Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Muted Reactions to Russian Interventionism

Moscow's talk of pre-emptive strikes dismissed as playing to Russian nationalist sentiment at home.
By IWPR staff

Central Asian governments have reacted calmly to the Russian military's recently announced interventionist policy. Analysts say Moscow's new strategy is intended more for domestic consumption than as a threat to its neighbours.


Russian defence minister Sergei Ivanov outlined a revised military doctrine at the beginning of October. As well as reserving the right to carry out pre-emptive strikes anywhere in the world - a significant change - the document suggests that Russia could take military action in the former Soviet republics, especially the less stable ones, if it felt under threat.


Ivanov indicated that the possible reasons for intervention could include "ethnic or political conflict" in these countries, and other dangers to Russia's economic welfare. He also cited some broader motives for action - for example, if the ruling regime in one of these countries "takes steps to curtail democratic change". That suggests that Russia is willing to play the role of watchdog for democratic government in Central Asia and other former Soviet states.


And Moscow might also take action if "Russian nationals [living] in foreign countries face discrimination and violation of their rights, liberties and legitimate interests", said Ivanov.


Some felt that the new military plan was intended to give teeth to a more assertive Russian strategy for dealing with former Soviet neighbours.


"It may be perceived in other CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] countries as an attempt to restrict the independence of these states, and to control their relationships with the outside world," said Rashid Gani, a political scientist in Tajikistan.


Other political analysts dismissed the document, dubbed the "Ivanov doctrine", as an exercise in public relations designed to reassure the Russian electorate - and persuade the world - that the country is important.


"The new military programme is a symbolic attempt by Russia to regain its role as a world power," said Moscow-based Central Asia expert Arkady Dubnov.


Alexei Malashenko, a Central Asian analyst with the Carnegie Centre in Moscow, said, "It is aimed at the domestic public and the outside world, and is an attempt to send a message that Russia is still a strong power to be reckoned with."


Bektur Asanov, who leads the Kyrgyz opposition party Erkin Kyrgyzstan, agrees that the Ivanov doctrine is essentially backward-looking, "The majority of Russian people are sympathetic to imperialistic aspirations, and statements of this kind inspire them."


If the new policy is aimed at anyone, some of the Central Asian republics might seem top of the list. After all, their governments fall short - in some cases very far short - of democratic standards, and any instability there could pose a threat to Russia's interests.


But reaction from governments in Central Asia was muted. Russia's close allies in the region are Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which together with Armenia and Belarus are part of a joint security treaty with Moscow. Kazak defence minister Mukhtar Altynbaev told IWPR that relations with the Kremlin would not be affected by the Ivanov doctrine. "We have signed the Collective Security Treaty, and there are also [bilateral] agreements on peace and eternal friendship," he said.


Some politicians in Kazakstan were worried, believing that Ivanov's reference to protecting the rights of Russians abroad could apply to Kazakstan, which has a large Slav minority. "I think it is a very dangerous statement," said Kazak deputy Serik Abdrakhmanov.


Kazakstan has a long border with Russia and the two economies are closely intertwined. Relations have remained generally good since the two countries separated 12 years ago. The major political issue between them - the Russian minority - has never been allowed to come to a head at government level, while the important question of oil export routes has been handled fairly amicably so far.


Neighbouring Kyrgyzstan has similarly close ties to Russia, and this year allowed it to open a military airbase near the capital Bishkek. Kyrgyz foreign ministry representative Erkin Mamkulov said the Russian defence document "merely identifies the threats which the Russian armed forces are facing".


Further south, in Tajikistan, top army official Major-General Ravil Narydov told IWPR that "the Ivanov doctrine does not represent any danger for countries like Tajikistan which are members of the Collective Security Treaty".


"Tajikistan remains, and will continue to be, on good terms with Moscow," he said.


Moscow has maintained a full army division in Tajikistan since the end of the Soviet Union, and also patrols its border with Afghanistan. The weak Tajik forces would be hard pressed to deal with real external threats without Russian help.


The Russian defence document did not provoke strong reactions from Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, either. These states have grown more distant from the Russian sphere in the 11 years since independence.


Uzbekistan, the most populous country and best-armed country in Central Asia, has sought the role of regional leader, resulting in a sometimes uneasy relationship with Russia. But Sanobar Shermatova, an analyst based in Moscow, says relations are gradually improving, "Uzbekistan has begun to realise that it needs a balanced foreign policy. It has to balance Western influence with good relations with Russia." Shermatova said no one in the Russian military or political establishment would contemplate using force against Uzbekistan.


Many observers thought Moscow had Turkmenistan in mind when it spoke about democracy and the rights of Russian nationals. Relations between the two countries deteriorated earlier this year when the Ashgabat leadership ordered the local Russian community to give up their Russian passports or face expulsion from the country.


According to David Lewis of the International Crisis Group, Russia's failure to look after its nationals in Turkmenistan suggests it is not as serious about the issue as Ivanov's comments imply.


"Given today's Russian realities, it is unrealistic that Russia would be able to defend the rights of Russians, or human rights generally, in any country," he told IWPR.


Malashenko - talking about Central Asia as a whole - believes the reference to democratic progress is less than it seems, "It is difficult for me to see Russia as a guarantor of democracy.


"It is much easier for Moscow to deal with authoritarian regimes in the [Central Asian] region than with more democratically-oriented elites. Russia prefers to deal with the likes of [Uzbek president Islam] Karimov or [Kazakstan's Nursultan] Nazarbaev, who are a lot more predictable than any other groups that might replace them."


Laura Amirova in Astana, Galima Bukharbaeva in Tashkent, Lydia Isamova, Mumammadjon Toshtemirov in Dushanbe and Leila Saralaeva in Bishkek contributed to this report.