Turkey in Central Asia, It Is Not Just About Schools and Construction

President Erdogan
Image by World Humanitarian Summit, is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

There is an abundance of quite informative analytical articles and scientific papers in Western media concerning the influence of China or Russia in Central Asia, including the military influence. Central Asia is gradually becoming a region where China and Russia are not partners, but competitors. However, in addition to China and Russia, there is another active player in Central Asia, Turkey, which has been rapidly increasing its presence in this region in recent years. For Turkey, the Central Asian region has not just economic and strategic, but also great cultural and historical significance. Against the backdrop of growing Turkish global ambitions, it has recently become obvious that Turkey’s objectives in this region go much beyond cultural or economic presence. Apparently, Turkey attempts to form a kind of alliance or union of Turkic-speaking states. If Ankara indeed has such intentions, they are impossible to achieve without a military component. Military ties between Turkey and the Turkic states have significantly strengthened over the past few years.

Military cooperation of Turkey with the countries of Central Asia includes both donation of weapons and equipment, as it was with Kyrgyzstan, and joint military exercises, for example with Uzbekistan (Turkey also signed an agreement on military cooperation with Uzbekistan), as well as defense industry cooperation, as with Kazakhstan … 

In 1993, Turkey and Turkmenistan signed an agreement on military education, and in addition to military officers, the officers of security forces also received training in Turkey. The same year, similar agreements were signed with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and in 1994 also with Kazakhstan. Military education is one of the key elements of gaining influence in the armies of the countries of the region. Having received training in Turkish military academies, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Uzbek officers also become a resource for proliferation of NATO standards in Central Asia. And this is despite the fact that Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members of the CSTO. Against this background, already in 2013 Kazakhstan and Turkey commenced joint military production. The prestige of Turkish weapons and interest in them significantly grew after the 44-day war between Azerbaijan and Armenia at the end of 2020. During the war, the Azerbaijani army, along with Israeli drones, also extensively used Turkish drones. However, one should not forget that victory is gained not only by weaponry, but also by skill and training, and this is where the issue of military education comes into focus again. Among the former Soviet republics, the Azerbaijani army has the largest number of officers who received military education in Turkey. Of course, the military education received in Turkey, as well as joint exercises and drills enhanced the skills and combat readiness of the Azerbaijani army. This fact could not remain unnoticed both in Moscow and in the Turkic-speaking countries of Central Asia. It is noteworthy that immediately after the end of the conflict in Karabakh, on November 23-25, a military delegation from Kazakhstan paid a visit to Turkey. During the visit the Kazakh military inspected Turkish drones at a base in the city of Batman, where Bayraktars are based. Soon after, information about possible acquisition of the UAV Bayraktar by Kazakhstan started circulating in Kazakh media and some specialized Russian publications. Commenting on the visit of the Kazakh military, many Turkish social media users strongly opposed the possible sale of Bayraktar to Kazakhstan, as they were worried about transfer of technology to Russia. Almost simultaneously, state-owned Russian media branches in the region began to spread information “refuting the myths about the Bayraktar UAV.”

Obviously, Moscow does not want to cede the arms market, and with it the influence in Central Asia to Ankara, and we are quite likely going to witness a geopolitical stand-off between Turkey and Russia in this region.

In the light of expert predictions and signals from Turkish officials about the growing importance of Central Asia for Turkey, increase in military contacts between Turkey and the Turkic-speaking countries of Central Asia could be expected. Considering that this vast region, capable of playing an important role in the energy security of Europe, has long been a zone of exclusive interests of China and Russia, Turkey may become a “third option” for local elites. Local experts also openly talk about Turkey potentially becoming a “counterbalance” in Central Asia.

Ali Hajizade is a Middle East analyst and founder of tgme.org. He tweets at @AHajizade.