided an economic relationship with China these states can expect. Some fear that China’s economic policies will be purely extractive, looking to direct as many natural resources as possible into China’s growth, failing to make substantial investments in the long-term health and development of the region.[44] Also of concern is that these countries will become entirely dependent on China economically.[45] China would have such influence, the worry goes, that it would be able to effectively control how the states act—regardless of the states’ own interests.[46] The people of Central Asia are likewise concerned about the increased role of Chinese business eroding their own economic and cultural standing.[47] The people have responded with waves of Sinophobia and protest;[48][49] however, this has not dissuaded Central Asian leaders from continuing towards the path of economic growth offered by Chinese involvement.[50] This wealth, while enriching the elite and governments of these states, is unlikely to generate substantial improvement in socioeconomic problems that affect the region.[51]

A New Future for Central Asia

As it stands, the Central Asian states will continue their turn towards China – with seemingly little alternative.[52]  Fears of Chinese dominance and exploitation in the region have been set aside (for now) in favor of dreams of a prosperity that Chinese trade will provide.[53] China, for its part, has added guaranteed itself even more global influence, bringing the Central Asian states – and their abundance of resources – into the Chinese sphere. Central Asia has the resources to fuel the economic heartbeat of the Chinese political machine,[54] making China’s dream of becoming a global superpower[55] a very near reality. And where is Russia? Trapped in Ukraine, with a struggling economy that stands no chance of catching up with the Chinese juggernaut. The region is all but uncontested: Central Asia has officially left the Russian Empire and has walked right into China’s open arms.


References:

[1] Berman, Paul. “The Intellectual Catastrophe of Vladimir Putin.” Foreign Policy, March 13, 2022. https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/03/13/putin-russia-war-ukraine-rhetoric-history/.

[2] Troianovski, Anton. “Putin the Great? Russia’s President Likens Himself to Famous Czar.” The New York Times, June 9, 2022, sec. World. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/09/world/europe/putin-peter-the-great.html.

[3] Washington Post. “Ukraine Hammers Russian Forces into Retreat on East and South Fronts.” October 4, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/10/04/russia-retreat-kherson-lyman-ukraine/.

[4] “After Battlefield Setbacks in Ukraine, Putin Orders Mobilisation.” Al Jazeera. September 21, 2022. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/9/21/russia-reacts-to-ukraine-success-mobilisation-polls-and-threats.

[5] Snow, Shawn. “Central Asia’s Lukewarm Pivot to China.” The Diplomat, August 16, 2016. https://thediplomat.com/2016/08/central-asias-lukewarm-pivot-to-china/.

[6] Nurgozhayeva, Roza. “How Is China’s Belt and Road Changing Central Asia?” July 9, 2020. https://thediplomat.com/2020/07/how-is-chinas-belt-and-road-changing-central-asia/.

[7] Aminjonov, Farkhod, Alina Abylkasymova, Anna Aimée, Bahtiyor Eshchanov, Daniyar Moldokanov, Indra Overland, and Roman Vakulchuk. “BRI in Central Asia: Rail and Road Connectivity Projects.” SSRN Scholarly Paper. Rochester, NY, 2019. https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=3505258.

[8] Global Times. “New China-Turkmenistan Natural Gas Field in Operation.” Global Times, June 20, 2022. https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202206/1268601.html.

[9] Denis Volkov and Andrei Kolesnikov. “The Coming Deluge: Russia’s Looming Lost Decade of Unpaid Bills and Economic Stagnation.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. November 21, 2021. https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/11/24/coming-deluge-russia-s-looming-lost-decade-of-unpaid-bills-and-economic-stagnation-pub-85852.

[10] Ben Aris and Ivan Tkachev. “Long Read: 20 Years of Russia’s Economy Under Putin, in Numbers.” The Moscow Times, August 19, 2019. https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/08/19/long-read-russias-economy-under-putin-in-numbers-a66924.

[11] Raiser, Martin. “China’s Rise Fits Every Development Model.” Brookings, October 17. 2019.

[12] Uuriintuya Batsaikhan and Marek Dabrowski. “Central Asia — Twenty-Five Years after the Breakup of the USSR.” Russian Journal of Economics 3, no. 3 (September 1, 2017): 296–320. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ruje.2017.09.005.

[13] Batsaikhan, “Twenty-Five Years.”

[14] Batsaikhan.

[15] Dubnov, Arkady. “Reflecting on a Quarter Century of Russia’s Relations With Central Asia.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. April 19, 2018. https://carnegieendowment.org/2018/04/19/reflecting-on-quarter-century-of-russia-s-relations-with-central-asia-pub-76117.

[16] Odd Arne Westad (Elihu Professor of History and Global Affairs, Jackson School of Global Affairs, Yale University), in discussion with the author, Jackson School of Global Affairs, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, October 5, 2022.

[17] Westad, discussion with the author.

[18] Westad.

[19] Westad.

[20] Dubnov, “Reflecting on Russia’s Relations.”

[21] Batsaikhan, “Twenty-Five Years.”

[22] Andre Kolesnikov and Denis Volkov. “The Coming Deluge: Russia’s Looming Lost Decade of Unpaid Bills and Economic Stagnation.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. November 24, 2021. https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/11/24/coming-deluge-russia-s-looming-lost-decade-of-unpaid-bills-and-economic-stagnation-pub-85852.

[23] Kolesnikov and Volkov, “The Coming Deluge.”

[24] Raiser, “China’s Rise.”

[25] Raiser.

[26] Congressional Research Service, China’s Economic Rise: History, Trends, Challenges, and Implications for the United States. June 25, 2019.

[27] Congressional Research Service, China’s Economic Rise

[28] Dubnov, “Reflecting on Russia’s Relations.”

[29] Dubnov.

[30] Snow, “Lukewarm Pivot.”

[31] Nurgozhayeva, “Changing Central Asia.”

[32] Global Times, “China-Turkmenistan Natural Gas.”

[33] Aminjonov et al., “BRI in Central Asia.”

[34] Dubnov, “Reflecting on Russia’s Relations.”

[35] Auyezov, Olzhas. “‘We Want Respect’: Putin’s Authority Tested in Central Asia.” Reuters, October 18, 2022. https://www.reuters.com/world/we-want-respect-putins-authority-tested-central-asia-2022-10-18/.

[36] Chausovsky, Eugene. “Why Russia Sent Troops Into Kazakhstan.” Foreign Policy. January 7, 2022. https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/01/07/kazakhstan-russia-troops-csto/.

[37] Westad, discussion with the author.

[38] Westad.

[39] Bradsher, Keith. “In the ‘Great Game’ of Central Asia, China’s Leader Seeks the Advantage.” The New York Times, September 16, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/16/world/asia/china-xi-central-asia.html.

[40] Bradsher, “In the ‘Great Game.’”

[41] Ramzy, Austin. “Critic Who Exposed China’s Muslim Camps Is Detained, Even Across the Border.” The New York Times, March 13, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/13/world/asia/china-kazakh-activist-camps-xinjiang-muslims.html.

[42] Ramzy, “Exposed China’s Muslim Camps.”

[43] Nurgozhayeva, “Changing Central Asia.”

[44] Snow, “Central Asia’s Lukewarm Pivot.”

[45] Bradsher, “In the ‘Great Game.’”

[46] Nurgozhayeva, “Changing Central Asia.”

[47] Snow, “Central Asia’s Lukewarm Pivot.”

[48] Snow.

[49] Nurgozhayeva, “Changing Central Asia.”

[50] Snow, “Central Asia’s Lukewarm Pivot.”

[51] Nurgozhayeva, “Changing Central Asia.”

[52] Snow, “Central Asia’s Lukewarm Pivot.”

[53] Snow.

[54] Bradsher, “In the ‘Great Game.’”

[55] Jake Sullivan and Hal Brands. “China Has Two Paths To Global Domination.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. May 22, 2020. https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/05/22/china-has-two-paths-to-global-domination-pub-81908.

Author

Owen Haywood

Owen is a student at Yale University (class of 2026) studying Global Affairs, Economics, and Mandarin Chinese. He currently serves as the 2023-2024 YRIS Interviews Director. Interests include writing, politics (both domestic and international), and any podcast he can get his hands on.

owen.haywood@yale.edu