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Breaking Away from the Bear

Authored by LTC Dianne L. Smith. | August 1998

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In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Central Asian states preferred to ensure their security through the unified command of the Commonwealth of Independent States and collective security. But, the decision of Ukraine, and then Russia, to create independent republican forces compelled the Central Asian states to create their own armed forces. Depending on their relative success at developing viable military forces, each state has compensated with other tools of national power. Budgetary considerations and assessment of real-world threats have compelled each state to make hard decisions concerning relative investment in conventional armed forces, security forces, or border guards. To avoid further dependence upon Moscow, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan have attempted joint security ventures. Tajikistan remains dependent upon Russian troops and Central Asian peacekeeping forces. Turkmenistan hopes that a policy of nonalignment and neutrality (albeit with active support from Russia) will prove successful. Although they are willing to let Russia assert some authority within Central Asia, each seeks alternative sources for security.

The United States supports the development of Central Asian armed forces to ensure that collective security is just that?collective. Indeed, America has a strong interest in ensuring that Central Asian militaries develop to relative sufficiency so that they are players in the game and not just tools of Moscow.


Over the last decade a significant body of literature has redefined ?security.?3 With the end of the Cold War, many scholars criticized the traditional, narrow definition of security and focused on issues other than military affairs, such as population growth, environmental degradation, ethnic conflict, crime, drugs, and migration. Nevertheless, the focal point of a nation?s security remains its ability to field a military force capable of defending its territorial integrity, safeguarding its national interests, protecting the lives and property of its citizens, and preserving its sovereignty as an independent state.

Since independence, the five Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan have created armed forces with varying capability to perform these missions. Each has com­pensated for its military?s weakness with alternative tools of national power and collective security programs. The United States has begun programs in each Central Asian state to assist in the development of these forces. Washington supports this process to ensure that collective security is just that?collective?and that the Central Asianstates are true players in the game and not tools of other regional powers. The ability (or inability) of each new republic to provide credible military force will have long-reaching consequences for the Central Asian states, their neighbors, and the United States.


When the republics of Central Asia became independent, they already had in place an administrative infrastructure from the Soviet era; even if that political structure was a sham, it did make transition easier. The same cannot be said for the economic and military infrastructures in which all decisions were disseminated from the center. Industries and military units were spread across the Central Asian landscape based on a master plan in Moscow that did not involve promoting republican self-sufficiency in military affairs.

It is not surprising, therefore, that most Central Asian states initially preferred some form of unified command in which their deficiencies would be compensated by the greater whole and their external defense could become someone else?s burden. All were perfectly willing to allow Russia, either bilaterally or multilaterally, to retain the bulk of the responsibility. Chechnya was a shock and a wake-up call for Central Asia as well as Russia. Thus, external events forced each state to create independent armed forces even as they began to discern weaknesses in the Russian Army and question its ability to realize all of its promises. Although the Central Asian states originally were willing to let Russia assert some authority within the region and provide trained forces for border duty, each began to seek alternative sources for their national security.

It was readily apparent that in most cases their own militaries could not foot the bill. Lacking trained cadres, training facilities, equipment, spare parts, an industrial base, and financial resources to support it all, development of Central Asian militaries has been slow?with an eye on retaining what each inherited from the Soviet Army rather than creating anything new. Finally, leaders prefer to apportion scarce resources to address competing social, economic, and environmental crises that threaten the very fabric of society over the development and funding of armed forces in the absense of an overt threat.

America has national interests in Central Asia, but it will not assume responsibility for Central Asia?s security. The United States does not oppose the voluntary formation of collective security agreements that maintain stability in the region, but prefers that the Central Asian states develop military institutions that allow them options other than reliance upon Moscow in their security policy formation. The primary focus of the United States will be damage control?to prevent existing problems from escalating into crises that might engage Russia, China, or Iran. The United States does not want Central Asia to become a breeding ground for politicized Islam, ethnic hatred, arms proliferation, drug production, political extremism, or any other transnational threat that would destabilize the region. 193

The United States should continue to support the development of Central Asian militaries through military education, military-to-military contact, arms control and treaty compliance, cooperative threat reduction, and defense conversion. But, we must work to ensure that our efforts do not provoke a negative reaction from regional neighbors and destabilize the balance of interests currently at play.

There is a wide variance among the Central Asian states regarding ability to assure their own national security. Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are consumers, rather than providers, of security. Kyrgyzstan has attempted to transition to a provider of security through its economic, political, and military cooperation with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Regardless of their methodology, however, each retains military ties with Russia. There is nothing inherently wrong with the Central Asian states using the CIS as a collective security tool. There is nothing inherently wrong with Russia taking a role in this process. But, we must ensure that collective security is just that?collective. ?Breaking away from the Bear? could actually strengthen security in Central Asia if the militaries of the Central Asian states develop to a level that they are players in the game and not just pawns of Moscow.


3. See, for example, Richard H. Ullman, ?Redefining Security,? International Security, Vol. 8, No. 1, Summer 1983, pp. 129-153; Jessica Tuchman Mathews, ?Redefining Security,? Foreign Affairs, Vol. 68, No. 2, Spring 1989, pp. 162-177; Barry Buzan, ?New Patterns of Global Security in the 21st Century,? International Affairs, Vol. 67, No. 3, July 1991, pp. 43 1-451; Kent Hughes Butts, ed., Environmental Security: A DOD Partnership for Peace, Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 1995; and Gareth Porter, ?Environmental Security as a National Security Issue,? Current History, Vol. 94, No. 592, May 1995, pp. 218-222.

193. Dianne L. Smith, A New Great Game?, Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 1996. 77