Why Russia and China Aren’t Intervening in Central Asia

As tensions between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan flared, Moscow and Beijing chose to remain on the sidelines.

By , a senior lecturer at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and , an associate professor at the National Defense University’s College of International Affairs.
A chicken runs near a burned-out house in the village of Kapchygay, near the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, on Sept. 21.
A chicken runs near a burned-out house in the village of Kapchygay, near the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, on Sept. 21.
A chicken runs near a burned-out house in the village of Kapchygay, near the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, on Sept. 21. VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP via Getty Images

Last month, soldiers from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan exchanged gunfire along several points of the countries’ undemarcated border. After a brief cease-fire, fierce fighting resumed and escalated from border areas into the territory of Kyrgyzstan, hitting remote areas of Osh province. Tajikistan’s military destroyed a bridge crossing the Ak-Suu River, residential areas, and businesses. The Tajik military then occupied and erected a flag on a public school in Dostuk village in Batken province. Kyrgyzstan shelled Tajikistan’s border areas well.

The conflict was among the most serious interstate military escalations in Central Asia’s history since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. On the Kyrgyz side, at least 62 civilians and military officers died, 198 were wounded, and roughly 136,000 were internally displaced. The Tajik authorities officially confirmed 41 dead among civilians and military personnel. The Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreign Affairs has condemned Tajikistan for committing an act of war and claimed that the aggression was premeditated and prepared. The Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs blamed Kyrgyzstan for aggression and violation of norms of international humanitarian law.

The conflict also reveals the limitations of both China- and Russia-led regional security organizations in Central Asia. Both states clashed when China, Russia, and Central Asian countries were gathering at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan—just 200 miles away from the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. Both Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and his Kyrgyz counterpart, Sadyr Japarov, were present at the summit and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin while the skirmishes occurred. The conflict was discussed by the Tajik and Kyrgyz presidents at a side event but not at the main venue.

Last month, soldiers from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan exchanged gunfire along several points of the countries’ undemarcated border. After a brief cease-fire, fierce fighting resumed and escalated from border areas into the territory of Kyrgyzstan, hitting remote areas of Osh province. Tajikistan’s military destroyed a bridge crossing the Ak-Suu River, residential areas, and businesses. The Tajik military then occupied and erected a flag on a public school in Dostuk village in Batken province. Kyrgyzstan shelled Tajikistan’s border areas well.

The conflict was among the most serious interstate military escalations in Central Asia’s history since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. On the Kyrgyz side, at least 62 civilians and military officers died, 198 were wounded, and roughly 136,000 were internally displaced. The Tajik authorities officially confirmed 41 dead among civilians and military personnel. The Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreign Affairs has condemned Tajikistan for committing an act of war and claimed that the aggression was premeditated and prepared. The Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs blamed Kyrgyzstan for aggression and violation of norms of international humanitarian law.

The conflict also reveals the limitations of both China- and Russia-led regional security organizations in Central Asia. Both states clashed when China, Russia, and Central Asian countries were gathering at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan—just 200 miles away from the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. Both Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and his Kyrgyz counterpart, Sadyr Japarov, were present at the summit and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin while the skirmishes occurred. The conflict was discussed by the Tajik and Kyrgyz presidents at a side event but not at the main venue.

The SCO’s reluctance to resolve conflicts among its members reveals how it is limited to promoting only China’s security interests in the region.

The SCO’s reluctance to resolve conflicts among its members reveals how it is limited to promoting only China’s security interests in the region. Beijing is interested primarily in strong regimes in Central Asia that will suppress the Uyghur minority and support China’s Belt and Road Initiative in the region. It has made clear that its Central Asian members must find other venues for solving intraregional territorial disputes.

Likewise, both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are members of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which historically chose not to intervene in interstate conflicts among its members. The only time it acted in unity and deployed troops to a member state’s territory was to suppress demonstrations in Kazakhstan this January. When Kyrgyz and Tajik militaries clashed in April 2021, the CSTO was holding a summit in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. The organization made no note of it.

In response to the recent clashes, the CSTO offered diplomatic mediation between Bishkek and Dushanbe. But the statement likely represented the Kremlin’s, and not the CSTO’s, approach to the conflict and its interest in stopping further destabilization. Russia is not interested in a Central Asia united without its patronage, but it also doesn’t want to see the region turn into a source of instability along its southern borders.

Unlike the renewed fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which has been widely attributed to Russia’s weakening, the aggression in Central Asia is driven mostly by domestic factors. If the Russian president still plays a role in the conflict, it is from a position of strength, not weakness. The sense in Kyrgyzstan is that the CSTO could not avert Rahmon’s aggression because he enjoys close relations with the Kremlin. Throughout Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Rahmon has remained loyal to Putin. He hosted him in June in Dushanbe.

As a sign of Moscow’s support for the impending dynastic transition, Russian Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matvienko met with Rahmon’s 34-year old son, Rustam Emomali, in Dushanbe the day Russia invaded Ukraine. Some in Kyrgyzstan fear that their country’s neutral position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the root of Putin’s stronger support of Tajikistan.


The escalation along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border is not new. Small clashes flare up along the border on a regular basis, with the deadliest fight to date unraveling in April 2021, when dozens of civilians were killed and hundreds wounded. Many factors are at play. The Soviet delimitation of national borders in the Ferghana Valley produced a complex geography. Of the roughly 600-mile border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, only half is demarcated. Two Tajik exclaves, Vorukh and Kayragach (also known as Lolazor), are in Kyrgyzstan, contributing to tensions between the two states.

But the real problem has roots in modern politics: In both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, leaders use border tensions for their domestic political benefit. Even though both are drastically different regimes—Tajikistan’s is deeply autocratic and Kyrgyzstan’s populist—both have adopted populist approaches to the border area instead of trying to negotiate a peaceful coexistence for the local population. Japarov promised to resolve border issues to consolidate support ahead of the presidential election in 2021, while Rahmon employs expansionist rhetoric to consolidate the nation around his regime.

On the Tajik side, the regime has been acquiring ammunition and receiving military training from Russia, China, and Iran. China’s Ministry of Public Security financed the launch of a new military base in Tajikistan to counter threats emanating from Afghanistan, and Iran opened a production facility to produce Ababil-2 tactical drones. Sharing a long border with Afghanistan, Tajikistan has also been receiving extensive security aid from the United States and the European Union. The U.S. government supports Tajikistan with tactical weapons and military-to-military trainings. Kyrgyzstan also receives security assistance from the United States, but most programs focus on democracy-building.

Japarov’s relations with Moscow are less secure than Rahmon’s primarily because he came to power as a result of mass protests and by replacing his predecessor.

Rahmon has ruled Tajikistan for nearly three decades, since the civil war in the 1990s. He imprisoned, forced out of the country, or killed all members of the opposition. Rahmon is also reportedly planning to transfer power to his son. Escalating a conflict with Kyrgyzstan under the pretense of protecting borders and ethnic Tajiks helps consolidate control over the military and state officials for the impending dynastic succession.

In Kyrgyzstan, the leadership is newly established and less autocratic. Japarov and his close ally Kamchybek Tashiev, the head of the State Committee for National Security, were able to win controversial elections in early 2021 on a populist platform. Territorial sovereignty and border security featured high on their agenda. They purchased Turkish Bayraktar drones and Russian armored personnel carriers to prop up their otherwise dilapidated armed forces.

Perhaps emboldened by their earlier successful delimitation of borders with Uzbekistan after a long history of frequent armed border disputes, they then held a ceremony to demonstrate the newly acquired military equipment in Bishkek. Tajikistan and less so Kyrgyzstan fortified their borders with military and civilian personnel, especially around densely populated disputed areas.

Japarov’s relations with Moscow are less secure than Rahmon’s primarily because he came to power as a result of mass protests and by replacing his predecessor. Japarov has also struggled to bring trade with China back to its pre-pandemic level, even after China eased domestic lockdowns.


By escalating fighting with Kyrgyzstan, Rahmon has been able to divert domestic attention from his recent violent clampdown on political activism among Pamiris, a minority population in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region that identifies with the Ismaili branch of Shiite Islam. Gorno-Badakhshan—with its distinct local identity—remains the last place of civic resistance to Rahmon’s authoritarianism. Dozens of people have died in clashes with the government since late 2021. Rahmon recently shut down two important Ismaili institutions—a school and a bookshop.

Japarov’s populist policies, corruption, and repression of opponents have been severely criticized and challenged at home. The government’s unpreparedness in the face of Tajik aggression last month became fully exposed to the domestic audience. Where Japarov’s government is lacking, Kyrgyzstan’s robust civil society and independent media fill the gaps. Grassroots campaigns to support internally displaced people and provide open information sprang up across the country. People offered shelter, food, and clothing to the victims of the conflict.

But the effect of a weak civil society in Tajikistan and strong grassroots mobilization in Kyrgyzstan will likely have an inverse effect. Rahmon will be able to consolidate the security apparatus for a successful transfer of power to his son. He relies on the nationalist sentiment of protecting ethnic Tajiks along the unstable border with Kyrgyzstan.

By contrast, in Kyrgyzstan, Japarov and Tashiev come across as incapable of stopping the external aggressor and allowing high numbers of casualties. Kyrgyzstan in some ways resembles Armenia, where Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has been unable to hold territory while his authoritarian neighbor makes gains and consolidates power. In both Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, protesters are calling for their governments to withdraw from the CSTO. With every security or social crisis in Kyrgyzstan, civil society networks mobilize and can fuel protest potential against the unpopular government. The latest clashes with Tajikistan may further destabilize Kyrgyz politics.


Neither China nor Russia wants growing instability in Central Asia, even if it involves smaller countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are heavily indebted to China. Both also have hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers working in Russia. Yet, even with strong economic influence, neither country can deliver on security guarantees for conflicts in Central Asia. Instead, the clashes exposed both the SCO’s and the CSTO’s inadequacy in preventing the escalation of tensions among their member states.

Future conflict prevention and resolution in Central Asia will depend on whether Western partners, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the U.S. government, and the EU, are willing to mediate regional tensions. Like the high-level visit by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Armenia to demonstrate U.S. support for interstate peace in the South Caucasus, now is the time for Western partners to support regional peace and prevent future loss of lives. Both Russia and China will likely oppose any expanded Western presence in the region, but they will continue to fall short when it comes to offering alternatives that bring about a more peaceful Central Asia.

Asel Doolotkeldieva is a senior lecturer at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Her academic interests include protests and mass mobilizations, nationalism, and politics of populism in Central Asia. Twitter: @ADoolotkeldieva

Erica Marat is an associate professor at the National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs. The views expressed here are her own. Twitter: @EricaMarat

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