While the world’s attention is carefully focused on the dangerous escalation of the Ukraine-Russia crisis, which has worried NATO, United States and European Union about Moscow potential military intentions to invade the country, Central Asian republics seem to ignore the worsening confrontation between Moscow and Kyiv: as a matter of fact, there are not official statements or positions expressed by Central Asian presidents or Ministers of Foreign Affairs towards this geopolitical dossier.
Actually, the confrontation between Moscow and Kyiv – regarding a potential threat to the national sovereignty of a post-Soviet country – represents a very sensitive issue for Central Asian republics. In 2014, after Russia’s of Crimea’s annexation, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian republics expressed their commitment to the territorial integrity of all countries in the international community, but avoiding to openly express a harsh approach against Moscow.
Russia’s justifications about its assertive policy towards Ukraine – claiming the need to protect Russian-speaking population and Moscow’s military facilities – should be a kind of alarm bell for Central Asian states that host in their territory sizeable communities of ethnic Russians (22% of Kazakhstan population) and strategic facilities (CSTO military base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan, the base of 201st Motorized Rifle Division in Tajikistan and Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan).
In addition to security concerns, Ukraine is a relevant economic partner for Central Asian countries (despite the geographical distance), even if trade turnover appears not well balanced considering that Ukrainian exports (goods and services) represent almost 90% of the whole trade turnover (medications, iron industry products, paper products, and even a wide range of food products).
Kazakhstan takes the first place in trade turnover, in 2020 the total trading volume (goods and services) between the countries was 813,4 million dollars. Uzbekistan is on the second place, in 2019 the total trading volume was 328 million dollars, while Turkmenistan follows with 168 million (2019): in this gas-rich country, Ukrainian specialists are involved to develop the national energy sector.
Also, the cooperation in the cultural and humanitarian field is remarkable, with hundreds of Central Asiatic students who attend university courses in Ukraine, especially in the medicine faculties (Maksim Yakovlev, Central Asia and Ukraine Can Cooperate in Circumvention of Russia, CABAR, December 13, 2021)
Central Asian indifferent approach towards Ukraine could be explained with the decision of not antagonising Russia, considering the worsening security scenario in Central Asia, where in the last months Moscow has further consolidated its role as main and reliable security partner.
During the Taliban military campaign to seize the power in Afghanistan, Russia was able to involve Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in joint military drills to preserve security along the border. Moreover, in case of jihadist terrorist attacks against these countries, only Russia appears able to intervene immediately with CSTO Rapid Reaction Forces or peacekeeping forces, that were deployed in Kazakhstan during the January uprising.
PhD in Geopolitics. He is non-resident researcher at the Center for Energy Governance and Security (EGS South Korea) and analyst at the Observatory for Central Asia and Caspian. He is research fellow at the University of Siena.