Anyone who is listening to Russian officials, or getting their information from Russian media lately would think that the Central Asian states are on the brink of disaster, that Islamic militants massing in Afghanistan are preparing to swarm over the border and establish a caliphate in the southern tier of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Some view such warnings with skepticism, believing Russia, faced with new competition in Central Asia from China and the West, is resorting to its ultimate policy tool for influence in Central Asia – security – and is hyping the potential militant threat to bring the Central Asian states solidly back into Moscow's orbit.
RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a panel discussion to look at how real the threat is to Turkmenistan, Moscow's possible motives for the repeated dire warnings to Ashgabat and the other Central Asian governments, and what is being reported about help from the world powers for Turkmenistan.
Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir moderated the discussion with panelists Nikita Mendkovitch, expert on Afghanistan at the Russian International Affairs Council, Artem Ulunian, Central Asian analyst and head research associate in the Institute of History at the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Colonel Cheryl Garner, retired, formerly the team leader of Central and South Asian analysis for NATO, former aide of the U.S. General in charge of the Afghanistan war in Kabul and upcoming officer at the State Department's Afghanistan desk. I also took part.
Russian officials were warning several years ago about the possible consequences of the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan for Central Asia. Following the successes of the Islamic State (IS) militant group last year in the Middle East, those warnings from Russia have come more frequently and with a greater sense of urgency.
So how significant is the threat?
Mendkovitch started by mentioning that the Taliban, or Taliban-affiliated groups, are present along the Afghan-Turkmen border. "Some groups have attacked positions of Turkmenistan, they attack the police forces of Afghanistan in the border area and in some places the Afghan government really doesn't control the situation," Medkovitch said.
It was noted that, in the latter half of the 1990s, under previous Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov Turkmenistan's relations with the Taliban were good. But Mendkovitch explained that current Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov does not enjoy the same relationship with the Taliban, mainly because of Turkmenistan's more vigorous antinarcotics campaign that has made it more difficult for the Taliban to traffic through Turkmenistan.
Ulunian pointed out that it was unclear if the Taliban leadership controls some of those groups in northern Afghanistan who are referred to as Taliban. Ulunian said there were "uncontrolled bands" there and they were more likely than the Taliban to resort to actions against Turkmen border guards, for example.
Garner followed that point, bringing up the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The group has recently strengthened its presence in northern Afghanistan due to the infusion of IMU fighters who fled the Pakistani military's offensive on IMU hideouts in North Waziristan.
Garner said the threat to Central Asia was greater from the IMU than from the Taliban and she added "there's more of a threat from the IMU…possibly aligning themselves with Daesh (IS)."
There are already scattered and vague reports of a few groups in Afghanistan calling themselves IMU and swearing allegiance to the IS.
In any case, there are militant groups in northern Afghanistan; their numbers are unclear but certainly many hundreds, and while none of these groups have the ability to overrun Central Asia they do have the potential to cause instability.
So is Russia correct in saying that the Central Asians need Moscow's help to prevent such instability and is the militant threat the Kremlin's sole concern?
Ulunian said that, while it is difficult to "define the real purposes of the [Russian] authorities" he thought "the idea is to push forward its [Russia's] influence in the region where independent states were established many years ago and now the situation in those states is not good…and some characteristics, features of a crisis can be observed."
Medkovitch added that Moscow's concern was justified, pointing out that while Turkmenistan does not have a border with Russia, it does with Kazakhstan -- and Kazakhstan has a long border with Russia. Mendkovitch said, "Iraq is far away from the United States but the United States is interested in the situation in this country. They think that the current situation in Iraq is a threat for Europe, for the United States for all the modern world. So, Russia is much closer to Turkmenistan…"
The Big Question
Then the big question came up: is it possible Russia already has troops in Turkmenistan, as some reports speculated?
Mendkovitch said that, given the current state of Turkmen-Russian relations, it was impossible. Ulunian agreed there was no possibility presently of deploying Russian troops to Turkmenistan though he said it could be possible that special units were brought in briefly for training with Turkmen forces in case such Russian forces needed to return "in an emergency."
The problem with the reports of Russian troops (Uzbek troops were mentioned also) being seen in Turkmenistan is that the Turkmen government is so opaque and Turkmenistan so closed off to foreigners, that no one can be sure what is happening.
It was pointed out, for example, that the Turkmen government did cooperate with the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, though the extent of that cooperation was intentionally never made clear.
Garner explained, for example, that Turkmenistan was part of NATO's Northern Distribution Network (NDN) to bring supplies from Europe to Afghanistan. "I can tell that, out of all of the Central Asian countries, Turkmenistan was the most sensitive about being perceived as participating in the NDN," he said.
Which is why, Garner said, it was so surprising when the head of the U.S. Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, admitted publicly at the start of this month that Turkmenistan has requested military aid from the United States. Austin did not elaborate on that request but, in the days since he made the comments, the Turkmen government has remained silent about the matter.
The conversation dealt more deeply with these topics and more. An audio recording of the panel discussion can be heard here:
-- Bruce Pannier