The Fallout of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict on Central Asia: Implications for India

The fallout of the Russia-Ukraine conflict is visible on several countries and region at individual level, mostly in the form of economic challenges. However, this conflict is also causing alterations in the interactions between countries and regions. As the world is rapidly getting divided into two camps, most countries would find a need to reset their engagements with other countries and regions. 

Central Asia is one such region which is dealing with the adverse effects of the Russia-Ukraine war. From India’s perspective it is pertinent to consider what challenges this conflict would present in its engagements with the Central Asian countries. 

Impact on Central Asia

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has an impact on the Central Asian countries, which were once the part of the Soviet Union. The Central Asian countries have mostly remained neutral on the issue of Russia’s military action on Ukraine. On March 2, 2022, during the special emergency session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan abstained from voting while Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan remained absent. 

The sanctions imposed on Russia by the Western countries are causing collateral damage to the economies of the Central Asian countries as well. The Central Asian countries’ economies continue to remain closely associated with the Russian economy. Since the start of war on February 24, the Russian ruble has fallen by 50%. As Russia is the top trading partner of the Central Asian countries, their respective currencies are experiencing volatility as well. 

Along with trade, the Central Asian countries, particularly Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, depend upon the remittances from the migrants who work in Russia. Since the start of the war, uncertainty looms over the future of these workers as well as remittances. Remittances to Kyrgyzstan are expected to fall by 33% and to Tajikistan by 22% this year. 

Also Russia has announced a ban on the export of grain and sugar to the fellow members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) until the end of August. The members of the EAEU, which include Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, will not be able to import wheat, rye, corn and barley from Russia. As the Russia-Ukraine war continues, the Central Asian countries would continue to experience the adverse consequences. 

The China factor

China’s approach to this conflict must be taken as an indication as to its larger designs of pushing for a China-centric order. While conventional thinking would point towards the possibility of greater proximity between China and Russia as the Western countries keep imposing sanctions on Russia, the emerging reality could be different. In a bilateral summit held in February 2022, both China and Russia affirmed their partnership to be one with ‘no limits’. This was to present a united front against the US. However, when resolutions deploring Russia’s actions in Ukraine were presented for voting, China abstained from voting both the times, once in the UNSC and once in the UNGA. That China chose not to vote in favor of Russia indicates that their strong ties are more out of compulsion than choice. 

Russia’s assertive actions in Ukraine are not only a challenge for the Western countries but they are a challenge for China as well. Russia’s reasoning of protecting its security interests translate to maintaining its sphere of influence. Just like Ukraine, Russia considers Central Asia as its sphere of influence where China’s clout has been increasing rapidly since last two decades. China has made major investments and is a part of a number of infrastructure and connectivity projects in Central Asia. Prolonged military operations by Russia in Ukraine would be considered as a threat by China to its interests in the region. This ultimately would lead to China looking at Russia as a competitor and rival rather than a partner. Besides, China would take the opportunity to step in to reduce the economic strain on the Central Asian countries endured due to their over dependence on Russia. 

Implications for India

The end of 2021 and the start of 2022 have witnessed India accelerating its engagements with the Central Asian countries. In November 2021, India hosted the Delhi Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan in which National Security Advisors of eight countries including India participated. The other seven countries included five Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – along with Russia and Iran. In December 2021, the 3rd India-Central Asia Dialogue was held in New Delhi which was chaired by the Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar and was attended by the foreign ministers of the Central Asian countries. In January 2022, the first India-Central Asia Summit was held virtually between the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the leaders of the Central Asian countries. 

Since the past few years, India has been taking steps in positioning itself as a major stakeholder in Central Asia and Eurasia. India’s interests in the region, in addition to getting access to rich natural resources found in Central Asia, are developing connectivity gateways from India to Central Asia and Eurasia. India’s projects include the Chabahar Port in Iran as well as the International North-South Transit Corridor (INSTC) and the Ashgabat Agreement. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban has caused India to intensify its diplomatic engagements with Central Asia. The instability in Afghanistan could also lead to India finding an alternate route to Central Asia by circumventing Afghanistan. 

In addition to the security concerns emanating from Afghanistan, the Russia-Ukraine conflict presents a fresh set of challenges to India’s outreach to Central Asia. India’s outreach is driven by economic factors as much as strategic interests that imply a counter to China. However, Russia’s military action against Ukraine could result in China intensifying its engagements with the Central Asian countries. The fact that China already enjoys strong economic ties with the region also goes against India. India’s relations with Central Asia have moved slowly in the 30 years since establishment of diplomatic ties. Despite the end of the Cold War, the Central Asian countries continue to be in Russia’s shadow. Russia’s isolation due to the conflict with Ukraine provides China an opportunity to challenge Russia’s influence in the region. 

These developments do not bode well for India. India has experienced a setback in Afghanistan with the US withdrawal. Central Asia’s greater tilt towards China would further create strategic concerns for India. India is already dealing with the Chinese hostilities along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) since last two years. 

The Central Asian countries, on the other hand, should consider the Russia-Ukraine conflict as an opportunity to implement the multi-vector foreign policy. Given its strategic and economic importance, Central Asia is a region of interests for a number of powers such as Russia, China, India, Turkey, the US and the European countries as well. However, the Central Asian countries should now look to diversify its engagements outside of the competition between Russia and China. For its part, India also needs to step up and quickly follow up the momentum it has created in the past few months. 

[Anti-war protest in Vancouver, Canada. Photo by GoToVan]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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