Russia’s Role in Regional Security in Central Asia

On August 26, 2018, a brief but deadly confrontation occurred along the disputed Tajikistan-Afghanistan border. While many details are still murky, we do know the basic facts: six Taliban insurgents or smugglers were killed during a confrontation with Tajik forestry officials. An otherwise straightforward explanation of the incident is complicated by the fact that the skirmish was ended by an airstrike presumably from a Tajik fighter plane. But the Tajik Air Force has only a handful of fixed wing aircraft and no fighter planes, giving rise to the larger question of who was responsible for the strike. Many signs point to Russia as the responsible party, which is unsurprising given its military commitments to former satellite states.

Image courtesy of Nations Online, © 2018, some rights reserved.

First, confrontations between armed militants and Tajik officials are very rare inside the country’s borders. This particular encounter occurred along a disputed region between northern Afghanistan and southwestern Tajikistan, a well-known area for smugglers. Yet claims that the deceased were Taliban is difficult to confirm, in part because Tajikistan experiences relatively few acts of terrorism when compared to its southern neighbours Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since 2010, only 15 terrorist attacks accompanied by 31 fatalities have occurred within Tajikistan’s borders. Furthermore, these attacks have been sporadic and specific organisations rarely claim credit for them. These details lend credence to the Taliban’s statement that the dead were not affiliated with the Taliban, but it does not answer any of the questions to how the confrontation was carried out.

As stated in The New York Times the supposed use of a military jet to conduct an air strike is unlikely given our knowledge of Tajikistan’s Air Force. A relatively new branch of the military, only established in the 2000s, the Tajik Air Force relies on Russian-made helicopters, seldom used for anything but rescues. Thus at first glance, the use of a fighter jet seems odd. However, Tajikistan is a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Joint CIS Air Defense System. Under these agreements, the Russian Air Force is tasked with monitoring the airspace of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan while Turkmenistan is a bilateral partner in airspace security.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia established the Commonwealth of Independent States to facilitate economic, political, and military cooperation between the nine member states. Russia has used the CIS to maintain influence within former territories as seen by Russia’s reluctance to sell advanced weaponry to Tajikistan despite a CIS resolution which allows member states to buy Russian-made weapons at cost. The Collective Security Treaty Organization provides a number of member states with the guarantee of security, at the price of deference to Russia. And as Russia continues to assert its presence in former satellite states, it is hardly a stretch to surmise that the airstrike by the fighter jet, which killed six militants, was carried out by a Russian plane with a Russian pilot in the cockpit.

Although we will likely never know the identity of the pilot or under which flag the plane was flying on August 26th, the skirmish nonetheless provides an interesting set of challenges for Russia to address as regards their foreign policy in the region. As Vladimir Putin uses military force to bolster the image of Russia abroad, a more active Russian role in Central Asia is foreseeable. Alongside taking a more interventionist role Putin has tried to play mediator as well, offering Russia as an alternative mediator to the USA for peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Talks were scheduled in Moscow for September 4th, but they never materialised after American and Afghan governments declined to attend. If the air strike in Tajikistan was carried out by a Russian plane, such overt intervention could generate political resistance within regional governments as well as threatening possible back-channel connections to militant groups.

Should Russia choose to increase its role in former satellite states, it will likely face push back and challenges in inserting itself into regional affairs. Nonetheless, former Soviet states are still reliant on Russian security systems with few options to purchase weapons from sources other than Russia. This makes it is hard to foresee a drastic change in the security structure of CIS member states in Central Asia. Altogether, Tajikistan and former satellite states do not have the capabilities for truly self-sufficient militaries, confirming Russia’s position as the hegemon within the Collective Security Treaty Organization and allowing it to remain a strong presence in defending weaker members from outside incursions.

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