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The Kyrgyzstan Crisis and the Russian Dilemma

Written by Peter Zeihan

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STRATFOR often discusses how Russia is on a bit of a roll. The U.S. distraction in the Middle East has offered Russia a golden opportunity to re-establish its spheres of influence in the region, steadily expanding the Russian zone of control into a shape that is eerily reminiscent of the old Soviet Union. Since 2005, when this process began, Russia has clearly reasserted itself as the dominant power in Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Ukraine, and has intimidated places like Georgia and Turkmenistan into a sort of silent acquiescence.

But we have not spent a great amount of time explaining why this is the case. It is undeniable that Russia is a Great Power, but few things in geopolitics are immutable, and Russia is no exception.

Russian Geography, Strategy and Demographics

Russia's geography is extremely open, with few geographic barriers to hunker behind. There are no oceans, mountains or deserts to protect Russia from outside influences - or armies - and Russia's forests, which might provide some measure of protection, are on the wrong side of the country. The Russian taiga is in the north and, as such, can only provide refuge for Russians after the country's more economically useful parts have already fallen to invaders (as during the Mongol occupation).

Despite its poor geographic hand, Russia has managed to cope via a three-part strategy:

  1. Lay claim to as large a piece of land as possible.
  2. Flood it with ethnic Russians to assert reliable control.
  3. Establish an internal intelligence presence that can monitor and, if need be, suppress the indigenous population.

Throughout Russian history, this strategy has been repeated until the Russian state reached an ocean, a mountain chain, a desert, or a foe that fought back too strongly. In many ways, the strategies of the Kremlin of 2010 are extremely similar to those of Catherine the Great, Ivan the Terrible or Joseph Stalin.

But it is no longer the 17th century, and this strategy does not necessarily play to Russia's strengths anymore. The second prong of the strategy - flooding the region with ethnic Russians - is no longer an option because of Russia's demographic profile. The Russian birth rate has been in decline for a century, and in the post-Cold War era, the youngest tranche of the Russian population simply collapsed. The situation transformed from an academic debate about Russia's future to a policy debate about Russia's present.

The bust in the birth rate in the 1990s and 2000s has generated the smallest population cohort in Russian history, and in a very few years, those post-Cold War children will themselves be at the age where they will be having children. A small cohort will create an even smaller cohort, and Russia's population problems could well evolve from crushing to irrecoverable. Even if this cohort reproduces at a sub-Saharan African birthrate, even if the indications of high tuberculosis and HIV infections among this population cohort are all wrong, and even if Russia can provide a level of services for this group that it couldn't manage during the height of Soviet power, any demographic bounce would not occur until the 2050s - once the children of this cohort have sufficiently aged to raise their own children. Until 2050, Russia simply has to learn to work with less. A lot less. And this is the best-case scenario for Russia in the next generation.

Simply put, Russia does not have the population to sustain the country at its present boundaries. As time grinds on, Russia's capacity for doing so will decrease drastically. Moscow understands all this extremely well, and this is a leading rationale behind current Russian foreign policy: Russia's demographics will never again be as "positive" as they are now, and the Americans are unlikely to be any more distracted than they are now. So Russia is moving quickly and, more important, intelligently.

Russia is thus attempting to reach some natural anchor points, e.g., some geographic barriers that would limit the state's exposure to outside powers. The Russians hope they will be able to husband their strength from these anchor points. Moscow's long-term strategy consistently has been to trade space for time ahead of the beginning of the Russian twilight; if the Russians can expand to these anchor points, Moscow hopes it can trade less space for more time.

Unfortunately for Moscow, there are not many of these anchor points in Russia's neighborhood. One is the Baltic Sea, a fact that terrifies the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Another is the Carpathian Mountains. This necessitates the de facto absorption not only of Ukraine, but also of Moldova, something that makes Romania lose sleep at night. And then there are the Tien Shan Mountains of Central Asia - which brings us to the crisis of the moment.

The Crisis in Kyrgyzstan

The former Soviet Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan is not a particularly nice piece of real estate. While it is in one of those mountainous regions that could be used to anchor Russian power, it is on the far side of the Eurasian steppe from the Russian core, more than 3,000 kilometers (1,800 miles) removed from the Russian heartland. The geography of Kyrgyzstan itself also leaves a great deal to be desired. Kyrgyzstan is an artificial construct created by none other than Stalin, who rearranged internal Soviet borders in the region to maximize the chances of dislocation, dispute and disruption among the indigenous populations in case the Soviet provinces ever gained independence.

Stalin drew his lines well: Central Asia's only meaningful population center is the Fergana Valley. Kyrgyzstan obtained the region's foothills and highlands, which provide the region's water; Uzbekistan gained the fertile floor of the valley; and Tajikistan walked away with the only decent access to the valley as a whole. As such, the three states continuously are jockeying for control over the only decent real estate in the region.

Arguably, Kyrgyzstan has the least to work with of any of the region's states. Nearly all of its territory is mountainous; what flat patches of land it does have on which to build cities are scattered about. There is, accordingly, no real Kyrgyz core. Consequently, the country suffers from sharp internal differences: Individual clans hold dominion over tiny patches of land separated from each other by rugged tracts of mountains. In nearly all cases, those clans have tighter economic and security relationships with foreigners than they do with each other.

 

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A little more than five years ago, Western nongovernmental organizations (and undoubtedly a handful of intelligence services) joined forces with some of these regional factions in Kyrgyzstan to overthrow the country's pro-Russian ruling elite in what is known as a "color revolution" in the former Soviet Union. Subsequently, Kyrgyzstan - while not exactly pro-Western - dwelled in a political middle ground the Russians found displeasing. In April, Russia proved that it, too, can throw a color revolution and Kyrgyzstan's government switched yet again. Since then, violence has wracked the southern regions of Jalal-Abad, Batken and Osh - strongholds of the previous government. In recent days, nearly 100,000 Kyrgyz residents have fled to Uzbekistan.

The interim government of Prime Minister Roza Otunbayeva is totally outmatched. It is not so much that her government is in danger of falling - those same mountains that make it nearly impossible for Bishkek to control Osh make it equally difficult for Osh to take over Bishkek - but that the country has de facto split into (at least) two pieces. As such, Otunbayeva - whose government only coalesced due to the Russian intervention - has publicly and directly called upon the Russians to provide troops to help hold the country together. This request cuts to the core weakness in the Russian strategy.

Despite much degradation in the period after the Soviet dissolution, Russia's intelligence services remain without peer. In fact, now that they have the direct patronage of the Russian prime minister, they have proportionally more resources and influence than ever. They have proved that they can rewire Ukraine's political world to expunge American influence, manipulate events in the Caucasus to whittle away at Turkey's authority, cause riots in the Baltics to unbalance NATO members, and reverse Kyrgyzstan's color revolution.

But they do not have backup. Were this the 19th century, there would already be scads of Russian settlers en route to the Fergana to dilute the control of the locals (although they would certainly be arriving after the Russian army), to construct a local economy dependent upon imported labor and linked to the Russian core, and to establish a new ruling elite. (It is worth noting that the resistance of Central Asians to Russian encroachment meant that the Russians never seriously attempted to make the region into a majority-Russian one. Even so, the Russians still introduced their own demographic to help shape the region more to Moscow's liking.) Instead, Russia's relatively few young families are busy holding the demographic line in Russia proper. For the first time in Russian history, there is no surplus Russian population that can be relocated to the provinces.

And without that population, the Russian view of the Fergana - to say nothing of Kyrgyzstan - changes dramatically. The region is remote and densely populated, and reaching it requires transiting three countries. And one of these states would have something to say about that. That state is Uzbekistan.

The Uzbek Goliath

After the Russians and Ukrainians, the Uzbeks are the most populous ethnicity in the former Soviet Union. They are a Turkic people who do not enjoy particularly good relations with anyone. Uzbekistan's ruling Karimov family is roundly hated both at home and abroad; the Central Asian country boasts one of the most repressive governing systems in modern times.

Uzbekistan also happens to be quite powerful by Central Asian standards. There are more Uzbeks in Central Asia than there are Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Tajiks and Russians combined. The Uzbek intelligence services are modeled after their Russian counterparts, interspersing agents throughout the Uzbek population to ensure loyalty and to root out dissidents. It is the only country of the five former Soviet states in the region that actually has a military that can engage in military action. It is the only one of the five that has most of its cities in logical proximity and linked with decent infrastructure (even if it is split into the Tashkent region and the Fergana region by Stalinesque cartographic creativity). It is the only one of the five that is both politically stable (if politically brittle) and that has the ability to project power. And it is also the only Central Asian state that is self-sufficient in both food and energy. To top it all off, some 2.5 million ethnic Uzbeks reside in the other four former Soviet Central Asian states, providing Tashkent a wealth of tools for manipulating developments throughout the region.

And manipulate it does. In addition to the odd border spat, Uzbekistan intervened decisively in Tajikistan's civil war in the 1990s. Tashkent is not shy about noting that it thinks most Tajik, and especially Kyrgyz, territory should belong to Uzbekistan, particularly the territory of southern Kyrgyzstan, where the current violence is strongest. Uzbekistan views many of the Russian strategies to expunge Western interests from Central Asia as preparation for moves against Uzbekistan, with the Russian-sponsored coup in Kyrgyzstan an excellent case in point.

From March through May, Uzbekistan began activating its reserves and reinforcing its Fergana border regions, which heightened the state of fear in Bishkek from shrill to panic mode. Given Uzbek means, motive and opportunity, Moscow is fairly confident that sending Russian peacekeepers to southern Kyrgyzstan would provoke a direct military confrontation with an angry and nervous Uzbekistan.

In STRATFOR's view, Russia would win this war, but this victory would come neither easily nor cheaply. The Fergana is a long way from Russia, and the vast bulk of Russia's military is static, not expeditionary like its U.S. counterpart. Uzbek supply lines would be measured in hundreds of meters, Russian lines in thousands of kilometers. Moreover, Uzbekistan could interrupt nearly all Central Asian natural gas that currently flows to Russia without even launching a single attack. (The Turkmen natural gas that Russia's Gazprom normally depends upon travels to Russia via Uzbek territory.)

Yet this may be a conflict Russia feels it cannot avoid. The Russians have not forward-garrisoned a military force sufficient to protect Kyrgyzstan, nor can they resettle a population that could transform Kyrgyzstan. Therefore, the Russian relationship with Kyrgyzstan is based neither on military strategy nor on economic rationality. Instead, it is based on the need to preserve a certain level of credibility and fear - credibility that the Russians will protect Kyrgyzstan should push come to shove, and Kyrgyz fear of what Russia will do to it should they not sign on to the Russian sphere of influence.

It is a strategy strongly reminiscent of the U.S. Cold War containment doctrine, under which the United States promised to aid any ally, anytime, anywhere if in exchange they would help contain the Soviets. This allowed the Soviet Union to choose the time and place of conflicts, and triggered U.S. involvement in places like Vietnam. Had the United States refused battle, the American alliance structure could have crumbled. Russia now faces a similar dilemma, and just as the United States had no economic desire to be in Vietnam, the Russians really do not much care what happens to Kyrgyzstan - except as it impacts Russian interests elsewhere.

But even victory over Uzbekistan would not solve the problem. Smashing the only coherent government in the region would create a security vacuum. Again, the Americans provide a useful corollary: The U.S. "victory" over Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the Taliban's Afghanistan proved that "winning" is the easy part. Occupying the region over the long haul to make sure that the victory is not worse than the status quo antebellum is a decade-to-generational effort that requires a significant expenditure of blood and treasure. Russia desperately needs to devote such resources elsewhere - particularly once the United States is no longer so preoccupied in the Middle East.

Russia is attempting to finesse a middle ground by talking the Uzbeks down and offering the compromise of non-Russian troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led military organization, as an alternative to Russian forces. This may resolve the immediate crisis, but neither the Uzbeks nor the challenges they pose are going anywhere. And unlike Russia, Uzbekistan boasts very high demographic growth.

The bottom line is this: Despite all of Russia's recent gains, Moscow's strategy requires tools that the Russians no longer have. It requires Moscow delving into the subregional politics of places that could well bleed Russia dry - and this is before any power that wishes Russia ill begins exploring what it and the Uzbeks might achieve together.

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