WHEN the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, a major concern was the future of the large Russian populations in its Islamic Central Asian republics. That issue has been largely settled politically, and peacefully. Violence and armed insurrection in the Muslim areas of Chechnya were, however, dealt with ruthlessly after the Chechens mounted an armed insurgency with support from some Islamic countries. The parting of ways with Russia was peaceful in the Soviet Union’s Muslim-majority Asian republics, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. This has enabled the emergence of broadly secular regimes across Central Asia.
The recent summit between Modi and Central Asian leaders and the construction of the Chabahar port should be taken up with meaningful economic involvement in the region.
The leadership of the predominantly Islamic countries in Central Asia remained in the hands of leaders who were influential before the Soviet Union collapsed. They adopted a policy of maintaining good relations with Russia while shunning religious extremism. They have, in turn, received strong Russian backing in overcoming religious extremism, backed by outsiders, including the Taliban. Large numbers of Russians still remain in the erstwhile Soviet Central Asian republics. Three erstwhile Soviet Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — together with three members of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact — Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia — have, however, joined the US-led NATO.
Tensions have run deep between Russia and its neighbour Ukraine, with which it has territorial disputes. The rivalry grew after interference by the US in Ukraine in 2004, when the US allegedly backed the overthrow of a Moscow-friendly Ukrainian government in Kiev. Moscow has viewed US moves in Ukraine as an effort to control its access to the warm waters of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Ocean. President Putin was conscious of these dangers and moved decisively in 2014 to take control of the Crimean region, thus establishing direct Russian access to the Black Sea.
Moscow then focused on efforts to restore security in its erstwhile Muslim-dominated republics like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, bordering Afghanistan. Recognition of these complexities has led Russia to seek a realistic relationship with the Taliban. Moscow and New Delhi have remained in touch on the developments in Afghanistan. While there is ostensible Russian understanding with China across Eurasia, Russia’s historical experiences on its borders with China inevitably require it to monitor Chinese actions.
Despite US threats of sanctions on countries which acquire weapons from Russia, New Delhi has gone ahead with getting crucial defence equipment from Russia. The Putin dispensation has strengthened its defence cooperation with India by not voicing objections to India supplying jointly developed BrahMos missiles to the Philippines. India has also expressed its readiness to make similar supplies to Vietnam and others. Putin recently visited New Delhi, reiterating the importance Russia attaches to ties with India. New Delhi has made it clear that notwithstanding US misgivings, it will abstain on US moves in the UN Security Council to ostracise Russia.
Having raised US public opinion against Moscow, President Biden has followed through with highly publicised arms shipments to Ukraine, which has serious differences with Moscow. This show of assertiveness was inevitable, following the poorly planned US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Moscow, however, has no reason to invade Ukraine and land itself in a military quagmire. The possibility of Putin considering limited strikes in border areas of Ukraine, which have large Russian populations, cannot, however, be excluded. While its European allies have supported the US on its approach to ties with Russia, countries like France and Germany have reservations about any military escalation arising from NATO actions.
With international attention diverted from its own border transgressions across its entire Asia-Pacific neighbourhood, China appears to be enjoying the role of ‘peacemaker’ in the region while backing Putin. China would, however, like nothing better than sowing seeds of discord between Moscow and Washington, so that Russia’s growing oil and gas surpluses could be diverted to it, rather than to Germany, or other European/Baltic countries, which are US allies.
The collapse of the Soviet Union reduced Moscow’s influence in countries which were members of the Warsaw Pact. A number of East European countries in Russia’s neighbourhood do, however, fear continuing Russian domination. Russia enjoys influence globally because of its immense resources of oil and gas, which not only meet its own needs, but also are being moved on its ‘Nord Stream’ pipelines to destinations across Europe (notably Germany). This, even as Moscow retains its influence across the Mediterranean and beyond its Pacific shores.
Interestingly, while US policies are now predominantly focused on Russia’s relations with Ukraine, China has been strengthening its coast guard with new legislation, and by resorting to coercion to enforce its untenable maritime boundary claims on maritime neighbours, like the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia. While there have been consultations between ASEAN partners to deal with Chinese aggression, New Delhi needs to work with regional partners and Quad to get the US and others to focus much greater attention on the serious security implications of Chinese expansionism. India should also focus greater attention now on new measures for expanding economic and investment cooperation with Central Asian countries. The recent summit between PM Modi and leaders of Central Asian countries, and the construction of the Chabahar port in Iran, should now be followed up with meaningful economic involvement in the region.
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