Since the fall of the Soviet Union, foreign analysts and governments have paid relatively little attention to Russian defense policy. This is understandable given the drastic decline of Russian military power in the 1990s and early 2000s. Circumstances are changing, however, and the improving capabilities of the Russian military once again merit scrutiny. It is well known that President Vladimir Putin's key objective of restoring the effectiveness of Russian state power is intimately connected with the restoration of Russia's military might. To that end, Putin has encouraged comprehensive reform of the armed forces' structure and composition. Accordingly, the state has greatly increased military spending.
Russia sees the most immediate threats to its interests as coming from Islamic militants in its so-called southern direction. Thus, the Putin administration has sought to improve Russia's ability to project power in Central Asia. And the purpose of projecting that power is not merely to defend Central Asia against Islamic radical-related security threats and internal upheavals, but also to assert and consolidate a Russian-dominated sphere of influence there.
The list of Russia's recent defense and security achievements is impressive. Beyond rebuilding its own military forces, Moscow has forged a Russian-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Central Asia. Russian leaders have also enlarged the country's on-the-ground military presence in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. And the Kremlin has an agreement in place, signed in 2005, that provides for the rapid deployment of Russian troops to Uzbekistan under certain circumstances.
In addition, the Putin administration has moved to restore the former Soviet defense industrial base by selling weapons to Central Asian states at subsidized prices, often in return for access to former Soviet defense plants or installations in Central Asia.
In 2006, Russia appeared to step up efforts at creating a unified military-political organization in Central Asia, pushing for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to be transformed into a military and defense alliance. Russian officials publicly deny that the SCO is a bloc or military alliance. But Moscow keeps pushing for the SCO and its members to undertake military exercises and to develop defense-related capabilities.
At the 2006 annual meeting of heads of state of the SCO, Putin dismissed assertions that the SCO could be perceived as a military alliance, arguing that it lacked a command and control structure. While this is presently the case, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov advocated strongly at an April 2006 meeting of SCO defense chiefs for the creation of just this sort of command center. Ivanov also called for the signing of a document by member states that would formally spell out the extent of their coordination. Putin, for his part, has called the SCO a guarantor of regional security, a formulation that clearly anticipates an increased military dimension to its activities.
Evidently, other SCO members, namely China, have resisted the Russian drive for closer strategic cooperation. There exists strong suspicion that enhanced cooperation would force members to surrender a degree of strategic sovereignty, something that some states are plainly unwilling to do. One reluctant state is Kazakhstan, which is receiving aid from Washington to enhance its own defense capabilities.China has come out against the SCO becoming bloc or defense alliance. Yet, Beijing has sought bases in Central Asia and might still be persuaded to go along with Moscow's initiatives. Meanwhile, the leaders of some Central Asian states, especially Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, may feel that they have no choice but to go along with Moscow's plan in order to retain Russia's strategic support. Otherwise, their ability to remain in control could be endangered by a variety of internal and external threats, including Islamic radicalism and domestic discontent.
A major indicator of the SCO's future trajectory will be whether Moscow succeeds in 2007 in getting other members to approve a Russian-dominated command-and-control component. It duly follows that analysts of Russia and Central Asia need to take a closer look at not just the revival of Russia's armed forces, but also at the connection between that revival and the objectives of the Putin administration for Central Asia.
Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.