Kant,  a small Kyrgyz town of 21,000, lies 20 km east of the capital, Bishkek. Its name means “sugar” in Kyrgyz, after a sugar factory set up here in the 1930s. But that factory has long since closed, and life here is hardly sweet.

It’s a typically soulless post-Soviet town: five-story Khrushchev-era apartment blocks, grim factories, drab streets, decrepit buildings. It holds no interest to the tourists who occasionally pass through en route to the picturesque Issyk-Kul lake, one of the deepest in the world, further east.  

One thing puts Kant on the map. Roaring jet-fighters, taking off or landing, can constantly be seen and heard from any part of the town – for Kant is the site of the largest Russian airbase in Central Asia.

Kremlin’s deep bootprint

Kant is home to Russia’s 14th Air Force and the Air Defense Army’s  999th airbase. This makes it not just an important pillar of the Moscow-controlled Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO); it also symbolizes Moscow’s firm political and military grip on Central Asia.

In post-war, Soviet days, the base in Kant was an important military airport and air-force school that trained pilots from allied and communist-bloc countries. Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad (father of the current Syrian leader) were both graduates.

However, Kant’s modern, post-Soviet base was opened by Moscow in October 2003 – the first new airbase to be built since the traumatic 1991 breakup of the USSR.

It was a response to the opening of an American “transit center” – an airbase west of Bishkek, at the civilian Manas Airport. Moscow, fearing it was losing ground to the Americans in Central Asia, saw the Kant airbase as a decisive response.

Subsequently, Moscow leveraged its deep connections in Central Asia to see to it that the Americans were expelled from Kyrgyzstan in July 2014. That happened just months after the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea in Ukraine.

And military bases are just the tip of a massive iceberg of Russian influence across the region.

Moscow’s influence web

The Kremlin pulls strings across the Central Asian republics via a web that date back hundreds of years – since the first contacts between Russian settlers and Kazakh nomads in southern Siberia and the vast Kazakh steppe.

Currently, Moscow exerts diplomatic influence over the ‘Stans through Moscow-controlled organizations like the CSTO and the Eurasian Customs Union. Strategically, a key Moscow objective is to insulate Central Asia from the threat of instability in Afghanistan – hence arms sales and military agreements.

Meanwhile at home, Russia hosts huge communities of migrant workers from the poorer ‘Stans, whose remittances home make up significant chunks of local economies.

All is not plain sailing. There are fears among some locals that Moscow might one day intervene in their republics the way Russia did in Ukraine if anti-Russian sentiment gets out of control or if the ‘Stans’ tide of Islamicization spills into southern Russia.

 But regardless of rising nationalism in the region, Russia’s influence is not fading.

The ‘Moscow’ subway stop in Almaty was named after some pressure was applied by Russian officialdom. Photo: Alexander Kruglov / Asia Times

 ‘Stan by ‘Stan

Vast Kazakhstan, with its huge Russian minority and a 7,500 km-long common border, is perhaps Russia’s closest ally in the Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS.

For most of the post-Soviet era, former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev was the key man keeping Moscow ties strong. Even so, Nazarbayev, just like Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko, proved an unpredictable leader, making occasional moves against Kazakhstan’s “big brother.”

The Ukraine crisis was a major test for Kakakh-Russia ties. Wary about separatist sentiment, Nazarbayev tightened control over pro-Russian activists and Moscow’s “Russki Mir” (“Russian World”) propaganda.

The most serious problem Nazarbayev and his successor are facing is the potentially destabilizing Russian minority in the north.

That minority is shrinking but is increasingly frustrated with Kazakh nationalism and the country’s ongoing Islamic revival.  There is unease about Kazakhstan’s “Kazakh Eli” (“The Land of Kazakhs”) messaging. That also worries the Kremlin.

Some Russian politicians and observers in Almaty and Moscow believe that Moscow might one day replay the Ukrainian “Donbass Scenario” and intervene to assist Russian separatists. Given the long, open border, indirect Russian backing, is a real possibility.

As he did to other Central Asian leaders, President Putin offered many tempting agreements after Uzbekistan’s leader Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who came to power in 2016, made his first official visit to Moscow in April 2017. Economic assistance and investments topped the agenda, and agreements worth  $16 billion were signed. Trade between the two countries reached  $5 billion last year.  

Military cooperation and arms sales were further tools used to bring Tashkent into Moscow’s fold, as Uzbekistan inked deals to purchase weapons and equipment from Russia.  

Post-Soviet Russia’s push into Central Asia has been most successful in Kyrgyzstan,  traditionally the most Russia-friendly of the ‘Stans. The Kremlin’s interests in this small landlocked country of six million, like elsewhere in the region, are boosting Russia’s influence and its economic and military presence, while also limiting Western influence and sealing Afghan borders.

Relations were not always entirely smooth: The Kremlin had issues with previous Kyrghyz President Almazbek Atambayev, but new leader Sooronbay Jeenbekov, has been more accommodating.

A key pillar is the huge number of Kyrghyz migrant workers in Russia – by some estimates, over a  million. According to the World Bank, their remittances in 2016 exceeded $2 billion and amounted to 30.4% of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP.

As for Tajikistan, regime stability and the security of the Afghan border  are Russia’s main concerns. Moscow’s 201st Motor Rifle Division – one of the most famous units in the Russian armed forces – is permanently based in the country.

As with Kyrghyzstan, Moscow hosts a massive community of Tajik migrant workers: Over one million are in Russia, from Tajikistan’s overall population of eight million. Their remittances exceeded 37% of the country’s GDP in 2016.

The former Communist Party building in Almaty – now a British university – marks changing times in the ‘Stans. Photo: Alexander Kruglov / Asia Times

Here come the Chinese

But Russia is not having it all its own way.

“Tajikistan is where Russia is facing fierce competition from China,” says Igor Sidorov, a Russian political observer, based in Almaty, Kazakhstan“Beijing offered security assistance to Tajikistan, in order to monitor Uighur radicals crossing into Central Asia via Afghanistan’s porous border. Dushanbe is also dependent on China economically.”

Still, with the 201st Division in place, China is hardly placed to supplant Russian in the military sphere.

Tajikistan’s situation illustrates an emerging regional reality. Despite the Beijing-Moscow rivalry in Central Asia, there is an emerging “duopoly”: Beijing focuses on economic development with BRI projects, while Russia underwrites security and political stability in a potentially highly volatile region.

A memorial to Soviet (read: Russian) repression in Tashkent hails back to the bad old days of the USSR. Photo: Alexander Kruglov / Asia Times