Central Asian Nations Grapple with Geopolitical Quandary: Where Do They Stand on Ukraine?

The war in Ukraine is a conflict that has fundamentally affected international events in the world and brought a kind of chaos to international relations. Central Asia a region that is closely linked to teh Russian Federation, but also it is a region that has strong ties with Western countries and organisations such as the United States of America and the European Union. The question can therefore be asked, what has been the reaction to this Russian invasion and what is the view of the various Central Asian states? What impact has this invasion and the circumstances surrounding it had on the development of the Central Asian region? Who is actually responsible for the conflict? The situation is more than complex and there are different views on these issues and on the invasion in general in the various Central Asian states. One thing is clear, however, and that is the fact that this invasion and the associated war, whic has already lasted three years, has had a major impact on the entire Central Asian region.

Central Asian Perspectives: How Citizens See the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

The views of citizens in the countries of the Central Asian region vary from citizen to citizen. Over time, a large part of the population has also changed its original views drastically. It is also important to remember that the views of ordinary citizens differ in many cases from the official position of the government of a given country. The statistics also show that a large proportion of the citizens of the countries of the Central Asian region are actively interested in the war and regularly follow its development, with the exception of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where the subject of war is not exactly on the agenda among the citizens. As far as the citizens of Kyrgyzstan are concerned, according to statistics from 2023, more than 76 % of respondents are interested in the topic of war in Ukraine, and in Kazakhstan i tis something around 69 %. In the case of citizens of Tajikistan who show interest in what is happening in Ukraine, i tis about the same percentage as in Kazakhstan (about 65 %). As already mentioned, in the case of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan the exact opposite is true than in the case of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. In the case of Turkmenistan, the low level of interest in the war in Ukraine (around 49 %) is due to the regime there. Turkmenistan is a closed country where access to information is largely restricted, which is now the main reason for such low interest. As for Uzbek population and their low interest in the topic of the war in Ukraine (around 48 %), the main reason is, as in Turkmenistan, the local regime which controls and consequently restricts much of the information. This i salso why a large part of the population sees no reason why they should show any interest under these conditions.

To the question: „Who is to blame for the current situation in Ukraine?“ again, the opinions of the population differ greatly. As far as the people of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are concerned, based on statistics from 2023, we can see strong division in society on the question of who is actually responsible for the conflict in Ukraine. This fact that there are very different opinions can be confirmed by the claims of certain residents of Kyrgyzstan, where one group is of the opinion that Ukraine is the aggressor and does not want to give up territory which, according to them, does not belong to it because i tis the historical territory of the USSR, and on the other hand there is a group of people which claims that Russia is the aggressor. There is also a large percentage of people in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan who think that the United States, the EU or NATO are responsible for the situation in Ukraine. A part of the population of the countries of the Central Asian region is also still of the opinion that the Russian invasion of Ukraine (essentially an invasion of a sovereign state) was necessary and is a defensible act. What many people in the region do not realise is that this war could be quite devastating for the whole of the Central Asian region, especially economically, with some of the effects already being felt by citizens. As for Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, there is unfortunately ambiguous and misleading information, which is again related to the regimes there, where there is strong censorship.

As for the question: „How can the war end as soon as possible?“ there are also different views, with a large number of respondents having no specific answer. The most frequent answer of the inhabitants of the Central Asian region (mostly Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) to the question „Whose side do you stand on?“ was only and I quote“ „Our government is more for Russia but we as a nation are for peace.“ Unfortunately, when asked „But how to achieve this peace?“ as has already been mentioned, there was no answer for the most part.

Central Asia react: Shock, solidarity and strategy amid Russian invasion

It is known that the countries of the Central Asian region are part of a large number of organisations such as the Russian Federation. It should therefore be a given that Russia will have some support in them and that all states will be United in their position. However, the opposite is true. Since the war in Ukraine broke out in 2022, Central Asian countries have taken a kind of neutral stance towards the conflict. But what was the first reaction of each country? It is clear that the reaction varied from state to state. As far as Kazakhstan is concerned, it has clearly taken the toughest stance against this invasion. In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kazakhstan tried to distance itself from Russia and sought new international partners. Thus, in the case of Kyrgyzstan, the latter showed initial support for Russia in the first place. However, this began to change over time. Turkmenistan and its initial reaction remains quite unclear, again due to the regime there and the withholding of information. That leaves the last two countries, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, where the initial response of both countries has been to remain neutral in the event. of this conflict.

Shifting Sands: Central Asia’s Changing Stance on Russian Aggression in Ukraine

As time has passed and Russia’s three-day special operation has become a war that is now in its third year, so too has the opinion and attitude of Central Asian countries to this devastating conflict evolved. Indeed, the course of the war has revealed that despite Russia’s isolation and its economic problems, it is Russia that remains important to the Central Asian region. Indeed, there are still sectors of partnership where Moscow is a valuable partner for the countries of Central Asia. Moscow takes advantage of this and sees the Central Asian countries as a kind of window on a world without sanctions. But the area that has changed most in the last two years  is public opinion. Surveys confirm that the public opinion in the Central Asian countries is that the war has gone too long and that there should be peace talks. In any case, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has drawn increased attention from the global community towards Central Asia, and the region is now in the international spotlight as a result.

Can Conflict Be a Catalyst? Russia’s Ukraine Crisis and the Path to Western Diplomacy

The war in Ukraine has caused Central Asian states to adopt a bolder foreign policy that has strengthened the region’s importance in global trade. The states of the Central Asian region began to orient their foreign policy more and more towards Western countries during the war, intending to weaken their dependence on Russia. One such example is the September 2023 „C5+1“ summit where the five Central Asian countries and the United States met, culminating in a joint statement that outlined a symbolic increase in U. S. engagement in the Central Asian region. Similar summits with the five Central Asian countries have also been held since 2022 with countries such as France, Germany etc. These summits are one of the proofs that the Central Asian countries have turned their foreign policy 360 degrees and are trying to weaken their dependence on the Russian Federation.

The United States is not the only new „partner“ witch which Central Asian countries have established relations. Another giant that has begun to exert influence in the region is the European Union. In the wake of the Russian invasion, Central Asian countries have begun to look for some alternative economic and political partners. Due to its economic strength and accumulated investments, the European Union has become an attractive option for a large number of countries in the region. The European Union has been actively involved in the Central Asian region in promoting political stability and security, and subsequently in diversifying its energy dependence on Russia by investing more in energy projects in Central Asia. Overall, the European Union has a great potential to play a significant role in the Central Asian region as an alternative economic and political partner, which is a very good „offer“ in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

New Power Player: How China’s Role in Central Asia is Evolving After Russian Aggression

China is undoubtedly a global giant and therefore it is not surprising that after the events of February 2021 it too has become more involved in the Central Asian region. Therefore, it is actively taking advantage of the current geopolitical situation to strengthen its influence and partnership in the Central Asian region. An example of this is the „watershed“ summit in May 2023, which China attended along with all five Central Asian countries, followed by a sort of roadmap for strengthening economic and political partnership. In the context of the war in Ukraine, Beijing, in an effort to improve its image in the international arena, has tried to act as a kind of neutral „peacemaker“ by revealing its own outline for ending the war and offering itself as a neutral territory for resolving the conflict. China also became more intense after the Russian invasion in terms of their project called the „Belt and Road Initiative“ of 2013, which is a kind of new Silk Road. The Central Asian region in particular is in very important strategic position in this respect. It is not surprising, therefore, that, for this reason, Chinese influence in the region has increased rapidly since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. Furthermore, China has also focused more on cultural exchanges and has begun to support these exchanges more in the areas of education, science, and culture through scholarships etc. However, it can be said that China’s increased influence in the Central Asian region is being pursued to the benefit of Chinese interests.

Shaping Tomorrow: The Future Development of Central Asia’s Nations

The development of the next few years in the Central Asian region will depend on the evolution of the war in Ukraine, the involvement of Western actors in the region, the orientation of individual Central Asian governments, or Russian influence. As already mentioned, the war in Ukraine and the associated change in the foreign policy of individual Central Asian countries could end a kind of era of Russian domination in the Central Asian region. New actors such as the United States, the European Union or even China now have an ideal opportunity to strengthen their influence in the Central Asian region, to establish closer diplomatic relations in the form of trade routes or political partners, and thus to try to limit the influence of the Russian Federation in these states. States such as Japan, Iran, India, and Turkey have also expressed their interests there since the Russian invasion, so that, more generally, the war and subsequent Western sanctions imposed on Moscow have made Russia just one of many key players in the Central Asia region. The current situation is therefore completely open and it depends only on factors already mentioned in how the politics of the Central Asian countries will develop in the coming days, months, and years.

 

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Source of picture: https://www.newscentralasia.net/2022/10/16/first-summit-of-the-central-asian-countries-and-russia-held-in-astana/

 

Written by Matěj Bíma

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