As U.S. Exits, Russia Boosts Military Presence in Central Asia

Central Eurasia

As the United States prepares to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and vacate its air base in Kyrgyzstan starting next year, Russia is steadily increasing its military presence in neighboring Central Asia.

On November 10, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced that his country would be reinforcing its presence at its military base in Tajikistan, the largest land forces base Moscow operates outside of Russia. The unit at the base, known as the 201st Military Base, was downgraded from a division to a brigade in 2009, but Shoigu said it would again become a division. The implications of that are not clear, but it suggests a possible increase in the number of troops (currently about 7,000). “By December we will complete this division to about 80 percent, and by the time of elections in Afghanistan and the departure of the coalition forces we will complete it 100 percent with the newest weaponry and military equipment,” he told Russian television.

Russian officials had previously said that they planned to reequip the base, whose equipment is, for the most part, of 1980s vintage, with new vehicles and air defense systems. Shoigu's recent comments suggested that the timeframe for that reequipping would be moved up from 2015 to 2014.

The strengthening of Russian presence in Tajikistan is just the latest in several such moves over the past few weeks. On October 1, Russia cemented its long-term presence at the 201st base, when Tajikistan's parliament ratified the agreement to keep it there until 2042. And following shortly after, a parliamentary delegation from Russia visited Dushanbe, reportedly to begin talks on gaining control of another base in Tajikistan, the Ayni air base.

“In the Russian Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs they understand well that the presence of only land forces in the country does not assure the resolution of the tasks facing the base in this dangerous period [as the U.S./NATO withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan approaches],” wrote the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta in a piece reporting on the negotiations.

Kyrgyzstan has been the other target of Russia's military buildup in Central Asia. In October, Russia said that it would double its presence at its Kant air base in Kyrgyzstan, both in terms of troops and aircraft. And officials in Kyrgyzstan have said that the Dastan torpedo plant in that country, which Russia has long wanted to buy, would be sold – to Russia – this fall.

Much of the Russian expansion in Central Asia is taking place via the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a security bloc consisting of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. In September, the CSTO promised aid to the border forces of Tajikistan to help prepare for potential instability from Afghanistan. And the Russian expansion at Kant, in Kyrgyzstan, would seem to be connected to the CSTO's plans to create a joint air force, based there.

It's not clear to what extent Russia's buildup is occasioned by a genuine concern for regional stability after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and how much Moscow is seizing the opportunity to reestablish its influence in Central Asia. In either case, its efforts are seriously hampered by Uzbekistan's refusal to go along with Russian military cooperation programs, most notably its withdrawal from the CSTO last year. Uzbekistan boasts the largest military in Central Asia and borders Afghanistan, making it a pivotal player in any Central Asian security system. And while Russia has been focusing most heavily on Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, some political analysts in Russia continue to argue that once the threats from Afghanistan start to develop, Uzbekistan's leaders will be forced to accept cooperation with Russia. That may be wishful thinking on Moscow's part, but there is little doubt Russia's plans for Central Asia are ambitious.