Russia’s Strategy for Regional Organizations in Central Asia

Russia’s Strategy for Regional Organizations in Central Asia

Is Central Asia rightly considered a subregion?

Central Asia is one of the three subregions of the post-Soviet space. Two of these—the South Caucasus (also known as Transcaucasia[1]) and Central Asia[2]—are routinely named in academic and political discourse. The third is comprised of Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine, but although these countries are commonly considered a distinct subregion, they are rarely grouped under a common name[3] and often simply analyzed individually. The term “Transcaucasia” as a subregion name appears in official Russian documents only periodically. But the term “Central Asia” is consistently represented in every new edition of the Russian Foreign Policy Concept, as well as in the Annual reviews of Russia’s foreign relations and diplomacy compiled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The 2015 Review,[4] for example, includes the following passage:           

Adherence on all sides to the principles of strategic partnership and an amicable approach to the foremost issues on the international and regional agendas have contributed to a gradual improvement in relations between Russia and the Central Asian states. Extensive political engagement underscores the region’s importance among Russia’s foreign policy concerns: twenty-five summit meetings and nineteen high-level meetings took place in 2015.

Central Asia alone is named in this document as a distinct region. All other post-Soviet states are considered individually, which might mean that for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there is only one group of neighboring countries sufficiently integrated to merit an undifferentiated foreign policy (including development aid, security cooperation, energy partnerships, and other priorities).

Two conceptual questions may be raised in this regard. First, given that experts and politicians routinely divide the post-Soviet space into three subregions, what is Russia’s position vis-à-vis these three? And second, from the Russian foreign policy perspective, is it ultimately helpful to regard the Central Asian states as a single bloc?

Russia’s position in the post-Soviet space is interesting in that Russia may be simultaneously regarded as an outsider and an insider vis-à-vis the three subregions. If Russia is not part of any one of them, then which subregion does Russia belong to? Or is Russia to be regarded as an inside actor only when the entire post-Soviet space is considered as a whole?

At present both Russia itself and the Central Asian states have a dual view of Russia’s role. On the one hand, it is an outsider when discussing its partnership initiatives with the five countries taken as a uniform group. Yet on the other hand, it is an insider when discussing regional organizations such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). This conceptual dichotomy creates certain expectations regarding the nature of Russia’s relations with the Central Asian states: Russia’s interests may be construed very differently depending on whether it is seen as an insider or an outsider.

The second problem concerns the perception of Central Asia as a uniform subregion. Central Asian states themselves are rather more likely to emphasize their differences with one another in an effort to avoid being lumped together as the “five -Stans.” A decade ago, Russian experts criticized a 2007 EU document titled “The EU and Central Asia”[5] for failing to differentiate among the five countries. But official Russian rhetoric makes the same generalizations and continually refers to Central Asia as a unit. There is also another perceptual paradox: Even as it decries the West’s failure to recognize the differences among the five Central Asian states, Russia continues to regard the West as an undifferentiated group, at best distinguishing between American and Western European policies toward the region.

Afghanistan: an internal or an external actor?

Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept lists international terrorism, extremism, drug trafficking, transnational crime, and illegal migration as the leading security threats in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) region. At the same time, it notes that “priorities here are the neutralization of the above-mentioned threats coming from the territory of Afghanistan and the prevention of destabilization of the situation in Central Asia and Transcaucasia.”[6] Besides the CIS as an organization, the principal actors in this fight are the CSTO[7] and the SCO.[8]

These two organizations take rather different views of the Afghan problem. For the CSTO, Afghanistan is an external security threat, while for the SCO it is an observer state and a member of its community (which includes other observer states and partners in dialog). This difference in perspective informs both organizations’ specific strategies on Afghanistan. History demonstrates that involving post-conflict states in regional reconciliation processes contributes to stability and partnership (e.g., Germany and Japan after World War II), while exclusion leads to revanchism (e.g., Germany after World War I). Consequently, while one may be justified in viewing Afghanistan as the source of problems, the same view may produce negative effects, inciting radicalism as a response to a neighbor state’s defensive policies.

On the one hand, Russia and other CSTO and SCO member states profess their commitment to an independent, stable and peaceful Afghanistan. On the other hand, the same countries see it as a threat and are busy working out worst-case scenarios. This conceptual difficulty might have been resolved by drawing a clear distinction between the concepts of “official Afghanistan”—meaning, the country’s lawfully elected government—and “radical Afghanistan” of the Taliban and other extremist groups. The first would be seen as a partner, the second as a threat. But the advent of ISIS (an extremist group prohibited in Russia) as an independent player in Afghanistan has pushed Russia to align itself with the Taliban, with which it had already been cooperating and exchanging information for some time.[9]

One initiative to turn Afghanistan from an external threat to an inside actor was the Greater Central Asia Partnership, proposed by the American academic Frederick Starr in 2005, which later evolved into the New Silk Road project.[10] The project did not win the support of Central Asian states, however, which saw it as an attempt to solve the Afghan problem at their expense. The C5+1 format introduced in November 2015[11] (and involving five Central Asian governments plus Washington) could be seen as an effort by the United Stated to show Central Asian countries that it considers them valuable partners and not a kind of geopolitical bonus to Afghanistan that they had been since the beginning of the Afghan campaign in 2001.

Afghanistan itself is actively trying to take part in regional processes. At the SCO summit in Ufa in July 2015, Kabul applied for full membership in the organization. The move prompted expressions of support from China[12] and Russia.[13]

Why does Russia need regional organizations that include Central Asian states?

The authors of a recent Carnegie Endowment report titled “U.S. Policy Toward Central Asia 3.0” conclude that the SCO will not be of much help for Russia in increasing its influence in Central Asia. By contrast, the CSTO is described as “a special link to Central Asia.”[14] This is true if we assume that Russia’s central objective in Central Asia is to grow its influence. But is this really so, and does Russia intend to use the existing regional organizations to this end?

Central Asian states participate in four regional organizations that also include Russia as a major player: CIS, EAEU, CSTO, and SCO. With the emergence of the latter three, the CIS has lost much of its relevance, though it remains an attractive format in which the region’s leaders can resolve issues not necessarily related to the organization’s charter. According to the deceased Uzbek President Islam Karimov, the CIS was no longer able to address important questions, and the agenda of the Council of the Heads of States was “out of touch with reality.”[15] His proposed solution was to broaden the scopes of various other organizations and to avoid duplication. Given the partial overlap in membership and some coinciding functions, however, it is surprising that the leaders of the member states have not considered some kind of merger. Provisions have been made for cooperation between different organizations, albeit mostly at the level of Secretariats, yet all suggestions for the potential integration of post-Soviet structures with neighboring regional institutions have been met with opposition from members of the CIS, EAEU, CSTO, and SCO.

In the past year, this situation has begun to change. Several initiatives were recently put forth by the Russian government calling for the integration of various regional projects and formats. On the whole this trend in Russian foreign policy may be called trans-regionalism or inter-regionalism.

One of these initiatives proposes to integrate the EAEU and the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB).[16] This policy statement was issued by Russia and China with no contribution by the remaining members of the EAEU. For many, it came as a surprise: When news first surfaced of the Chinese project in 2013, there had been some expert discussion of possibly integrating the SREB with the SCO, but never with the EAEU. Instead of joining in the development of transport infrastructure alongside the SREB, the SCO, according to the Russian government, could present other possibilities for integration. Specifically, in December of 2015 Vladimir Putin asked Russian entrepreneurs to develop proposals for an economic partnership between the SCO and ASEAN.[17]

In parallel, another initiative, put forth by China in December 2015, focuses on a potential free trade zone within the SCO framework. This proposal drew criticism from Uzbekistan but was supported by officials at the Russian Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, who suggested that Russia is eager to work on drafting a roadmap for this project. The conversation has since shifted from an initiative strictly centered on a free trade zone toward “a kind of economic continental partnership”[18] with a significantly broader scope, evidently modeled on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Besides the SCO, the EAEU will also take part in drafting this agreement. Unlike the previous president of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov, the presidents of Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic support the idea of integrating the EAEU and the SCO.[19] (Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has said that a free trade zone within the SCO and with China will only strengthen the EAEU.) Notably, the EAEU has negotiated a free trade agreement with Vietnam,[20] also a signatory to the TPP. Recently, Singapore, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand have also reportedly expressed interest in joining a free trade partnership with the EAEU.[21]

Why does Russia need an integration of formats?

Integration of various regional organizations would advance Russia’s strategic goal of becoming competitive in the global economy as a leader in regional integration. For their part, Central Asian states are interested in integration because it would solve their loyalty problem, eliminating the need to choose between various centers of power and models of regional integration. For example, even though the decision to integrate the EAEU and the Silk Road Economic Belt was not coordinated with the Central Asian countries, for small and medium-sized members of both organizations it will nevertheless open the possibility of a multi-vector and transparent economic partnership, along with the assurance that the situation will not unfold along Ukrainian lines.

Russia’s initial plan about economic integration in Eurasia had been to pursue collective competitiveness of most economically developed Eurasian states (Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and, possibly, Ukraine) on the global scene. The Foreign Ministry’s annual policy review for 2012, for example, makes a very clear argument for integration among the post-Soviet states. It argues that integration processes facilitate the “creation of an effective model of a voluntary, equitable, and mutually beneficial economic partnership, affording its members their rightful place in an increasingly more complex and more competitive world.[22] In other words, regional integration will allow member states to participate in global processes more effectively than if they had to compete on their own alongside far stronger economic powers. That same year, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the Eurasian Union as “the largest geopolitical project” and “a new historical milestone” in post-Soviet partnership.[23] The initiative, he said, was part of a larger strategy to forge a “steadfast ‘bridge’ between Europe and Asia.” In practice, however, it turned out that its member states did not see the EAEU project as an effective means of raising their world standing, whereas an integration of different projects will give them precisely that opportunity.

At this point, one of the pressing challenges for regional organizations on the post-Soviet space is finding common goals. The model that places Russia at the center of integration appears increasingly less attractive, and Russia does not always have the resources to play the role of a regional power. The functional approach to regional partnership—where specific economic goals or common challenges and threats would propel integration—is likewise faltering. (Uzbekistan’s withdrawal from the EAEC and the CSTO is just one sign of this.) To bring together all members of a regional integration initiative, a partnership must be based on shared values. Perhaps at present smaller and medium-sized countries of the region are finally seeing some such values beginning to take shape, including a multi-vector orientation and an equal distribution of loyalties to various centers of power. For these centers, on the other hand, integration solves the problem of divided spheres of influence by creating a kind of “shared neighborhood” zone. This term, incidentally, was first proposed for the countries of the EU’s Eastern Partnership[24] but, as the Ukrainian crisis has shown, Russia and the EU have failed to resolve competing loyalties and format integration problems in a peaceful way.

Trans-regionalism (inter-regionalism) as a new world order

The idea of a regional level of governance, in addition to the global one, appeared in the Foreign Policy Concept of 2013. After the Ukrainian crisis, Putin elaborated on this idea in his talk at the Valdai Discussion Club in 2014[25]:

I think that we need a new “edition” of interdependence. We shouldn’t be afraid of it. On the contrary, it is a good instrument for reconciling our positions. It is especially pertinent, given the strengthening and growth of certain regions, because it generates an objective demand for an institutional organization of such poles, for the establishment of powerful regional organizations and the formulation of the rules of their cooperation. Cooperation between these centers would significantly contribute to the stability of global security, politics and economics. But in order to establish this dialog we must take it as a given that all regional centers and the interregional projects forming around them have equal rights to grow and develop, that they must complement one another, and that no one should artificially pit one against the other.           

Consequently, current Russian strategy consists not so much of fostering a multipolar world as of promoting the idea of interdependence and cooperation between regional institutions. Multipolarity cannot guarantee a stable world order because of the constant clash of positions, whereas the integration of regional projects, according to the Russian president, solves this problem.

Which of the regional organizations of the post-Soviet space may play an instrumental part in constructing this new world order? As we have seen, integration is taking place on the basis of the EAEU and the SCO. To be sure, a great deal of attention is being paid to the BRICS and the G-20, but these formats lie outside the scope of the present article. Among the post-Soviet organizations, the CIS and the CSTO have been sidelined in the drive toward global government. And while the CSTO trumps the SCO in several key aspects—among them its functionality, the size of its collective forces, and its other instruments of crisis response, including to threats coming from Afghanistan—all these advantages pale next to the potential of the EAEU and the SCO to serve as conductors of global governance action. For Russia the CSTO and the SCO consequently fall into different categories when it comes to foreign policy mechanisms, and the problems they are expected to solve are also vastly different. In this regard, Russia may soon be touting the successes of the EAEU not in terms of integration achieved by its members internally but in terms of its potential to constructively overlap with other projects.

Moreover, integration will help to resolve the questions posed at the outset—namely, whether Russia is an outsider or an insider in Central Asia, and whether Afghanistan is to be included in a regional partnership. With deeper integration, the divisions between “Us” and “Them” and between insiders and outsiders will fade, and the lines separating potential adversaries will become blurred. Cooperation within this integrated framework will presumably benefit from the network effect, which will further promote Russia’s idea of “network diplomacy” as an alternative to “bloc” diplomacy with its rigid bloc discipline.


Editor’s note: Yulia Nikitina is an associate professor of world politics and research fellow at the Center for the Post-Soviet Studies at the Moscow State University of International Relation (MGIMO). She is a specialist of security politics in Eurasia with a focus on regional organizations.



[1] Although Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept for 2013 uses the term “Transcaucasia,” most experts consider it Russia-centric, preferring the more neutral phrase “South Caucasus.” The region comprises three states: Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Russia officially recognizes the independence of two other states in the region: Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

[2] The Central Asian region comprises Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

[3] Terms such as “the western flank of the CIS,” “the European flank of the CIS,” and “new Eastern Europe” are all occasionally used.

[4] “Review of the Foreign Policy and Diplomatic Activity of the Russian Federation in 2015,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, April 2016.

[5] "The EU and Central Asia: Strategy for a New Partnership,” European Communities, 31 May 2007.

[6] “Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, February 2013.

[7] The CSTO’s role in countering Afghan threats was debated extensively in the run-up to the withdrawal of coalition forces in 2014. See, for example, M. T. Laumulin. “The Virtual Security of Central Asia,” Russia in Global Affairs, No. 4, September 2012.

[8] On the distinct positions taken on Afghanistan by the SCO and its member states, see Mikhail A. Konarovsky “Afghanistan in the Political Assessments and Actions of the SCO,” National Security Issues, No. 2 (17), 2013

[9] Zamir Kabulov, “The Interests of the Taliban in the Fight Against ISIS in Afghanistan Coincide with Those of Russia,” 23 December 2015.

[10] For a more detailed analysis of American projects in Central Asia from a Russian perspective see Ivan Safranchuk, “The New Silk Road Project and U.S. Policy in Greater Central Asia,” International Life, July 2013, p. 43-54

[11] “Joint Declaration of Partnership and Cooperation by the Five Countries of Central Asia and The United States of America, Samarkand, Uzbekistan,” 1 November 2015.

[12] “China Supports Afghanistan’s Petition for Full Membership in the SCO” TASS, 26 January 2016.

[13] “Russia Advocates for Granting Afghanistan Permanent Membership in the SCO,” RIA Novosti, 20 April 2016.

[14] Eugene Rumer, Richard Sokolsky, Paul Stronski. “U.S. Policy Toward Central Asia 3.0” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 2016.

[15] “Karimov Lambasts the Agenda of the Council of the CIS Heads of State,” RIA Novosti, 18 October 2015.

[16] “Joint Statement by the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the Initiative to Integrate the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road Economic Belt Project,” 8 May 2015

[17] “Putin: RF Will Continue to Strengthen Economic Ties with Other Countries,” RIA Novosti, 24 December 2015.

[18] “EAEU and SCO to Draft an Agreement for an Economic Continental Partnership,” Interfax, 2 March 2016.

[19] “Kazakhstan to Create an EAEU-SCO Free Trade Zone,”, 21 December 2015,; “Kyrgyz President Hopes to See SCO and EAEU United in the Future,” RIA Novosti, 29 May 2015,

[20] “A Free Trade Zone for EAEU and Vietnam: Possibilities, Risks and Prospects,” RIA Novosti, 29 May 2015.

[21] “Singapore, Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand Want an FTZ with the EAEU,” MIR24, 19 May 2016.

[22] “Review of the Foreign Policy and Diplomatic Activity of the Russian Federation in 2012,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, March 2013.

[23] “The World in the Age of Changes: Priorities of RF Foreign Policy” in the Diplomatic Yearbook 2012,

[24] I. Bolgova, A. Malygin, Yu. Nikitina, and S. Chernyavsky, “Integration Initiatives in the Post-Soviet Space: Possibilities and Spheres of Co-adaptation for Russia and the EU,” IMI Yearbook 2010, Moscow: MGIMO University, 2011.

[25] “Panel Discussion at the Valdai International Discussion Club”