Recently in a meeting with the heads of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), President Putin announced that he wants to put together a military coalition consisting of troops from each of the member states. In a bid to continue the fight against the growing threat of international terrorism, President Putin sees Central Asia as the next front. He pointed to the several thousand Central Asian fighters currently engaged in the Syrian conflict who are “fighting on the side of the Islamic State” . He cautioned the leaders of Central Asia that the terrorist infiltration will come from Afghanistan. Central Asia’s long and porous border with Afghanistan has always been a plaguing concern for Russia.
HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?
When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1992, Central Asia became a chaotic and unstable region. The disorder eventually spilled over into a brutal civil war in Tajikistan. On one side was the dictatorship of Nabiyev and his patron, Russia, while the other side was Tajik Islamists. The civil war lasted for five years and left almost 100,000 dead. The region became engulfed with internal discord between the authoritarian dictators and Islamists. With help from Russia, most of the uprisings were eventually contained but not eradicated.
Former US national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, referred to the area as a “Black Hole” in his book The Grand Chessboard. Similar to Afghanistan, the area lacks any sort of cohesive national identity rather it is a hodgepodge of ethnic rivalries, tribal loyalties, and historical vendettas all laced with religious ardor.
When the Taliban swept into power in the early 1990’s, many in the region apprehensively watched as the fundamentalist group began to advance across Afghanistan. In August of 2000, as the Taliban were at the apex of their power and were slowly eliminating the last enclave of their opposition, Islamists in Central Asia, emboldened by the gains of the Taliban, briefly revolted in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
During their tenure in power, the Taliban trained and provided safe haven for most of Central Asia’s radicals. The fear of Islamist revolutions across Central Asia pushed Russia to send troops to the region’s long border with Afghanistan. A year later, 9/11 happened and shortly thereafter the Taliban were removed from power. Fourteen years on, the Taliban have reappeared on the scene. With the recent Taliban capture of Kunduz, situated near the Tajik-Afghan border, a fear of Islamic fundamentalism reemerging in Central Asia seems to have Russia panicking for more troops again.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
It is the utmost importance for Russia to retain Central Asia as its “backyard”. The region serves as a platform for Russia to project power into the Middle East, East Asia, and Southeast Asia. In addition, Central Asia serves as buffer for Russia from a spillover of the chaos that plagues Afghanistan. If Central Asia’s radicals manage to take over a country like Tajikistan or Uzbekistan (the two most susceptible to fall), then a domino effect will ensue, bringing the rest of the region down and eventually culminating into the disintegration of Kazakhstan, the last stop before Russia.
The lack of a natural barrier in Russia’s southern border makes the situation more distressing for Russian planners. The rise of fundamentalism in Russia’s own autonomous regions does not help either. Russia fears that if it does not protect the Central Asian border with Afghanistan, Islamic fundamentalism can eventually flood Russia itself.
Beyond Russia’s fear of regional instability, there are geopolitical reasons for Russia trying to reassert its presence in the region. Despite still being the regional power, Russia is now vying with the US, China, India, Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan to assert its dominance in Central Asia. Aside from the natural resources that are present, the ability to project power into almost anywhere into the Eurasian heartland from Central Asia is almost immeasurable. With the US withdrawing its presence from the region and the Taliban intensifying their campaign in Afghanistan, Russian troops were bound to appear at the border.
Unlike Syria, Russia will not go on the offensive in Afghanistan. It tried this once and failed horribly. Instead Russian planners will need to create a strategy to ensure a defensive and secure perimeter is setup for Central Asia. With Russia leading the fight in Syria to prevent ISIS infiltrating the Caucuses, they now have to look at building up the defense capabilities of Central Asia to prevent a Talibanization as the US pulls out of Afghanistan.
 Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia, page 8. Ahmed Rashid