Central Asian Defense Cooperation: New Non-Russian Approaches
Central Asia is currently seeking to maximize its military and defense power, by using non-Russian capabilities. Meanwhile, many foreign players such as Turkey, India, Pakistan and some western countries have taken effective measures to take advantage of these conditions. By using these supports, the countries of the region have developed their defense and military infrastructure internally and in their intra-regional approaches.
By: IESS’ Central Asia Working Group
In general, military, defense and technical cooperation between countries is the highest level of cooperation. As long as there are no minimal agreements in the political and economic fields, it is practically impossible to form defense and military cooperation. This cooperation can have different levels: from the lowest levels, which is the purchase of weapons that are economic and non-strategic in nature, to the highest levels in the form of defense integration.
The countries of Central Asia, which have experienced all the desired levels with Russia during the post-independence years, have now turned to non-Russian approaches in this field. But these non-Russian approaches have not all been aligned, and have been pursued in different dimensions and levels. Therefore, the consequences of each of them can be different. In this report, these trends are identified, and the drivers and factors of their formation are investigated.
National and regional inward-looking approaches are the most important and strongest defense approaches that have been formed in Central Asian countries. These countries have made great efforts to localize the technical know-how to repair, train, maintain and modernize existing weapons (which are generally Russian) with minimal investments. In some new areas, these countries have also started assembling and producing some military equipment, such as armored vehicles and even drones. Among these measures are the agreement to assemble some tactical armored vehicles in Uzbekistan, the design and production of the Lochin drone by Uzbekistan, the launch of drone assembly lines by Turkmenistan, joint shipbuilding in Kazakhstan shipyards, and the assembly of drones in this country jointly with Turkey. Despite the economic challenges, the military and defense budgets of these countries have also increased as a result of these approaches. The primary result of this approach can be seen in the presence of Uzbekistan's defense industry at the UAE defense expo, or the export of some armored equipment by Kazakhstan to Jordan.
Along with these national trends, we have witnessed the strengthening of intra-regional approaches in Central Asia. Specifically, Uzbekistan has been the focal point of these defense and military cooperation. The most important regional cooperation has taken place between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Most of the cooperation between the two countries is affected by the defense and military cooperation agreement that was signed between the two countries in Tashkent in November 2021. In recent months, the two countries held a joint military exercise in Khwarazm province of Uzbekistan, with the aim of training and exchanging experiences. Previously, the two countries had held another joint exercise in Tirmaz, Uzbekistan, which seemed to be due to Afghanistan developments. The defense ministers of the two countries also recently met in Aktau, Kazakhstan, and agreed on further defense and military cooperation. In addition, during the last year, other joint exercises have been held between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Along this, the countries of the region have held independent national exercises. Last year, Turkmenistan held a relatively large exercise in the sea, air and land areas in the Balkan region, and Kazakhstan recently evaluated its readiness in an anti-terrorism exercise.
Among foreign actors (other than Russia), Turkey and recently the Republic of Azerbaijan are considered serious military and defense partners of Central Asian countries. Last year, Turkey and Kazakhstan reached a military intelligence sharing agreement, which was unprecedented before, especially within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and considering Turkey's membership in NATO. Recently, during Shir Ali Mirza's visit to Ankara, Tajikistan and Turkey reached a military and technical cooperation agreement. Turkey had previously signed military and technical cooperation documents with other countries in the region.
Turkey is also the largest exporter of weapons to Turkmenistan, and especially recently in the field of drones, it has made significant exports to the countries of the region (Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan). In this area, Kazakhstan has some negotiations to purchase modern Anka drones and review its operational tests. Kazakh authorities have announced the purchase and even assembly of other Turkish drones such as Bayraktar, Aksungur, and Akinji. Turkey has also reached a new agreement with Kazakhstan for the production of military ships in the Caspian Sea.
Along with Turkey, the Republic of Azerbaijan has also recently started significant military and technical cooperation with Central Asia. Last year, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan reached a joint plan to develop their military cooperation for 2023, and in recent months, the first joint military exercise between the two countries was held in Tashkent. Turkey and Azerbaijan have been among the main partners of NATO's Partnership for Peace (PfP) program in Central Asia.
India and Pakistan, as two actors in South Asia, have also shown new trends of military and technical cooperation with Central Asia. Of course, India has much more experience in this field and was even on the verge of establishing a military base in Tajikistan. Over the past two years, India has conducted different and separate exercises with the three countries of Kazakhstan (in the framework of the joint KAZIND exercise in southern Kazakhstan), Uzbekistan (the Dustlik exercise in the Indian state of Uttarakhand) and Kyrgyzstan (the Khanjar 2021 exercise as a joint annual exercise).
Pakistan has also shown new approaches to enter the military and defense arena of Central Asia. During the recent visit of Shir Ali Mirza to Islamabad, Pakistan reached a bilateral agreement on military and technical cooperation with Tajikistan. Pakistan has also been a major participant in the Eternal Brotherhood exercise in Turkey. This exercise was held last year with the presence of the military forces of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
In addition to these co-operations, the West (especially the United States of America, NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and some European countries) have started some military and technical co-operations with Central Asian countries during the last three decades. This cooperation has been especially focused on the purchase of weapons and military equipment, the provision of foreign military and technical assistance, and especially the provision of training programs. In this framework, the United States has even reached some bilateral agreements with Turkmenistan, and even despite Russia's objections and sensitivities, it held a joint exercise with the presence of the military forces of Central Asian countries.
However, due to various reasons (especially Moscow's sensitivities and considerations), Central Asian countries have not been able to form a deep military and technical cooperation in this area since 2014. America's withdrawal from the region after the attack on Afghanistan, especially the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and America's failure to establish a minimal military presence in Central Asia, are among the signs of this double conservatism. Of course, there are speculations about the secret cooperation of the countries of this region - and even their private military organizations - with Western actors.
Contexts and motivations
There are many reasons that have led the strategic defense and military approach of Central Asian countries to a non-Russian and non-Western approach. Despite more than two decades of activity, CSTO is still weakening and the divergence among its members has increased due to the lack of political and security efficiency. At the same time, three serious military conflicts for the member countries of CSTO - which include the 2020 Karabakh war, the Tajik-Kyrgyz border conflicts in 2021 and 2022, and finally the 2023 Ukraine war - clearly proved the operational limitations of this organization. It was only in some limited cases, such as the January unrest in Kazakhstan, that we have witnessed a quick and acceptable performance by CSTO.
The repeated statements of CSTO member states that they do not export weapons to Russia and do not support it, have also created a kind of gradually deviating norm. In such a context, the member countries tend towards other partnerships that have a lower level of commitment and, of course, are more efficient. For non-member countries in the region, such as Uzbekistan, CSTO has also lost its attractiveness and has been considered only in the framework of limited and functional partnerships. Among the examples of this type of participation was Uzbekistan's participation in CSTO military exercise centered on Afghanistan.
Besides this trend, two other factors have also been influential in these approaches. First, after the Ukraine war, the costs of interaction with Russia, especially in the military and defense fields, have increased drastically. At the same time, the double problems caused by sanctions have spread these costs to civilian areas. Second, these countries have clearly realized that Russia, as an international power and Eurasian hegemon, basically lacks the necessary capabilities in defense areas, and also faces severe structural problems and limitations. Low quality of weapons, compared to the weapons sent to Ukraine (such as the range and accuracy of missiles), fundamental problems in the use of weapons (especially armored equipment), wrong tactics in the use of weapons (mainly in the Air Force), command problems (with the emergence of crises such as Prigogine and Wagner's forces) has been among the factors that have strengthened the non-Russian defense and military approaches in Central Asian countries. Basically, it should be said that the qualitative and quantitative level of weapons, management and command in these countries, which are modeled on Russia, is much lower.
At the same time, pragmatism in facing the threats from Afghanistan, as well as the possibility of any anti-Russian and anti-Chinese movements from the West using the Central Asia card, has led these countries to maximize their defense power, diversify their functions, and modernize their military structures. Since the Taliban came to power, the perception of security threats and the emergence of security uncertainty in northern Afghanistan has increased significantly. In addition, the countries of Central Asia have realized that in case of any crisis in northern Afghanistan and its spread to Central Asia, Russia will not have a significant capacity for an immediate action with high quantity and quality. With the expansion of the crisis in Ukraine and the erosion of the Russian army's military power, Moscow will not be able to take large-scale and high-level actions in armor, artillery and air support (similar to the situation in the first months of the Ukraine war). This has prompted the countries of Central Asia to self-help and maximize their military and defense power, and to increase the efficiency of their current power significantly.
Central Asia is currently seeking to maximize its military and defense power, by using non-Russian capabilities. Meanwhile, many foreign players such as Turkey, India, Pakistan and some western countries have taken effective measures to take advantage of these conditions. By using these supports, the countries of the region have developed their defense and military infrastructure internally and in intra-regional approaches.
In this context, the Islamic Republic of Iran has several important relative advantages to participate in this process. First, the reputation of high-quality and cheap Iranian products (especially after the war in Syria and Ukraine) has clearly improved internationally, and this will be an important factor in marketing and market-making.
Second, Iran's unique capabilities in functional, modern, asymmetric and low-cost areas, such as personnel equipment, armored equipment, electronic equipment, and especially in the fields of drones and short-range missiles/rockets, are very attractive and needed for Central Asian countries.
Third, strengthening the military-defense partnership between Iran and Central Asia can be done within the framework of common security concerns, and without provoking the countries of the region. On the other hand, in issues such as regional stability and Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia have a common position, and it can be considered a political privilege for this partnership.
This context, along with the serious attention of the defense industries of the Islamic Republic of Iran to this issue with a strategic-market look, can create important platforms for strengthening the role, influence and position of Iran in the region. Not paying serious attention to Russia's considerations and trying to adopt a pragmatic and functional approach in the region is a factor that can guarantee the success of the defense diplomacy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Central Asia.