At present, Russia's influence in the Central Asian region is still quite significant, and it is bound to grow.
Russia’s foreign policy in Central Asia has three main goals. The first is promoting security and military-technical cooperation (from the modernization of the armed forces of the states of the region to the construction of military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). The second is facilitating energy projects in the oil and gas sector and hydropower. The third is strengthening the integration institutions of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), in which Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are full members and Tajikistan is a prospective member.
In addition, the importance of the Central Asian region for Russia is determined by a number of factors. Some elements, such as the apparent instability of borders (often arbitrarily set between the republics during the Soviet period), territorial disputes that have accumulated over the centuries, interethnic (or inter-clan) conflicts both between and within the new independent states, and a chronically unstable neighbouring Afghanistan threaten to destabilize the situation in the region. The emergence of a "vacuum of influence" and the porosity of borders may empower criminal and fundamentalist structures, something that threatens the security of Russia itself.
Together with risks, there are opportunities. Russia can develop and promote joint economic projects with the Central Asian states, lobby for the interests of Russian private capital in order to establish contacts with national business elites and obtain certain economic benefits.
In Central Asia, organizations such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), established in 2002, and the EAEU, established in 2014, are quite active. A significant part of the countries of Central Asia are involved in both organizations, in which Russia plays a major role.
Also, Russia has significant influence in Central Asia through “soft power”. Russian mass media, as well as films, TV series and theatrical performances are very popular in the region. Russia is looked at as a political model by many Central Asian governments and a legislative trend-setter: often, Central Asian countries adopt bills that are identical to Russia’s, for example, in the fight against extremism and terrorism or against “blasphemy”.
According to Russian analysts, the main reason for Russia’s growing role in Central Asia is the substantial weakening of the positions of its main regional competitors. After the United States decided to leave Afghanistan in the period from 2011 to 2014, Washington also started paying less and less attention to Central Asia too. The Central Asia project of the previous US administration led by Barack Obama, the C5+1 format, looked like a not very successful attempt to regain lost ground in the region. But with a very small budget of $15 million, this US project could not claim to be a full-fledged negotiation platform. After the election of Donald Trump, an acute domestic political crisis began in the United States (strong disagreements between him, the Democratic Party - which now controls the House of Representatives - and part of the Republican Party), so Central Asian foreign policy direction has become virtually unclaimed for an indefinite future.
More recently, in July of 2019, the EU adopted a new strategy for Central Asia. This indicates the EU’s desire to update the interaction base and rebuild relations with the region. Even the EU understands that it cannot greatly expand its presence in the region, because of the dominance of Russia and China, but it wants to continue to be an active player there.
As for China, it has significant economic opportunities, actively implements various projects in the countries of Central Asia, but also has to take into account the interests of Russia in the region, especially in terms of security, since it is Russia that provides security there through the already mentioned CSTO and joint agreements on military cooperation.
Russia’s bilateral relations with individual Central Asian countries show that it has maintained and, sometimes, enhanced, strong economic and political ties in the region.
Today, cooperation with Kazakhstan is developing in many areas. Kazakhstan is a key ally of Russia not only in Central Asia, but also, in general, in the post-Soviet space. At the same time, due to the great potential of the Kazakh economy (in 2015 Kazakhstan exceeded even Russia in terms of per capita GDP), Nur-Sultan is Moscow’s only active partner in integration processes that does not receive heavy subsidies and economic assistance from the Russian Federation, such as in the EAEU. There are significant energy projects between the two countries. Interregional and cross-border cooperation is intensifying between Russia and Kazakhstan, which is logical given the fact that the two countries have the longest land border in the world. Their partnership in the space, atomic energy and agricultural spheres is also expanding.
As for Uzbekistan, a serious breakthrough in relations was achieved after the election of Shavkat Mirziyoyev as president. This is significant from the viewpoint of Moscow’s interests, since relations with Uzbekistan have not always been warm. Uzbekistan left the CSTO twice: the first time in 1999, but returned in 2005, then in 2012, and it has no plans to rejoin, much to Russia’s discontent. Tashkent also suspended its membership in the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) in 2008. In April of 2017, during Mirziyoyev’s visit to Moscow, the two countries signed a package of agreements to implement trade contracts for $3.8 billion and significant investment projects for $12 billion. Among those who signed contracts with Uzbekistan are important Russian companies such as Gazprom, Rosteh, and Vnesheconombank. Militarily, Uzbekistan also gradually began to converge with the Russian side, as evidenced by preparations for large-scale joint exercises and the resumption of training in Russia for officers of the armed forces of Uzbekistan.
Russia is the leading trade and economic partner of Kyrgyzstan and cooperates with it in the gas sector. Gazprom is working on the gasification of Kyrgyzstan, discussing projects for gas pipelines to the southern regions of the country. Along with gas, Russia has been supplying Kyrgyzstan with fuel at reduced prices for decades, which is a form of interstate economic assistance.
Energy is also at the centre of Russia’ cooperation with Turkmenistan, primarily in the field of gas, in which both countries are rich. Besides this, official data show that Russia exports metals and their derivatives to Turkmenistan, as well as machinery, equipment and vehicles, food products and raw agricultural materials, receiving from Turkmenistan chemical products, textiles, fuel and energy products. Both countries actively cooperate in the field of education. In accordance with the Agreement between the governments of Turkmenistan and the Russian Federation dated 21 January 2002, a joint Turkmen-Russian comprehensive school named after Pushkin operates in Ashgabat. The school trains 50% of Russian citizens and the same number of Turkmen, as well as the children of employees in the Ashgabat diplomatic missions of the CIS countries. Graduates of the school receive a certificate of the Russian type; many of them have the opportunity to enroll in Russian universities on preferential terms.
As for Tajikistan, in recent years Russia has been confidently taking first place in terms of the volumes of mutual trade and investment cooperation with this country. Russia supplies oil products, wood, ferrous metals, machinery and technical products and food, receiving, in turn, cotton, fruits and vegetables. Military-technical cooperation is actively developing between the two countries, especially in the field of military education. Currently, more than 600 citizens of Tajikistan, including officers, are enrolled in training schools run by the Russian Ministry of Defense. At the 201st Russian military base, more than a thousand specialists a year are trained for the Tajikistan army. Scientific cooperation is also developing. In 2008, Russia and Tajikistan signed an intergovernmental agreement on the creation and activities of the Pamir-Chakaltaya International Research Center. The scientific base was restored and the international astrophysical experiment in the field of high-energy cosmic ray physics research has been continuing. Scientists from Japan, Poland, Brazil, Bolivia, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan take an active part in it. Furthermore, about 24,000 Tajik citizens are educated in higher and secondary educational institutions in Russia, according to the Minister of Education of Tajikistan Nuriddin Said. In general, the development dynamics of Russian-Tajik relations in the field of education reflect the trend of strengthening economic and political cooperation.
Summing up, in recent years, Russia has preserved a “special relation” with the countries of Central Asia, pursuing both old and some new forms of cooperation. It can be confidently said that Central Asia is still a very important region for contemporary Russian foreign policy, due to increase over time.