BACKGROUND: Turkey, like China, appears to have considerable success in doing that. Yet while China’s presence is apparently most strongly felt in regard to trade, investment, and finance, Turkey is evidently challenging Russia more directly in areas where Moscow has clearly asserted and held primacy, i.e. defense and energy. While Turkish firms have also been quite active for a long time in the fields of construction of infrastructure, e.g. airports and hotels; these fields of endeavor represent a qualitative jump in Turkey’s aspirations for, presence, and influence in Central Asia.
Furthermore, the notable increase in Turkey’s interest in Central Asia and the corresponding increase and diversification of its “investment portfolio” can be directly attributed to its successful multi-domain cooperation with Azerbaijan in the war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 and since. That successful partnership encouraged Turkey to enhance its overall presence beyond the Caucasus while also ratifying its bona fides as a partner who delivers for its partners. Soon after the war, Turkey gave auguries of its intentions by pushing the Council of Turkic States where it could play a leadership role on the basis of a supposed common Turkic culture, and by signing gas pipeline agreements with Azerbaijan that clearly presaged future deliveries directly from Central Asia. It then preceded to negotiate an agreement with Turkmenistan tying it to Turkey through a projected pipeline to Azerbaijan. Although the project has encountered predictable difficulties; it represents a clear Turkish signal of intent and objectives.
Although the pipelines have yet to materialize, this is not unusual for such deals, which often take years to emerge even without international opposition. In this case, there is little doubt that both Iran and Russia are trying to frustrate such grand designs. Even more striking is the fact that Turkey has since 2021 challenged Russia’s previous uncontested dominance in the military field, primarily in arms sales. This trend is most discernible regarding UAVs. Kyrgyzstan used Turkish UAVs during its recent conflict with Tajikistan and Tajikistan, as a result, is now exploring its own purchases. Kazakhstan is also purchasing different Turkish UAVs, and it appears that these will become prevalent across Central Asia.
If this trend continues regarding UAVs, and even more so if manifested with regard to other Turkish weapons systems, would have profound significance since it represents a visible erosion of Russian capability and rhetoric connected to the provision of weapons to Central Asian militaries. Indeed, Moscow’s ability to be the sole supporter of these states’ militaries and its ambitions proclaimed on that basis have long served to underpin its claims to hegemony in Central Asia. To the extent that Turkish weapons surpass Russian ones in quality, maintenance, affordability, etc., Russia’s hegemonic pretensions and its arms sales to Central Asia and other markets will be seriously undermined. In addition, this trend opens up possibilities for bilateral or multilateral cooperation between Turkey and Central Asian states or even China, which would be another sign of Russia’s declining standing in Central Asia.
If Central Asian governments are able to make arms and energy deals with Turkey, they would then also be able to diversify energy sales away from Russia’s monopolistic policies. If they can sell oil or gas to Turkey and beyond it to Europe, they can substantially degrade Russia’s power over their economies and enhance their ties to both Turkey and the rest of Europe.
IMPLICATIONS: These trends, which are eroding Russian hegemonic ambitions and enhancing Turkey’s presence in Central Asia are not confined to the war in Ukraine. However, the war and the trends engendered by it are undoubtedly facilitating Russia’s gradual retreat and Turkey’s advances. Moscow’s imperialism and its resort to large-scale war and brutality, coupled with military incompetence has undoubtedly cost it support throughout Central Asia, most notably but not exclusively in Kazakhstan. Unsurprisingly, this has encouraged Central Asian governments to increase mutual cooperation among themselves and to look more to Russia’s rivals and competitors for support, trade, investment, cooperation, and overall security. Thus, Washington, Brussels, Beijing, Tehran, New Delhi, and Ankara are all gaining more traction throughout all of Central Asia. It is also quite likely that this trend will continue as it closely conforms to the practice and common idea among Central Asian states of a multi-vector foreign policy. Potentially this will also open up real and expanding possibilities for infrastructural and economic cooperation with these parties. These manifestations of connectivity would strengthen Central Asian security, diversify the number of serious participants with whom it interacts, reduce both Russian and Chinese threats to local governments, and improve their economies and domestic security.
In that context, Central Asian states are likely to continue to welcome not only Turkish but also other governments’ enhanced participation in the development of this region. The participation of Turkey and other actors conforms to the foreign policy principle championed by all these states to reduce any one party’s successful claim of hegemony. Consequently, even if Russian influence had remained steady, they would likely have welcomed a greater presence of Turkey or anyone else in Central Asia. One reason for Turkey’s apparently growing success is that it offers local governments proven capacities in building infrastructure and manufacturing weapons that meets their needs. However, Turkey’s mounting success must also be seen in a wider context.
The success springs from a confluence of domestic and external factors. At home, despite egregious economic mismanagement, its elites share a deep-rooted consensus that Turkey should now act as a major regional player in the Turco-Muslim world. They also share a common belief that Turkey is foreordained to be a gas and oil hub by virtue of its location, despite its minimal indigenous supplies of fossil fuels. If we add those features to a strong and continuous political leadership under President Erdogan since 2003 and now a proven record of high-quality military industrial production, the reasons for its success become much clearer.
However, the geopolitical context is also important. Russia’s decline is not merely an effect of its war in Ukraine. It is deeply connected to its continuing economic stagnation and decline, which obstructs its ability to provide Central Asia with the public goods it needs and wants. Its unprovoked war against Ukraine also clearly alarms major if not all states in Central Asia, because of what it portends for countries like Kazakhstan if faced with internal instability. Meanwhile, Putin’s single-minded focus on Ukraine further weakens Russia’s ability to answer to Central Asia’s needs, thereby creating an opportunity for all the other players mentioned above to step in to the resulting vacuum and attempt to fill it. This process is underway not only with regard to Turkey but also in the continuing expansion of China’s economic profile in Central Asia.
CONCLUSIONS: The war has also brought home to everyone the importance of a free and open Black Sea which has become the Central Asian and South Caucasian maritime lifeline to international commerce, especially to Europe. The coinciding growth of Turkish interest and capability to provide an obvious and credible alternative to Russia in the region is too great an opportunity for these states to pass up. These considerations should also make it clear that the outcome of Russia’s war against Ukraine – and from Moscow’s standpoint the West as a whole – is of utmost significance for the governments of Central Asia and the Caucasus. A Russian defeat opens the way to creating not only enhanced security for Europe as a whole but also for the governments of Central Asia and the South Caucasus. They have seen too much post-Soviet conflict and have no desire, at least in most cases, for more. However, a Russian victory, even if confined to occupying the territories now held by Moscow, means that none of them can be confident of their security vis-à-vis a revanchist, imperially-minded Russia. Certainly, no foreign army, including Turkey, will rescue them should Moscow, flush with success and having validated its ideological nostrums of Western decadence, threaten their security and/or territorial integrity. Thus just as Churchill observed with regard to energy that safety and security reside in diversity of supply, so too do all these states know that their security resides in the diversity of potential providers like Turkey. Turkey knows this and that shared knowledge helps explain its growing success in Central Asia.
AUTHOR'S BIO: Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, www.fpri.org.