NATO in Central Asia

By Arthur Dunn

The North Atlantic Alliance had engaged regional governments on defense matters since the mid-1990s, when former Soviet Central Asian republics have joined NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) and its related Partnership for Peace (PfP) program.

Both the EAPC and the PfP provide mechanisms through which NATO and its partners can pursue practical defense and security cooperation on a range of issues. Primary objectives of the Partnership are promoting defense reform and increasing participants’ military interoperability with NATO forces. PfP activities also encompass other areas, such as disaster preparedness, arms control and border security, scientific and environmental cooperation. For example, NATO has promoted Internet connectivity between the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus within the framework of the ‘Virtual Silk Highway’ initiative.

The level of participation varies from country to country. Kazakhstan is the most advanced in co-operation, since 2006, it has an Individual Partnership Action Plan. Beginning in 2002, Kazakhstan, and then Kyrgyzstan in 2007, have participated in the Planning and Review Process. Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have limited relations with NATO, but all five Central Asian states have established diplomatic representation at NATO’s headquarters. Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are also represented in the Partnership Coordination Cell.

Central Asian countries featured much more prominently on NATO’s security agenda. It brought to an acute awareness of the region’s importance to the security and stability. Terrorism, ethnic conflicts, human- and drug-trafficking, as well as political and economic instability, pose serious risks that impact beyond the region. Moreover, some of these security challenges threaten the interests of alliance members themselves directly. Say, opium grown in Afghan fields and trafficked through porous Central Asian borders eventually finds its way to Europe and North-America.

However as a major institutional player in Central Asian security affairs NATO has emerged since late 2001. It resulted from the increased Alliance interest following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States and NATO’s takeover of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan in August 2003.

While these troops were deployed, NATO’s role was becoming more prominent. Regional leaders who had carried out collective regional arrangements with Russia and China – from 1992 Tashkent Security Treaty to 1996 Shanghai Treaty – turned their attention to develop political and military relations with the West. They tried to expand their ties with NATO to confront threats caused by their opponents and Islamic fundamentalists.

By taking charge of ISAF, NATO has become engaged in a long-term project to promote stability and security in Central Asia. In line with its enhanced role, Alliance representatives have sought political as well as practical assistance, mainly in the area of logistics, from Central Asian governments. The latter support operation ‘Enduring Freedom’ in Afghanistan by providing so called Northern Distribution Network (NDN) intended for moving supplies, military equipment and troops to the Afghan war front.

Thus, Germany has an air base with 300 men in Termez (Uzbekistan); the United States has similar one in Manas (Kyrgyzstan) and also had a base in Uzbekistan at Karshi-Khanabad; France had troops in Kyrgyzstan and one logistic centre in Dushanbe (Tajikistan), while the Netherlands had an agreement with Kyrgyzstan, allowing the use of Bishkek airport by its F-16 airplanes.

At the end of 2008 the Parliament of Kazakhstan has ratified two memorandums concerning the order and condition of granting the military section of Almaty airport as an alternate airfield for emergency landing of the coalition air force planes taking part in combat actions in Afghanistan. In accordance with the documents Kazakhstan provided aeronautical service without charge. In August 2010 within the framework of PfP program American and British troops have conducted in Kazakhstan a war game ‘Steppe eagle 2010’. After that Astana directed its servicemen to the ISAF.

Though Turkmenistan does not have transit agreements either with the US or with NATO, American warplanes use its air space since 2002. Ashgabat is also a transit centre, through which the transport planes S-5 and S-17 fly and where they are refueled. Besides, commercial companies supply main types of fuels and lubricants through Turkmenistan territory for military bases in Afghanistan, and fuel contractors of the American government periodically buy there fuel without taxing.

At the 2004 Istanbul Summit, NATO leaders affirmed Central Asia’s increased importance by designating it as an area of ‘special focus’. They also decided to station a liaison officer at a regional headquarters in Almaty. His primary mission has been to support implementation of NATO’s cooperation and assistance programs in the region. Furthermore, the summit created the position of Secretary General’s Special Representative for Central Asia and the South Caucasus.

However one cannot say that all business was looking well. Unfortunately practically all these states suffer from a host of internal problems, including organized crime, corruption, poverty, civil strife, Islamist radicalism and economic and environmental devastation. Ruling elites have consolidated political and economic power into their own hands, and turbulences in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan changed the political situation of the region.

Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan has played a very brutal role in Andijan demonstration in May 2005, where a lot of people were killed. It led to a wave of reaction against real and suspected enemies to the regime, including human rights activists and non-governmental organizations. Using the US- and UN-brokered evacuation of Andizhan refugees from Tajikistan to Europe, Karimov accused the West in preparing another ‘Colored Revolution’ and revoked the aforementioned US base rights at the Karshi-Khanabad airport.

> Central Asia Map
Two other principal players at this board are Russia and China. The deployment of NATO troops in Russia’s ‘Near Abroad’ raised Moscow’s speculation about a permanent Western military presence, despite a declaration to the contrary in a joint statement by the US-Russia Working Group on Afghanistan on February 8, 2002 and a following one on April 26, 2002.

Russia tries to pose serious limitations on NATO’s activities. Top-rank Russian officials regularly expressed their grave oppositions to Alliance presence and influence on Central Asia. Thus last October Russian deputy foreign minister declared that the US has to curtail its military presence in Central Asia just after withdrawing from Afghanistan foreign armed contingent. When it comes to dealing with the United States and NATO on security issues in Central Asia, Russia is trying to act tough. One can remind that days after Pakistan closed its borders to the passage of fuel and supplies for the ISAF, for very different reasons the Russians threatened to cut the NDN.

On their hand, the Central Asian states’ features of dependency inherited from the Soviet Union era facilitated the restoration there Russia’s influence. In the issue regional Collective Security Treaty created by Russia and Central Asian states in the first years after the Soviet Union destruction was upgraded to the level of Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

At their summit on December 20, 2011 in Moscow, CSTO leaders unanimously agreed that countries outside the regional security bloc will only be able to establish military bases on the territory of a member-state with the consent of all members. “In order to deploy military bases of a third country in the territory of the CSTO member-states, it is necessary to obtain the official consent of all its members,” Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev said.

At the same time Russia still continues to support the aforementioned NDN preferring America to be present in Fergana Valley rather than Islamists. Kremlin is concerned about the possible collapse of the Kabul regime and for some members of the Russian elite the fear of a Taliban victory overpowered even their deep seated anti-Americanism.

In order to become familiar with Russian approach to the matter it seems expedient to consider the article ‘Influences of the USA Military Policy on Providing Stability in the Central Asia and on the Russian National Interests in the Region’ , by Center for Military-Strategic Studies.

Against the usual background this investigation looks one of the modest. It is acknowledged at least that according to the international law, the counter-terrorist operation approved by the UN Security Council and conducted by the United States and its allies in Afghanistan, corresponds to the UN Charter; its holding by coalition forces is realized for the benefit of security of the region states and is legitimate in terms of national legal norms of Central Asian countries, bordering upon Afghanistan.

It is recognized that the US and their NATO allies’ military operation against Taliban pursues the purposes of destroying the bases for training of international terrorists, suppression of weapons trade, drug trafficking, recovering peace and stability on the territory of the country, and therefore is interest of security of Central Asian countries and Russia as well as their CSTO partners.

The coalition military presence in Central Asia has other positive sides. It has undertaken military-political burden and financial expenses in order to maintain political stability in the region, promote market reforms and social and economic development of Central Asian societies.

It is recognized even that in certain spheres Washington strives for the purposes coinciding with Moscow and its CSTO and SCO partners’ interests. The most important of them are named prevention of growing Islamic radicalism in the region so as the latter does not become a source of the extremism, international terrorism and drug trafficking.

However Washington is blamed for close binding the success of these missions with reliable military-strategic control of the situation and of applying every effort to keep its military presence in the region. It is affirmed that its policy is targeted at forming ‘Big Central Asia’ as well as at involving countries of the region into the sphere of its influence. The American administration allegedly considers Central Asia as an object of expanding ‘zone of responsibility’, which covers ‘arc of instability’ (Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan) and a number of other states of the region. Hereupon it is expected that it will intensify its ‘offensive’ on the Central Asian states and attempts to emboss from there Russia and China.

On this basis the conclusion is made that in the nearest and medium-term perspective the US interests in the region and their corresponding purposes with respect to the Central Asian countries include keeping them in the orbit of American regional and global strategy through economic, military-political, ideological and cultural-humanitarian influence.

As for China, it also regards growing US influence in the region as a threat for its own interests, thus pursuing proximity to Russia. Opposing America’s attempts for establishing a ‘hegemonic’ order, Beijing and Moscow tend to build a multi-polar world – in their own interpretation, of course. For this purpose they expanded their military and financial ties more than ever. In June 2001 together with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan they founded the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). At the July 2005 Summit, SCO member countries called upon the US and the Allies to put forward a timetable for withdrawal of their troops from the region.

Under these ambiguous circumstances Barak Obama has declared last June that troops are to be withdrawn from Afghanistan in 2014. In the next three years, NATO plans to curtail military operations in the country and pass the initiative to the local military services. As the situation enters a new phase, it seems worthwhile to examine what policy of Washington and NATO in Central Asia is the most appropriate.

According to the aforementioned paper, Central Asia is extremely important for Russian national interests for a number of factors: the larger part of Russia’s territory is in Asia and borders upon countries, with which during long time it lived in the united state, whose development was oriented on Russia and was formed by it, whose culture continues to be under influence of Russia as well. In these countries the significant social stratum of Russian-language population lives, which is strongly attracted by Russia. Russia and Central Asian countries are members of common military-political and economic structures, created after the USSR breakup. Bilateral trade turnover of each of these countries with Russia is the largest. In Central Asia there are a number of enterprises of military-industrial complex, which production is grounded on Russian intellectual property, as well as another works of significant interest for Russian investors. Finally, one more important problem for the Russian Federation in the region is establishing at least some control over extracting such strategic raw material as uranium.

It is difficult to consider these considerations seriously, they have not a leg to stand on. Some of them are just fun while another can be applied to numerous similar situations existing in the world. But reasoning like “interests of Russia’s economic security in Central Asia are mainly connected with energy sphere” look much more corresponding to reality.

It is declared that until recently the transit of oil and natural gas from the region was almost completely controlled by the Russian Federation due to its geographical position and ownership of the pipelines. Correspondingly the regrets are expressed that “intervention of other states into the regional economic space (only American investments to the Central Asia largely exceed those of both Russia and China) deeply limits its opportunity to manoeuvre”. The reason of the concerns is that in spite of the fact that Central Asia is the only part of the post-Soviet space where Washington until now did not manage to form the consequent ‘pro-American course’, interest of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan authorities in economic and military cooperation with the West does not guarantee conserving such situation.

Therefore the main purpose of Russian policy in Central Asia is to prevent departing post-Soviet Central Asian republics from Russian economic and geopolitical space, as well as not to allow further diffusion of ‘Near Abroad’ as a ‘belt of security’. And, in author’s opinion, creation of Russian military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan has shifted in its favor a balance of military-political influence and consolidated geopolitical and strategic positions to Russia in the region.

Really, Moscow’s behavior in the region strongly reminds Soviet stereotypes. It is characterized by inconsistency, priority of short-term interests over long-term ones. Stake on military presence remains for Russia to be more acceptable approach, both less expensive (in comparison, for instance, with development of economic and political relations) and rather efficient.

There is a good example that issues of oil and gas export from Central Asia and routes of their supply have become not an economical but a political problem. Together with some Central Asian members Russia conducted in September 2011 a major CSTO military exercise. It was officially aimed at countering threats posed by the potential spread of jihadists from Afghanistan. However, it also involved naval manoeuvres in the Caspian Sea, though terrorists are unlikely to engage in naval battle. Actually the exercise was targeted at preventing the construction of an alternative Trans-Caspian gas pipeline between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. It evidences that Kremlin seeks to utilize the military alliance for pursuing its own objectives.

Western policy in Central Asia in general has the next long-term goals: growing stability; tackling drug-trafficking and organized crime; non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; preventing migration; creating versatile and efficient system of oil and gas delivery to European and other markets for reducing dependence on Russian energy monopoly. It seems quite logical to involve Alliance in solving these problems since military-political methods include following basic components:

- creating and maintaining in operative readiness the whole infrastructure of the military bases disposed at the Middle East for quick buildup military presence in Central Asia;
- developing forms and methods of operative interaction between the US military headquarters and armies of partner countries in conditions of the possible complication of military-political situation in some country of the region;
- forming partner relations and military-technical cooperation between military departments of the US and Central Asian states.

Surely Russia will be very much displeased since it maintains extremely negative attitude towards the expansion of NATO as well as to bringing its military infrastructure closer to the Russian borders. It looks inevitable that the having become a president, Vladimir Putin will continue his line on confrontation with the West. And there are no doubts that all means including the CSTO will be used for it.

In the 1990s, some Central Asian countries have received military assistance from Russia. The Russian military academies continued to train their officers. Furthermore, Russia offered these states weapons and equipment at its internal prices.

Having Russia as a neighbor and being landlocked the Central Asian countries have been always limited in choosing partners for cooperation. The deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan, the European Union’s energy dependence on Russia, and the Russian-Georgian war have led them to the perception of very small space for manoeuvre. As a result the Russian influence being noticeable on political, military, and economic levels.

Taking into account the NATO enlargement and the foreign military bases in Central Asia and considering CSTO as an opportunity to extend its dominance over former Soviet republics, Moscow launched a diplomatic offensive to reinforce its positions.

Thus, establishment of the CSTO Rapid Reaction Forces should be viewed as an extension of the Russian influence, especially in the South. Emphasizing the threats coming from Afghanistan and NATO’s problems in managing the situation, Russia attempts to portray itself as a better security solution for the Central Asian countries.

NATO’s activity in the CIS has always been regarded by Moscow rather as a threat than as a factor of stability or security cooperation. Therefore, restricting the organization’s activities was Russia’s constant objective. It has been helped by NATO’s internal uncertainty: first, the organization had difficulties in finding adequate motivations and activities for the Central Asian states’ security needs, and, second, the security assistance programs offered limited financial resources.

Fortunately, appeal to CSTO to confront NATO looks nothing more than putting on a false front. The limits of Russia’s ability to reassert its economic and military power in the region seem to have been reached, although the Kremlin itself may still be having difficulty accepting this.

Firstly, the CSTO member states have quite different views concerning purposes and problems of the organization. Russia sees in it a rudiment of the USSR that is highly valued in Kremlin for purely psychological considerations. Besides, Moscow considers the territories of its allies as some kind of forward defensive positions at the most important strategic direction. They, on their part, consider Russia as a country, which will wage war instead of them in the event of not only external aggression, but also of internal conflict.

Eventually it looks strange but Uzbekistan is a potential enemy for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Astana and Tashkent are in confrontation on the subject of who is leader in Central Asia from the moment of the USSR disintegration. And Dushanbe and Bishkek are simply afraid of the powerful neighbor with quick-growing population, which exert influence upon them by Uzbek ethnic minority.

Some underlying tensions have been revealed even at the last CSTO summit where the Rapid Reaction Forces were established. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan had concerns over the legal issues and the precise terms under which the new force structure could be used within Central Asia. Uzbekistan secured a separate protocol limiting its participation in CSTO operations and will make military forces available them only under very specific conditions.

Secondly, Moscow itself is far from being consistent. While some Russian officials accused NATO in threatening Russia’s security, CSTO Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha has regularly called for a direct CSTO-NATO dialogue, including joint stabilization activities in Afghanistan. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and former Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov have also made declarations in this respect.

Of course Russian policy planners see collaboration with NATO down the road in Central Asia as essential because they expect that the withdrawal of the international coalition from Afghanistan will inevitably lead to the expansion of the Taliban, which will create a serious security problem for Central Asian countries, as well as Russia itself. And because of known weakness of the Russian army they find it extraordinarily difficult to deal with this threat without an international coalition component.

But Russian authorities insist on formalizing the CSTO-NATO relationship for other reasons, too. One of them is to show that their organization is comparable with the North Atlantic Alliance in ability to contribute at least to strengthening regional security. This initiative also must be interpreted as a ploy designed to weaken bilateral relationships that the West has established with Central Asian states.

Therefore NATO has to be very reluctant to deepen cooperation with the CSTO, fearing that its validation will strengthen Moscow influence over Central Asian Alliance’s partners. So it’s good that Americans have remained skeptical about Russia’s intentions. A State Department cable from 2009 released by Wikileaks, revealed that US officials see the CSTO as a Moscow-supported tool designed to obstruct the United States from achieving its policy goals in the former Soviet Union.

“We maintain that while NATO strives to enhance its engagement with Russia, including cooperation that could lead to practical results, such as greater
Russian assistance to Afghanistan, it would be counterproductive for NATO to engage with the CSTO, an organization initiated by Moscow to counter potential NATO and US influence in the former Soviet space,” the cable stated. “To date, the CSTO has proven ineffective in most areas of activity and has been politically divided. NATO engagement with the CSTO could enhance the legitimacy of what may be a waning organization, contributing to a bloc-on-bloc dynamic reminiscent of the Cold War.”

Thirdly, it is not just US skepticism that is hindering NATO-CSTO cooperation. Members of the latter alliance are also wary of closer organizational ties. Russia’s longing for using the CSTO for its national interests is not missed by Central Asian leaders, who seem likely to resist efforts to redirect their relations with NATO through Moscow, demonstrating clear readiness to enhance cooperation with the Alliance.

For example, military base in the Manas airport, which is of primary importance for NATO, being considered as an American one for a long time. Washington managed to make an agreement with Bishkek on the use of the base till 2014 but its fate remained uncertain because during presidential campaign in autumn 2011 all political contenders including future winner Almazbek Atambaev repeatedly called to drive Americans out of the state. However two months later Atambaev personally invited Turkey – another NATO member – to participate together with the US and Russia in reformatting ‘Manas’ into civilian Center of Transit Traffic. By the way, Kyrgyz military forces altogether willingly cooperate with Turkey.

Last March at the meeting with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Brussels then Kyrgyz president Roza Otunbayeva asked to assist in improving the country’s southern borders and border troops: “We’ll continue cooperation with NATO. We have a right to improve the potential of the republic and we’ll continue to do it, using all available methods.”

During his visit to Bishkek the NATO Secretary General’s Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia James Appathurai stressed that bilateral relations with Kyrgyzstan depend not only on Afghanistan: “The country is very important for us.” He did not exclude Kyrgyzstan’s participation in the NATO program Process of Analysis and Military Planning, which includes military reforms that would bring armed forces of the republic in line with the Alliance.

NATO troops can also return to the base Karshi-Khanabad where they disposed until 2005. It looks quite real in the light of the rapprochement, demonstrated on September 28, 2011 by American and Uzbek presidents. In telephone conversation Barack Obama and Islam Karimov have declared a plan of continuing “open and full-fledged political dialogue” and expressed interest in further developing Uzbek-American partnership.

In October 2011 the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan made a step towards closer relations with these countries. They were called to deploy military equipment and servicemen to be departed from Afghanistan. And even Nursultan Nazarbaev continues to exercise a ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy until now more or less successfully manoeuvring between Moscow, Beijing and Washington.

These facts permit to suppose that as Washington and NATO will consolidate the military relationship with countries of the Central Asia, some of them will start changing Russian part for American one.

The Central Asians know that NATO is now thinking about going home and begin worrying about how they are going to defend their interests, both to protect their borders from possible incursions by armed groups, illegal trade (such as drugs and arms) and refugee flows, and to try and maintain good relations with whomever may come to power in Afghanistan.

Correspondingly the military assistance to them should be expanded. The most valuable assistance that can be provided in the short term is the assistance that is geared to enhance their capacity to maintain effective border controls.

It is to be welcomed that the Alliance is not going to leave Central Asia completely. James Appathurai said that “we intend to end the military operation in Afghanistan in 2014, but it doesn’t mean that there will be not a single NATO solder in Central Asia on January 1, 2015. We have long-term obligations to Afghanistan and we do not intend to leave a security vacuum after withdrawal of troops.”

But NATO has to present itself not as an invader. It is highly desirable to have there both military forces or instructors and their representative offices, which would help to improve ties and bring Central Asia and the Atlantic military bloc together.

The Alliance should continue its assistance by showing partners the added-value of a closer collaboration. For instance, the tendency among the regional states is to keep upgrading their military capacities. From this point of view the existing idea of transferring to the Central Asian states excess modern weaponry that will remain after withdrawing NATO forces from Afghanistan looks very attractive. It includes drones, digital radio stations, kits of individual equipment, tanks, ACVs, air defense systems and up to date small arms .

In this case some Central Asian countries will excel Russian army in level and quality of their provision with new armaments. This state of affairs will permit to cut down radically their military and military-technical dependence on Russia, which then will inevitably lose much of its influence upon them.

Apart from being in favor of both Western and Central Asian states in the aforementioned aspects, such strategy will assist to a considerable degree restrict imperial frames of Russia.