Turkmenistan looks set to deepen military ties with Russia in a rare development for a nation that has since independence pursued a rigidly isolationist foreign policy.
ITAR-Tass news agency cited a spokesman for Russia’s defense ministry as saying on June 9 that Moscow would provide Turkmenistan’s armed forces with weaponry and training.
"During talks, the sides discussed relevant issues of bilateral military and military-technical cooperation, as well as problems of regional and global security," ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said, speaking at the close of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit to Turkmenistan.
Ashgabat’s sudden change of course appears likely motivated by concern over the worsening security situation on the border with Afghanistan.
Foreign-based website Alternative News of Turkmenistan, or ANT, on June 8 carried a sensational item claiming that 27 conscripts stationed on the border were killed in clashes in early May.
The website cited unnamed sources as saying that the body of one soldier was returned to his family in a sealed coffin with the explanation that he had committed suicide. When relatives opened the coffin, they found the body riddled with 17 bullet wounds, the website said.
“An ANT source in the Mary velayat said that the bodies of 20 soldiers were brought to their region, but not in zinc coffins, as it should be, but in sleeping bags,” the website said.
ANT has carried multiple reports of claimed casualties among Turkmen troops on the border, but such stories are virtually impossible to verify independently.
The scale of unrest in Afghan regions bordering Turkmenistan was partly confirmed in a recent Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty report that cited Afghan officials as saying there had been bitter fighting in numerous districts on the border. Most worrying for governments in Central Asia are suggestions that their own citizens are engaged in the clashes.
“Local officials told [RFE/RL Turkmen service] Azatlyk that most of the militants in Faryab are from Central Asia — Turkmen, Uzbeks, and some Tajiks. These officials also said the militants had control of some areas adjacent to the Turkmen border,” the RFE/RL report noted.
It is evident that the Turkmens are spooked by their lack of military readiness. In March, the country’s military conducted unprecedented drills that may have been intended in part as an exercise to test the ability of the armed forces to mobilize efficiently.
In an April briefing to the president after the military drills, Turkmen Defense Minister Yaylym Berdiev predictably announced that the exercise had been a great success and that “modern military equipment had been used effectively.”
All the same, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said at the briefing that the government would continue to focus on optimizing and modernizing the army’s equipment and improve training and living conditions for troops.
Such is the opaque nature of decision-making in Turkmenistan that making any firm determinations about defense policy is a guessing game, but the impetus for change within the defense structures was most clearly signaled by Berdiev’s appointment as defense minister in October. Berdiev was moved to the job from his previous post as head of the country’s security services amid earlier reports of fighting on Afghanistan’s border. Berdiev is a veteran on Turkmenistan’s security landscape and actually served as defense minister until March 2011, which is when he was moved sideways to the security services.
As with its energy policy, Turkmenistan appears eager to diversify cooperation on defense. In February, there was some inconclusive talk about potential for increased defense cooperation with India. One might speculate about Ashgabat’s preference to develop its security ties with the West over Russia, but considerations over human rights issues make that likelihood highly remote.
Russia is going to find it hard to contain its smugness about Turkmenistan’s sudden overtures, as a report on Shoigu’s visit in state newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta demonstrated.
“It would seem that this is just a regular work trip for the head of the Russian army, but this visit is in fact historic. The fact is that Turkmenistan is a state that emphasizes its neutral status,” the newspaper remarked. “And since it is a neutral state, Turkmenistan naturally does not participate in any military-political unions. And because of this, contacts with the militaries of other states is almost entirely absent. And yet on Thursday, the defense military building in the historical center of Ashgabat was visited by around a dozen Russian generals.”
Still, Turkmenistan was not about to roll out the red carpet for the Russians without making the guests endure some awkward symbolism. The visit began on June 8 with a flower-laying ceremony at the People’s Memory complex — a 650,000 square meter space commemorating Turkmens felled over the years by a variety of a major historical calamities.
One of those was the Battle of Geok-Tepe of 1881, when invading Russians finished off the final remnants of Turkmen resistance in a bloody confrontation that ended with death of 8,000 Turkmen soldiers and civilians. The story of the bloodbath is a core element of Turkmen historiography and held up as an outstanding example of resistance against foreign oppression.