Putin Using Fear Of ISIS To Enhance Russian Influence In Central Asia

A well-founded fear of ISIS seems to be drawing many of the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia closer to Moscow.

Vladimir Putin Sunglasses

Reid Standish has an interesting piece in Foreign Policy discussing the ways that Vladimir Putin is using fear of ISIS to solidify Russian influence in the Central Asian nations that used to be part of the Soviet Union:

For Russia, the threat posed by the Islamic State is, in a way, an opportunity. “Moscow is legitimately concerned about Islamic extremism in Central Asia,” John Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and former U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan, told Foreign Policy. “There are real threats. But will the Russians try to oversell them and persuade Central Asian governments to work more closely with them? Absolutely.”

Strategically located along Afghanistan’s northern Kunduz province, Tajikistan is already home to a sizable Russian military presence, with 6,000 troops stationed at what is Moscow’s largest foreign military base and plans to add another 3,000 by 2020. Now, Russia is citing the Islamic State as a justification for bolstering its presence in the region.

In May, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Russian-led military bloc, put its forces on display along the Afghan-Tajik border. In drills involving 2,500 troops, 500 of which were Russian, the operation simulated an armed incursion of 700 Taliban fighters entering allied territory. Following the exercise, CSTO chief Nikolai Bordyuzha reiterated the bloc’s readiness to push back any force coming from the southern frontier. The move is seen as reinforcing Moscow’s role as the main guarantor of the fragile region’s security once U.S. troops depart Afghanistan.

The Islamic State provides “an additional lever of pressure to convince regional governments to join Russia-led multilateral organizations and ensure that the region stays solidly within Russia’s sphere of influence,” said Noah Tucker, editor of the Central Asia blog Registan.net.


Nonetheless, the presence of the Islamic State in Central Asia is proportionally quite low, according to Edward Lemon, a researcher focused on Central Asian fighters in the Middle East at the University of Exeter. “Only about 1 in every 20,000 Tajik Muslims are in Iraq and Syria. Compare that to 1 in every 1,500 Belgian Muslims who have gone to fight.” Additionally, most Central Asians who have gone to join the Islamic State are unlikely to return to the region or go fight in northern Afghanistan. “It’s a one-way ticket,” Lemon said. “Central Asian jihadis are dying at an alarming rate.”

Still, Moscow continues to bolster its military along the Afghan border and keep its former Soviet neighbors close in the process. “It’s wrapped up in the dressing of border security,” Lemon said. “But it’s about geopolitics.”

Given the fact that the leaders of the Central Asian Republicans are, by and large, corrupt and authoritarian, it probably would’t take much for Putin to convince them to lean toward the Russian sphere of influence. The leader of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, for example, has been in effective control of politics in that country since he was Prime Minister of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic back in the mid-1980s, and many of the leaders of the other nations in the region can similarly trace their political careers back to the days of the Soviet Union. At the same time, though, several of these nations have charted off on their own in recent years, especially in response to the war on terror. For several years, for example, the United States leased at least one airbase in Uzbekistan that had been used for missions in support of the war in Afghanistan and there have been rumors that other Central Asian nations were used for CIA operations in connection with the War On Terror. For the most part, though, with obvious exceptions such as the situation in Georgia and the conflicts involving Chechnya and Nagorno-Karabach, these nations have either stayed within the Russian sphere of influence  Given this, it’s not entirely surprising that Moscow would be using an opportunity like the rise of ISIS to strengthen its influence over the area.

The other side of the coin, of course, is that Russia and the Central Asian nations have plenty to worry about when it comes to terrorism in general and ISIS particularly. Spurred in large part by the Chechen war, we’ve seen Islamic terrorism strike deep into the heart of Russia, including an attack on a theater in Moscow that led to more than 100 deaths and hundreds of injuries and a siege at a school in Beslan that resulted in nearly 400 deaths. To bring matters closer to home, Tamerlan Tsarnaev appears to gotten at least some of the inspiration for the Boston Marathon Bombing from radicals in Chechnya. Given the extent to which ISIS has expanded from Iraq and Syria and into Libya, Yemen, and, according to some reports, Afghanistan, the possibility of ISIS causing problems in Central Asia or even Russia itself is arguably a very real one. The fact that Putin is using that possibility to consolidate his power is perhaps just inevitable.

FILED UNDER: Asia, Middle East, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    Oh, goodie, Putin has found someone to play Hitler to his Stalin. Join with Tyrant A to stop Tyrant B. Not that the ‘Stans were about to become democracies, as you point out.

  2. JWH says:

    Is it just me, or does that photo look like a publicity still from CSI: Putin?

  3. DrDaveT says:

    Now, Russia is citing the Islamic State as a justification for bolstering its presence in the region.

    Which is, of course, pure bait-and-switch on Putin’s part. A key feature of ISIS/ISIL is the last letter of the acronym. They have declared the Caliphate; they are irrevocably committed to holding the particular piece of ground they started on. There is zero immediate threat of expansion into central Asia; Iran is in the way.

    Additionally, most Central Asians who have gone to join the Islamic State are unlikely to return to the region

    See above. If you’re going to join the Caliphate, you go there and stay. Forever. ISIS is actually quite contemptuous of those who come fight and then want to go home to recruit or stir up other trouble or whatever. If you don’t want to stay and fight, there’s something wrong with your faith.

  4. grumpy realist says:

    Oh goodie–it looks like Greece may fall out of the Eurozone because the idiots running the government believe that an extry-special pinky-swear has been cooked up behind doors and all that we’re seeing now is political Kabuki.

    The problem with assuming that Merkel will never let Greece fall out of the Euro/Eurozone is that you have to deal with the afteraffects when you discover you’re wrong.

  5. JWH says:

    Putin: “If you’re unhappy .. ” (puts on glasses) “Crimea river.”

  6. Kenny says:

    Since @JWH didn’t add it …


  7. de stijl says:

    If ISIS didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them. They are God’s great gift to the authoritarians of this world.

    Have a pesky political issue you don’t want to address? Invoke ISIS.

    Want to poke an internal political rival? Call them soft on ISIS.

    Frankly, the elevation of ISIS to world-class status Bad Guys makes me oddly optimistic. When pissant nobodies who control about 40 land-locked acres in the middle of nowhere are the Big Bad of this world, then we’re doing pretty good.