Caspian Policy Center and Near East South Asia Center Hold Second Caspian Security Conference on the Effects of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on the Caspian Region
Author: Caspian Policy Center
Jul 1, 2022
On June 28-29 – the Caspian Policy Center (CPC) and the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies (NESA Center) hosted the second Caspian Security Conference. This iteration of the conference focused on the implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the Caspian region.
The Caspian countries were quick to seek membership in international security organizations following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The panel, moderated by Brianne Todd, Assistant Professor at the NESA Center, expounded the direction of international security organizations in the Caspian Region in a world still grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, and the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The discussants led with an introduction on the CSTO and SCO’s evolution. Originally, international security organizations served to resolve conflicts and arrange mediations among its member states, according to Iskander Akylbayev, Director for Central Asia at the Oxford Policy Advisory Group. However, Akylbayev noted that the CSTO military intervention into Kazakhstan to quell domestic protests earlier this year highlighted that “the evolution of the CSTO is still ongoing.”
Similarly, the accession of additional member states into the SCO underscores the versatility of the organization. Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Fellow at RUSI, emphasized that the looseness of the organization’s structure means that “the SCO has always been a platform or an institution that has been whatever the individual member state wants it to be.” Rather than serving as a NATO-structured institution, the SCO is simply another mode of communication for China to engage bilaterally with its member states, according to the speakers.
The Caspian region’s geographical location situated between powerful global actors has led to these larger countries vying for influence, support, and resources from the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Fuad Shahbaz, an independent policy analyst and Daniel Morgan Fellow, mentioned that Caspian countries are reluctant to publicly criticize the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine because “Russia is still the major regional power” and has the “ability to disrupt the common use of Caspian resources.” Simultaneously, Georgia has flirted with NATO membership, accentuating the complexity of the situation. Moreover, both Moscow and Beijing through the CSTO and SCO have increased the number of military exercises with the Caspian region following the departure of the United States from Afghanistan.
The historical integration and disintegration of the Caspian region has most often involved the presence of an external actor. The United States, Japan, Russia, Turkey, and China have all developed dialogues that assemble the leaders of the Central Asian states. According to Dr. Aijan Sharshenova, a postdoctoral research fellow at the OSCE Academy Bishkek “nowadays, all Central Asian countries are following the actions or inactions of security organizations, both regional and international.” Despite best efforts, the lack of political will from Central Asian governments has inhibited the creation of a united Central Asian security organization dedicated for only countries in the region.
The second panel, moderated by Ambassador (ret.) Allan Mustard, Senior Fellow at the Caspian Policy Center, kindled discussion on the different Russian tactics utilized to facilitate hybrid warfare in the region, the implications of allowing disinformation and propaganda campaigns to fester, and possible mechanisms to improve resiliency to hybrid threats.
Dr. Nurlan Aliyev, Lecturer at the University of Economics and Human Services in Warsaw, identified Russia’s two primary roles in the Caspian region, ensuring that no other foreign power establishes a significant military presence and controlling hydrocarbon resources and transit routes. By identifying Russia’s main goals in the Caspian region, states can reevaluate their vulnerabilities amidst the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War, according to the speakers.
Countries that have adopted a pro-West foreign policy orientation are more likely to receive criticism from Moscow’s arsenal designed to undermine civil society and public trust in governments. Eugene Chausovsky, Senior Analyst at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy noted that “if any of these countries are seen acting against Russia’s interests, they can be vulnerable to these threats,” alluding to the barrage of attacks against Georgia’s energy infrastructure and civil society.
Nevertheless, the speakers indicated that Russia is still limited in its ability to exert its influence in the Caspian region. According to Dr. Mariya Omelicheva, Professor at the National War College, its disastrous performance in Syria and Ukraine and the closure of Russian media organizations in post-Soviet states illustrate that the Kremlin does not possess unlimited power in the Caspian region. Overall, Dr. Omelicheva says that “Russia’s hard power has been insufficient to achieve Kremlin’s ambitious political aims,” and emphasizes that it is important to not exaggerate Russia’s competence.
The panelists stressed the difficulties in mitigating the consequences of hybrid and asymmetric warfare in the Caspian Region. Luke Coffey, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, outlined three factors to prevent hybrid warfare: good and fair governance, economic opportunity, and societal trust in security services and law enforcement.