Central Asia and the Conflict in Ukraine: Russia-Friendly Neutrality

 Since the onset of the war in Ukraine in February 2022, the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have adopted a neutral stance towards the conflict. Their leaders have carefully avoided passing value judgement on the war which Dushanbe, for one, still calls  “an incident that occurred between the two states”  and have argued for a diplomatic solution.

Domestically, the region’s governments have been extremely cautious and generally suppressed any public displays of support either for Kyiv or Moscow. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have banned its citizens from taking part in the war on either side. The official impartiality even stretches to the realm of pop culture where stand-up comics seen as pro- and anti-war have been equally denied the right to perform.

Throughout 2023, both Russia and the West redoubled their efforts to influence the Central Asian states’ position on Ukraine. The Kremlin aimed at enhancing friendly relations and economic ties with the region which would help it with the prosecution of the war. At the same time, it desisted from demanding overt support even from its formal allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. On their part, Western leaders engaged in an unprecedented diplomatic blitz to persuade the local countries to uphold the anti-Russian sanctions regime and criticise Russian aggression. The US Secretary of State Blinken, the President of the European Council Michel, and the French President Macron were some of the dignitaries who visited the region, in addition to multilateral summits hosted by the US President Biden and German Chancellor Scholz in New York and Berlin respectively.

Looking at the actual policy outcomes of the year 2023, it is clear that the Central Asians’ neutrality was much more aligned with Moscow’s wishes than those of Ukraine’s supporters in the EU and US. Western commentators tend to explicate this through the region’s structural and historical dependence on Russia. Macron for one referred to Kazakhstan’s battle against vassalage while the media covering his visit referred to that country as ‘Putin’s backyard’. Such simplistic and condescending explanations overlook the Central Asian states’ agency in pursuit of national interest. There are sound material and normative reasons for the region to maintain neutrality that is rather positive towards Moscow.

First and foremost, Russia’s confrontation with the West has generated a major economic windfall for Central Asia. The region’s GDP growth in 2023 surpassed expectations reaching 6.5% in Tajikistan and 5.5% in Uzbekistan. Gains from trade with Russia and high levels of migration to and remittances from Russia were key contributing factors. Promising higher wages, Moscow incentivised Central Asian migrant workers to move to the captured territories of Ukraine with officials in Kyiv claiming their numbers may have reached 100,000 in total. Re-export of sanctioned goods and supply of strategic raw materials were a comparatively small yet highly visible component of the boosted ties between Russia and the region.

Russian private capital, entrepreneurs and professionals poured into Central Asia. The number of Russian companies operating in Kazakhstan doubled between 2021 and 2023, capturing 75% of the country’s booming IT sector. Investment flows from Russia into the region accelerated significantly in 2023 reaching US$13 billion and US$9.2 billion in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan respectively.

The war in Ukraine has expedited Moscow’s pivot to the east away from its traditional commercial partners in the EU. Central Asia is benefiting from this process as a logistical and transport hub. In 2023, the Russian energy giant Gazprom started deliveries of natural gas to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan which helped it offset the loss of the European market to some extent and contributed to the energy security of the Central Asian nations. The long-dormant International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) connecting Russia with India and the Gulf via Central Asia and Iran came to life with concrete plans to double the number of trains and triple the volume of cargo traversing Kazakhstan between 2023 and 2025. The INSTC proved instrumental in the rapid and comprehensive improvement of relations between Uzbekistan and Iran.

The West simply could not match the economic bonanza offered by Russia. In March 2023, Blinken announced US$25 million in US funding to help Central Asia diversify trade away from its northern neighbour. Against the region’s annual trade turnover with Russia exceeding US$42 billion such a pittance understandably stirred derision in the region. The Middle Corridor, a US and EU-sponsored alternative to the INSTC which potentially could provide Central Asia with access to the global market faces an uncertain future. While the EU recently announced a €10 bn commitment to the project, this would cover only about half of the necessary investment. China’s reluctance to join the venture has also raised concerns in Central Asia, with Kazakhstan not expecting its implementation until around the year 2040.

During 2022-2023, the US and its European allies have periodically threatened the Central Asian countries with secondary sanctions should they help Russia break through the Western blockade. With an important exception of the banking sector the region’s compliance with the sanctions regime remained largely declarative.  In August 2023, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov dismissed the US concerns about sanctions-busting as a pressure tactic to sway his country from the path of neutrality.

Central Asia resembles the Global South in how the power elites and ordinary people perceive the war in Ukraine. Central Asians  worry primarily about the conflict’s disruptive effect on their own economies and the need to maintain internal stability. Both the Western narrative of the war prioritising concerns about democracy and ‘rules-based world order’, and the Russian narrative centred around Moscow’s security dilemmas and the ‘de-Nazification’ of Ukraine fail to have much traction on the ground.

In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, Russia’s image took a hit in Central Asia. As the war progressed and the gloomy expectations about economic downturn, rising prices and goods shortages went unrealised, the public mood swung back. According to a December 2022 sociological survey, its invasion of the former Soviet republic notwithstanding, Russia was viewed as a friendly country by 95% of those polled in Turkmenistan, 90% – Uzbekistan, 85% – Kyrgyzstan, 83% – Tajikistan, and 64% – Kazakhstan. By May 2023, even in the most sceptical-minded Kazakhstan the favourable image of Russia had returned to pre-invasion levels.

Economic rationalism upstages moral considerations and potential fears about Russian aggression in sustaining the region’s neutrality that is quite positive towards Moscow. This is especially evident in the countries that export labour to Russia. An October 2023 opinion poll in Kyrgyzstan revealed that 53% of the country’s population were happy with their government’s current position on the war while a third were in favour of greater support for Russia, and 3.8% wanted Bishkek to take a pro-Ukrainian stance. The leader of Tajik opposition in exile wryly observed in November 2023 that the extent of public support in Tajikistan for Moscow’s action in Ukraine may be higher than in Russia itself because the war had opened new opportunities for two million Tajik migrant workers including the acquisition of Russian citizenship for those enlisting in the Russian army.

As 2023 drew to a close, the President of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, outlined his position on the war in Ukraine during an official visit to Berlin: a speedy diplomatic resolution is necessary; Kazakhstan is not ‘anti-Russia’ and will continue comprehensive cooperation with that country; Kazakhstan is forced to take into account the sanctions regime imposed by the West but finds this regime ‘absolutely counterproductive’. This statement reflects the attitude of all other Central Asian republics rather neatly, and it is unlikely that such positive neutrality is going to change.

The views expressed in the Near East Policy Forum are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Near East Policy Forum or any of its partner organisations.

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  1. Wendy Levy

    Interesting to get some Central Asian perspectives on this conflict, something that is generally lacking from the wider discourse.