BACKGROUND: There has been increased discussion in various circles that the wars growing out of the Arab Spring in Libya, Syria, and by Russia’s accounting in Mali, portend a new development in contemporary conflict to which Russia must adjust. All these moves point to the potential for a significant modification in Russia’s threat assessment and thinking about contemporary war as well as in its policies in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Several factors have coincided in time and space to force this rethinking and policy adjustment. The wars originating in the Arab revolutions have led some to believe that foreign interventions are again likely to become a predominant form of contemporary conflict, and that they could threaten the stability of Russia’s Muslim neighbors if not Russia itself. The coinciding upsurge of terrorist threats in Central Asia since 2011 has added to Russia’s concerns, as has the impending situation in Afghanistan. Russian officials call it alarming and believe that Afghanistan will not succeed in defending itself once NATO leaves next year.
At a May 8 meeting of the Security Council, President Putin expressed his alarm at future terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan, expressed his concern that the Afghan army cannot defend the country, thereby exposing Russia and Central Asia to terrorist incursions, and decried the allied failure to stop Taliban and other terrorism and the drug trade. Putin called for a new, clear strategy in Central Asia and Afghanistan. Moscow is now selling helicopters to Afghanistan and Putin’s first precept was reinforcing the southern strategic direction’s security system.
He also urged the utilization of the full arsenal of preventive measures and the potential of the CSTO and SCO, enhanced protection of the Russian state borders, tightening migration policy, accelerated equipping of the CSTO’s rapid reaction force with modern equipment, and a stronger campaign to suppress the drug trafficking. Third came intensified programs of economic, humanitarian, and military cooperation with neighbors to stabilize them and presumably further their integration with Russia in trade, energy, economics, and culture. Cynics will argue that this program of action merely conceals a policy to integrate Central Asia and the Caucasus around Russia. But while these are clear goals, the threat assessment is real and well founded.
Beyond the Middle Eastern, Caucasus, and Central Asian/Afghan threats, the insurgency in the North Caucasus is still not under control and in 2012 spread, as Russian sources admit, to violence in Kazan and cells in Moscow and St. Petersburg as well as in the Ural-Volga Tatar and Bashkir communities. In light of the Boston bombing and the upcoming showcase Winter Olympics in Sochi, it is not surprising that we see a whole series of military moves taking shape as part of a considered policy package.
IMPLICATIONS: This program of action, occurring alongside a military debate as to whether these manifestations of war in the Islamic world are materially changing the nature and character of contemporary conflict, occur under rather inauspicious conditions for the making of this new military policy. Officially the main threats are NATO and the unvoiced but ever-present Chinese threat, both of which lead to an inordinate emphasis on theater conventional force structures and procurement as well as nuclear deterrence and procurement of nuclear weapons. In this scheme procurement goes in order to nuclear, aerospace, air defense, naval, and lastly Army forces, precisely the opposite of what would be needed to fight any serious contingency in either the Caucasus or Central Asia.
Moreover, despite Putin’s talk of enhancing multilateral cooperation among CIS members and the regional security organizations, none of those security or defense organizations actually works in Central Asia. Although Moscow and Astana finally agreed upon an air defense scheme or so they say, it remains to be seen how it will operate and in any case it will not save either country from terrorist insurgencies. The CSTO has made clear that it will not intervene in countries to counter purely domestic upheavals, which are nevertheless the most likely manifestations of insurgency or terrorism should they occur. Furthermore, without Uzbekistan, which defected from the CSTO and now stands to receive British and American military assistance, the CSTO’s strategic utility is not only untested but already seriously compromised. Lastly Tajikistan’s resistance to Russian pressure for a base and flirtation with Washington and NATO further weakens any sign of regional cohesion.
Adding to the unfavorable situation is the fact that the Russian Army is almost incapable of serious power projection except by rail and certainly unable to move fast enough to meet these potential challenges. Is border forces are mired in corruption and their ability to police the borders effectively is open to serious doubt. Yet given the virtually universal lack of confidence in the post-2014 situation in Afghanistan and the real weaknesses plaguing efforts at a coordinated regional defense it is not easy to see how Russia can avoid getting entangled in protracted contingencies if Afghanistan falls to the terrorists after 2014. Despite Putin’s orders, it is only now becoming clear to the Russian military-political establishment that if terrorism and insurgency are the real threats they will have to contend with, there must be an immense strategic restructuring of the government, armed forces, defense industry, and state policy even as Putin has made clear his thorough opposition to any major reform. More of the same will clearly not suffice in the southern strategic direction.
The consequences for both Central Asia and Russia are serious, even profound. Whether it is warranted or not, there is a widespread and growing anxiety for the future throughout Central Asia and Afghanistan, notwithstanding Kazakhstan’s professed optimism about Afghanistan. Yet there are no discernible moves to enhance genuine regional cooperation or to develop effective regional command and control structures in the event of a major crisis. This anxiety connects fears for the future of Afghanistan after 2014 with uncertainty concerning the situation in Central Asian states, none of which enjoys true stability. Even Kazakhstan’s stability depends on Nazarbayev’s health and has been challenged by increased terrorist activities since 2011. The other states are in worse shape, facing myriad domestic challenges. Meanwhile, the North Caucasus is out of control and the South Caucasus can hardly be described as a region at peace.
For Russia too, caught midway in an uncompleted defense reform that may be eclipsed because the threats facing Russia are utterly different than those enjoying policy priority, the consequences of these developments are immense. Should these conflicts grow or even continue, they may force a reevaluation of official thinking about the nature of the threats facing Russia, the nature of contemporary warfare, the question of who are Russia’s enemies, and the priorities of defense policy. This could force the government to come to terms with the need for fundamentally different governance throughout Russia, itself a change that would reverberate across Central Asia. All this is happening at a time when Moscow discerns a U.S. threat to retain military influence in the area through a network of bases and an Uzbek partner and sees an increasingly powerful China usurping Moscow’s political and economic standing among Central Asian states, becoming a rival in energy policy, and developing an ever more powerful and modernized military. Indeed, some Russian analysts even believe the PLA already outclasses the Russian army.
CONCLUSIONS: Even as the competition in Central Asia continues to intensify among all involved actors, it is clear that although we might disagree with Russia’s policies in the southern strategic direction and in the Middle East; and even with its threat assessment, the perceptions that form that assessment are hardly imaginary or unfounded. From Russia’s viewpoint, these threats are real and may become actualized sooner rather than later and even catch Russia and allied governments by surprise. The current turn in Russian military policy represents Russia’s effort to meet that challenge, but nobody should be complacent about the outcome should those challenges actually appear.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Stephen Blank is Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department, or the U.S. Government.