Russia remains the leading partner of Central Asian countries in the sphere of security and defense amid persistent instability in Afghanistan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an article published on October 4 in Rossiyskaya Gazeta daily. The article titled “Russia and Central Asia: a Partnership Tested by Time” is devoted to the 25th anniversary since the Russian Federation and the countries of Central Asia established diplomatic relations.
In October 2016, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) adopted the Collective Security Strategy – a program for the organization's development until 2025. The document includes an expanded list of challenges to be addressed. The terrorist threat is the issue of primary concern.
In August, the US announced its new strategy on Afghanistan, increasing the military presence and giving more freedom to field commanders. It was outlined with few details but even what has been made known so far shows the policy is nothing new. The Islamic State is losing ground in Iraq and Syria to make it look for other regions to go. Central Asia is a possible destination to create a threat for Russia and its friends and allies.
Combat Brotherhood-2017 military exercise began on October 3 in Russia’s Rostov region involving more than 12,000 personnel, over 1,500 pieces of hardware as well as 90 aircraft from all six CSTO member states: Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The training event has three stages to encompass the territories of four member countries, including the mountainous terrain and desert lands in the southern part of Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The final stage of the Combat Brotherhood 2017 exercise will include missions of the CSTO Collective Rapid Reaction Force contingents in Tajikistan from November 10 to 20. This is the first time when all the episodes are to be performed within a single concept. The training includes a joint operation to isolate an armed conflict in a non-member state located in the Caucasus.
Tajikistan borders Afghanistan. This country is immediately threatened by the instability as the situation in the neighboring state continues to deteriorate. With an estimated 10,000 jihadist militants currently amassed along Afghanistan’s 1,300 km border with Tajikistan, Russia’s military presence is a major guarantor of the country’s security. In May, Russia reinforced its forces there with a battery of Uragan multiple rocket launcher systems, which have an effective firing range of up to 35 kilometers. The military facility in Tajikistan houses the second largest ground force of the Russian military outside the country after Syria.
A total of some 7,000 Russian troops are now stationed at two military facilities collectively known as the 201st military base spread over three locations – Dushanbe, Kulyab and Kurgan-Tyube. In October 2012, Russia and Tajikistan signed an agreement extending the deployment term of the base until 2042. Russia’s military presence is expected to increase up to 9,000 by 2020.
Kyrgyzstan is negotiating the deployment of another Russian military base on the border with Tajikistan. It was announced by Kyrgyz Prime Minister Sapar Isakov in an interview with Russia’s RIA Novosti on October 2. "The presence of a military unified base is an important argument that holds back the situation on the border of Afghanistan with Tajikistan," the prime minister said. During his visit to Russia on June 19-24 this year, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev said he wanted Russia to establish a second military base in his country.
Russia established its military presence Kyrgyzstan in the early 2000s, following an urgent request from the country’s authorities, which faced an international terrorism threat from militants infiltrating the country from Afghanistan. Kant airbase, located some 40 kilometers from the capital, Bishkek, houses Su-25 ground attack planes and Mi-8 military transport helicopters. The base is a part of the Collective Rapid Reaction Force, the joint task force of the CSTO.
Recently, Uzbekistan, a non-CSTO country, has shown willingness to increase defense ties with Moscow. The joint five-day Russian-Uzbekistani military exercise, which began on October 3, at the Forish mountain training range, in Uzbekistan’s Dzhizak region. This is the first joint military exercise between the two countries in 12 years. According to the exercise scenario, Uzbekistani and Russian soldiers will collaborate in dismantling armed militias operating in mountainous terrain. Uzbekistan’s decision to hold joint military drills with Russia is a highly significant development, as it opens the door for Uzbekistan to eventually rejoin the Russia-led CSTO.
The organization has become a key instrument to counter regional challenges as well as political and military threats with its scope revitalized. The situation in Afghanistan is close to critical. It requires urgent steps to be taken to enhance the capability to respond. The time is not wasted as Russia and its Central Asian friends and allies prepare to fend the threat off.