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Strengthening the Central Military District: causes and consequences

Interview with Yuri Poita, Head of the Asia-Pacific Section of the Army Research Center, conversion and disarmamentIn Brainstorming exclusive.kz on the militarization of the Russian Federation in the Central Asian direction, the consequences of the adopted amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation on foreign policy towards its neighbors, the impact of the pandemic on the development of the security situation in the region.

- Yuri, in a recent discussion you said that Russia is increasing its military presence on the borders with Central Asia. This is a rather disturbing statement. How could you confirm it?

- In fact, from the point of view of Ukraine, any attempts at militarization are alarming and threatening. In the discussion, we talked about the militarization of Russia both in the west and in Central Asia. I meant the strengthening of the Central Military District, whose potential has always been high. His troops have always exceeded in their capabilities, both quantitatively and qualitatively, the armed forces of neighboring states. But recently, according to our observations, there is a tendency to increase them.

This trend started after 2008. Let me remind you that then there was a military operation against Georgia, as a result of which the Russian leadership saw serious mistakes in its army and decided to move to Western standards. However, after 2014, new connections were created in the western direction. This applies to the first tank army, the 20th army, which was created on the border with Ukraine, the occupying Russian troops in the Donbass, etc.

As for the Central Military District, there is also militarization.

First, during this time the combat strength was increased, primarily in tank formations. Let me remind you that the tank part is intended for offensive operations. In addition, work was carried out to reformat the assault brigade into a division, which significantly increases the possibility of offensive operations. In addition, the navy in the Caspian Sea has been significantly strengthened. In the last few years, about 18 new warships have arrived there, and those that significantly help increase missile capabilities, both offensive and landing. In addition, a regiment of marines was created, and landing ships intended for the logistical support of the secular infantry also entered service. Plus, new logistics are being created, a new military base is being formed on the Caspian Sea, which increases the capabilities of the Russian Federation.

It should also be noted the annual large-scale military-strategic exercises. Last year it was "Center-2019", the year before last "East-2018", before that "West-2017". According to our observations, these teachings are special for several reasons: 1) large scale; 2) the comprehensive use of all types of armed forces and the conduct of offensive operations, the transfer of troops over long distances. That is, the possibility of logistics for the transfer of troops from the Western Military District and the Eastern Military District is being tested and tested.

I am not saying that this is a threat to Central Asian countries. However, new tools are being created that are more ready to perform the tasks. As for the military presence in Central Asia, its dynamics of increase is small. In principle, there is no significant growth of Russian bases abroad. Interestingly, US troops are now being withdrawn from Afghanistan. Therefore, I think that under the pretext of a threat from Afghanistan, Russia will raise the issue with the Central Asian countries to increase its presence.

- Is the largest increase in the quantitative and qualitative composition of troops on the border with Kazakhstan?

"I think so." The troops of the Central District and the operational direction are Central Asia. Of all the Central Asian countries, only Kazakhstan borders Russia. I am not saying that this is a direct threat to Kazakhstan, as the relevant agreements have been signed. In particular, Kazakhstan is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Eurasian Economic Union, etc.

- In that case, do you have a hypothesis why this is done?

- A difficult question. First, this is happening in the context of Russia's general militarization. We see that it is ready to defend its national interests more aggressively, including abroad. We see this in Georgia and Ukraine. I think that various scenarios are being worked out now, including in Central Asia and Kazakhstan. It is possible that one of the scenarios is a conflict, perhaps small in scale, in Central Asia, in which the Russian armed forces will be involved. Therefore, the funds are formed, and how they will be used depends on the development of the general situation in the region.

- If you accept the hypothetical version of the military conflict with one of the post-Soviet countries, do you think Russia is able to withstand the "second front"?

- First, I think the "second front" sounds incorrect, because it involves strong resistance. In relation to Kazakhstan, everything can be simple and easy on the part of Russia - its quantitative and qualitative parameters are many times higher than Kazakhstan's. But, from my point of view, this is extremely useless, because Kazakhstan is an ally of Russia, an economic partner, a member of many organizations. However, the Ukrainian experience shows that economic relations cannot be a guarantee of security. Therefore, a force scenario in the event of a change in the situation is not excluded. I would single out several factors in favor of such a scenario: 1) the unpredictability of the policy of the Russian leadership; 2) weakness of the armed forces of Kazakhstan; 3) location and deployment of military units; 4) weak logistics for the transfer of troops to the north; 5) the weakness of international law, which is ineffective in conflict prevention; 6) lack of Central Asian security systems.

- Isn't your vigilance explained by the fact that, as a representative of Ukraine, you thicken the paint too much?

- I agree that our susceptibility to such threats is high. In 2014, we faced a real threat of losing statehood. And the risks at the moment, including the military, in relation to Ukraine on the part of Russia are and remain. Of course, they are changing, the scenarios of the situation are different. But, at the same time, I would talk about a very real experience. There are negative markers.

We see that the conditions have already been created, because the threat is formed of two parts: opportunities and intentions. Opportunities for the implementation of such a scenario have been created. That is, it remains a matter of intentions and implementation. We are witnessing global changes in international relations, including due to the pandemic and the crisis. From my point of view, the recent interview of the President of Kazakhstan Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev is significant, which, in my opinion, hinted at the possibility of risks on the part of Russia.

- You very often repeat about the threat to the political and economic sovereignty of Kazakhstan. What role do you think the systemic economic crisis and pandemic can play in this?

- From my point of view, an economically weak state in such conditions becomes more dependent on strong states. What are the risks here? First, obtaining loans in difficult economic conditions, for which you will have to somehow pay. There may be completely different scenarios and options. In Tajikistan, for example, it is the transfer of mineral deposits. In other countries, there may be a transfer of infrastructure, or political retribution, that is, the adoption of favorable decisions for another state in both foreign and domestic policy. Secondly, pedaling to the accession of regional organizations. Today, it is noticeable that in the background of the pandemic, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are advancing the view that joining the Eurasian Economic Union will solve many economic problems. This includes entering new markets, access to financial resources, and improving the working conditions of emigrants. But, following the five years of this organization's existence, from 2015 to 2020, we can see weak economic benefits for existing members in the face of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Finally, deeper integration. A clear example is Belarus and Russia. The difficult economic situation, in my view, intensifies the protest mood before the election. Scenarios may be different in each country…

- How can you comment on the referendum in Russia? What are the scenarios?

- The main task of this referendum is to nullify the term of the incumbent president, to ensure the possibility of further election and remaining in power. The other amendments are either technical or have nothing to do with reality. For example, amendments such as "Russia is the guarantor of international law and stability" against the background of recent military conflicts sound ridiculous.

However, I would single out three areas that have an impact on Russia's foreign policy towards its neighbors. The policy of strengthening in the post-Soviet space will be continued with both soft and hard tools. Amendments are being made to stimulate a more active policy of Russia towards compatriots living abroad. In addition, a new item has been added to establish the priority of the Constitution of the Russian Federation over international treaties. It seems a risk to me, because if they are adopted, the rules of international law will not be complied with.

Constant and unfriendly rhetoric and unfriendly actions towards other countries are growing. This applies to statements by both political scientists and President Putin regarding Kazakhstan. I would like to recall Putin's statement in 2008 in connection with Ukraine's policy towards NATO. He said that 1/3 of Ukrainians are ethnic Russians. For example, in the Crimea. And "Ukraine exists in this form only thanks to the Soviet period." This was 2008, when Ukraine did not receive NATO membership. In 2014, at the Seliger Youth Forum, the Russian president was asked about nationalist sentiment in southern Kazakhstan in the context of the possibility of repeating the "Ukrainian scenario", to which he replied that the first president of Kazakhstan created a state in the territory where there has never been a state. "

A few days ago, an article was published that the institute of the CIS countries conducted an analysis of the situation of compatriots abroad, in which conclusions were drawn, including about Kazakhstan. It says that the use of the Russian language is shrinking, anti-Russian Russification continues, and emphasizes that the new government in Kazakhstan is following the path of Kazakhization more than the previous leadership. It is proposed to reformat foreign policy in the following areas: 1) protection of the right to the Russian language; 2) funding of pro-Russian organizations, etc .. And the general recommendation is that a tougher offensive policy is needed.

An interesting study by the Allies Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) has recently been published on the things that irritate Russia in relation to Kazakhstan. In domestic politics, it is de-Russification, Kazakhization, renaming of cities, the transition to Latin. In foreign policy, multi-vector and military cooperation with Western countries. Conclusion: there may be a conflict between different representatives of the ethnic group in Kazakhstan. The election of a new president also heightens fears that he may pursue pro-Western or pro-Chinese policies.

- I hope that Russia has many internal contradictions and internal problems and they will not be up to us. However, what could be done to Kazakhstan to maintain this fragile balance?

- The experience of Ukraine suggests that the Russian leadership understands and respects the language of force. The flattening strategy does not work. In Ukraine, until 2014, the armed forces were virtually destroyed. There was a lot of influence from Russia in the leadership of Ukraine. Moreover, purposeful work was carried out in many law enforcement agencies to reduce military potential.

It is difficult to say how Kazakhstan can act. It is necessary to assess the real level of threats, risks and strengthen their capabilities. In Kazakhstan, the armed forces are not concentrated north of Nur Sultan. Weak transport aviation, difficult transfer of equipment. The landing troops in the center and south cannot be quickly transferred to the north. Plus, there is a feeling that no military exercises are being held in the northern direction. Military forces are weak in the Caspian Sea as well as in Ukraine on the Black Sea. Unfortunately, in five years we have not corrected this situation. Kazakhstan repeats our mistakes.

The full version of the interview is available here: