Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are engaging in an arms race in Central Asia that is creating some odd geopolitical alignments. NATO allies are opposing each other, while two implacable enemies, the United States and Iran, find themselves on the same side. Meanwhile, Russia, the traditional regional power broker, is sitting on the sidelines while Belarus is playing a prominent role.
Stability along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border has proven tenuous in recent years. Long-standing territorial squabbles, compounded by dwindling natural resources, including increasingly scarce water supplies, have sparked armed clashes between Kyrgyz and Tajik security forces. The most recent burst of violence in September 2022 reportedly left dozens dead and displaced thousands.
Border crossings between the two states have remained closed since 2021, when the initial round of fighting occurred. Bilateral talks in July raised hopes that crossing restrictions could be lifted once the two countries’ shared frontier had been fully delimited and demarcated. But almost one-third of the 972-kilometer-long border remains contested.
While Kyrgyz and Tajik leaders have spoken about a need to foster peace and security along the frontier, both countries have been girding for renewed battle. Turkey and Belarus have emerged as Kyrgyzstan’s newest arms purveyors, while the United States and Iran are providing security assistance to Tajikistan. Each country has its own motives for its involvement in the military build-up.
Close linguistic and cultural connections explain Turkish support for Kyrgyzstan. Ankara has long sought to project its influence among the Turkic-speaking nations of Central Asia. In late 2021, Bishkek started adding Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones to its arsenal. The weapons have a proven record of battlefield success in a variety of conflict zones, including Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh and Syria. And during the 2022 round of fighting, Bishkek reportedly used TB2s to take out a Tajik tank, as well as attack Tajik settlements.
In early 2023, Kyrgyz officials revealed that the country had expanded its fleet of Turkish-manufactured drones, acquiring an unknown number of Aksungur and Anka models. Aksungurs are dual-use drones capable of carrying a comparatively heavy bomb payload or conducting aerial reconnaissance. Ankas are described as “long-endurance“ craft used primarily for intelligence gathering. Kyrgyz officials did not disclose how or when the country procured the new batch of drones from Turkey.
In addition to building up its offensive and reconnaissance capabilities, Kyrgyzstan has improved its air defenses. In April 2023, Bishkek took delivery of surface-to-air missile systems from Belarus. Kyrgyz Defense Minister Baktybek Bekbolotov told journalists in Bishkek that the systems would be deployed in Batken Province, the heart of the border hot zone.
Belarus’ role as an arms supplier seems motivated by economic opportunism. Minsk is eager to broaden trade ties with Kyrgyzstan, something that could help ease the effects of country’s diplomatic isolation from the West, due to its close relationship to Russia and its status as “the last dictatorship in Europe.“ Top Belarusian and Kyrgyz government officials held trade talks in Minsk on August 23. Following the discussions, Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Sivak described Kyrgyzstan as “our reliable, time-tested ally and a promising trade partner,“ the Belta news agency reported. An additional factor facilitating cooperation is Belarus’ and Kyrgyzstan’s membership in the Russia-led organizations, including the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union.
Bishkek’s defense expenditures have risen exponentially over the past three years, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security, Kamchybek Tashiev, revealed during a cabinet meeting in July. The Defense Ministry, meanwhile, circulated a draft of a new military doctrine in June that appeared to raise the threat level posed by Kyrgyz-Tajik border tension.
Just as Turkey’s backing for Kyrgyzstan is rooted in cultural kinship, the same holds true for Iranian support for Tajikistan. Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad once described Iranian-Tajik ties as “one spirit in two bodies.” The two nations share a common Persian language and cultural traditions.
In May 2022, Iran opened a drone production plant in Tajikistan, its first such facility to operate abroad. The plant reportedly produces the Ababil-2 model, which is a rudimentary craft capable of carrying out reconnaissance, combat or suicide missions. In October of the same year, Tajikistan became embroiled in controversy when Ukrainian journalists accused Dushanbe of exporting drones assembled in the country to Russia, which proceeded to use them against civilian and military targets in Ukraine. Tajik officials denied the allegations. Regardless of whether Tajikistan is acting as a middleman for Iranian-Russian weapons trafficking, the plant gives Dushanbe improved combat capability in any future, potential border clash.
Iranian-Tajik defense cooperation creates awkward optics for the United States, given Washington’s long-standing military assistance programs in Tajikistan and its even longer-standing enmity with Iran’s hardline Sh’ia leadership. Since the Soviet collapse in 1991, the United States has provided over $330 million in security assistance to Tajikistan, according to the American embassy in Dushanbe. In early 2023, then-US envoy to Tajikistan John M. Pommersheim announced a fresh $20-million US aid package that included the supply of Puma reconnaissance drones. In addition, the US Defense Department conducts military exchange programs to promote the professionalization of Tajik security forces. One recent joint maneuver, involving soldiers from the Virginia National Guard, took place in July.
For the United States, engagement with Tajikistan has always been rooted in a desire to keep a lid on Afghanistan as a source of regional, even global instability. Washington’s military assistance is designed to help Dushanbe secure its porous frontier with Afghanistan, and is not intended to bolster the Tajik military in any future fight against Kyrgyz forces. Nevertheless, lots of American-supplied equipment, such as night-vision goggles and ground sensors, could easily be re-directed for use in the Kyrgyz-Tajik hot zone.
The United Arab Emirates is another country involved in building up Tajikistan’s defense sector. A UAE-based company is the key parts supplier for a recently opened assembly plant in the Tajik city of Tursunzoda. The facility is slated to produce 120 military vehicles in 2023.
An unusual aspect of the Kyrgyz-Tajik arms race is that the two countries are nominal allies, both members of the CSTO, an organization envisioned as a Eurasian alternative to NATO. One of the functions of NATO, of course, is to keep the peace among its members by providing a forum for the negotiated resolution of disputes. Such a function was on display at the most recent NATO summit in Lithuania, where members convinced Turkey to drop its opposition to Sweden’s membership bid. The Kyrgyz-Tajik troubles have shown that the CSTO lacks similar conflict-resolution capacity.
Russia’s lack of leadership within the CSTO is a major cause for the organization’s ineffectiveness in reducing tension among two of its members. Russia still clearly thinks of itself as the region’s power broker, but the Ukraine war has sapped the Kremlin’s ability to project influence in Central Asia. The upshot is Russia has been largely a non-factor so far on the Kyrgyz-Tajik question. But just because Russia is operating on the margins now doesn’t mean that will always be the case. External factors could push Moscow into the fray. For example, Russia’s increasingly close strategic relationship with Iran, highlighted by the Russian army’s prodigious use of Iranian drones in Ukraine, could potentially prompt Moscow to tilt in Tajikistan’s favor.
Outside involvement in the Kyrgyz-Tajik arms race likely raises the risk of renewed conflict. Kyrgyz and Tajik leaders have made only halting efforts to address the underlying sources of border tension, in particular the need to define boundaries and create a water-management mechanism. Amid the lack of progress in negotiations, frustration among those living in border areas stands to grow.
Traditional powers, namely the United States, Russia and China, all seem to have an interest in defusing tension along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, but they aren’t taking discernable action to encourage a negotiating process. The issue seems stuck on the backburner, overshadowed by the Ukraine war, and to a lesser extent, the potential for Afghan-based Islamic militants to create region-wide mischief. Numerous US officials have visited Central Asia over the past year, including Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu, but none have signaled specific US concerns about simmering Kyrgyz-Tajik enmity. A State Department statement issued in connection with Lu’s trip contained only vague language that the assistant secretary would “emphasize the United States’ enduring commitment to the KyrgyzRepublic and Tajikistan’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence.”
Following the last round of fighting between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Human Rights Watch documented war crimes committed by both sides. With both countries having expanded and improved their arsenals, another round of fighting could prove much more deadly, destructive and destabilizing for the region.
Svenja Petersen is a Berlin-based political economist and researcher focusing on the former Soviet Union.