MOSCOW -- As a far smaller economic power than China, Russia is trying to maintain an equal status with its southern neighbor by taking the lead security role in Central Asia.
Russia has been sounding the alarm over Islamic terrorists and is steadily boosting its military presence in the region. Beijing, for its part, may focus on its economic role, with its "One Belt, One Road" development initiative along the ancient Silk Road trade route, and leave security issues largely up to Moscow.
At a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Kazakhstan in mid-October, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that the situation in Afghanistan is nearing a critical point and that the risk of terrorist organizations penetrating into Central Asia is growing.
The leaders of the CIS, made up of former Soviet republics, adopted a concept of military cooperation at the meeting that will last until 2020. They also agreed to consider creating a joint military unit to deal with contingencies in border areas.
These moves are in line with Russia's push to expand its military presence in Central Asia. The country has already extended its leases for military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan into the coming decades and has deployed new fighter jets to its Kyrgyz air base. Moscow also announced a plan to raise the number of personnel stationed at the Tajik base by 50%, to 9,000.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization, an alliance of six CIS states, including Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, decided to establish a rapid deployment force that can respond to an emergency within 72 hours. The members have already been conducting large-scale military exercises led by Russia to suppress enemy troops.
Seeing Central Asia as within its sphere of influence, Russia created the Eurasian Economic Union in an attempt to maintain its sway over countries in the region. But Western sanctions and falling crude oil prices pushed Russia into recession. Suffering from their own economic downturns, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have all joined the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. This has left Russia with no choice but to resort to its military might to maintain its position.
Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan share a border with Afghanistan and are no doubt worried about incursions by the Taliban and Islamic State. The Russian government maintains that 5,000 to 7,000 people from Russia and other former Soviet republics have joined Islamic State. There is also the concern that worsening economic conditions could destabilize Central Asian countries ruled by autocratic leaders, leaving them even more vulnerable to terrorist groups.
Russia is particularly focusing on Tajikistan. The Taliban briefly seized the Afghan city of Kunduz, near the border with Tajikistan, in September. Moscow provided military aid worth $1.2 billion and is reportedly considering resuming patrols along the Tajik-Afghan border. These moves are intended partly to keep Western influence in the region at bay.
Stability in Central Asia is essential for the success of China's Silk Road initiative. At the same time, Beijing and Moscow have deepened their ties by excluding the U.S. from Central Asia. Given these circumstances, China may well tolerate Russia's growing military role in the region.