Russian Arms Exports to Central Asia
As a region, the four Central Asian republics that joined the CIS – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – constitute the smallest international defense market. Their arms imports remain small, with the sole exception of energy-rich Kazakhstan. The scope of this paper does not include the fifth Central Asian state, Turkmenistan, which has gone into self-imposed isolation from the CIS and is trying to plot an independent course, propped up by its oil and gas resources.
Russia remains the single largest arms supplier to the four Central Asian states, even though all four are trying to diversify. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are almost totally reliant on Russian military assistance because both are very poor. Kazakhstan, and to a lesser extent Uzbekistan, are different in that both are solvent and therefore in a position to choose their suppliers. But their choices are greatly affected by political considerations. Kazakhstan is doing its best to stay in Russia’s good books, and therefore prefers to buy Russian weaponry.
As a regional defense market, Central Asia has four major distinctive characteristics.
First, the Soviet military legacy plays a prominent role here. Three of the four republics took over large Soviet forces stationed in their territory when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. Those forces were brought under their respective national jurisdictions and became the core of the newly independent states’ armed forces. The troop and hardware numbers the Central Asian states inherited from the Soviet Union were clearly excessive for their needs, so they did not have any unmet defense requirements and did not need to build their armies from scratch. All they needed to do was to decide which fragments of the former Soviet military machine to retain and which to scrap. Only Tajikistan, which was plunged into a civil war in 1992, was not allowed to inherit any Soviet forces. Nevertheless, the country has been able to rely on strong Russian military support.
Second, the four Central Asian states remain weak economically. Throughout the 1990s, the entire post-Soviet region was in the throes of a deep economic crisis, which made any attempts to improve the national defense capability too expensive to consider. None of the former Soviet republics that had taken over the former Soviet forces stationed in its territory was able to maintain them to their former numerical size and fighting strength. For 15 years, these republics undertook round after round of defense cuts, whittling away at the military capability they had inherited and, in some cases, reducing it to almost nothing. But the economic crisis eventually ran its course, and all the post-Soviet economies began to grow in the early 2000s. Nevertheless, all of them still remain weak and relatively poor. Most of the CIS states can ill afford to spend any large sums on defense procurement. The only exception is Kazakhstan, with its oil and gas riches.
Third, the Central Asian republics are facing a range of security threats, and their foreign-policy orientation is not uniform. The predominant threat to all four states is Islamic extremism, which forces them to seek Russian assistance. But even those Central Asian states that have declared their commitment to an with alliance with Russia are always worried about becoming too dependent on Moscow. These concerns prod them to undertake various attempts at diversification in terms of allies and defense suppliers.
And fourth, the Central Asian defense market offers some clear opportunities for growth. Despite their general weakness, all four economies have improved substantially over the past decade. That is especially true of Kazakhstan, which benefits from strong oil and gas exports. By the early 2010s, the market had become ripe for a wave of defense technology refresh, especially since the old Soviet hardware inherited by the Central Asian states had become woefully decrepit and obsolete by that time.
By now, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have essentially completed the transformation of the fragments of the Soviet forces they inherited into their independent national armed forces. They are now launching long-term programs to augment their existing national defense capability. Having reduced the size of their forces to more manageable proportions, and having put their economies on the mend since the early 2000s, the Central Asian republics are now able to spend more than a pittance on their procurement programs, including new weapons and hardware.
Kazakhstan is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and a close Russian military ally. President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled the country since 1989, is well-aware of Kazakhstan’s geopolitical situation and its large ethnic-Russian minority. He therefore steers a cautious course that keeps the republic firmly in the Russian orbit. The main potential threat Kazakhstan faces is the risk of ethnic tensions flaring into an open conflict, especially once Nazarbayev inevitably bows out sooner or later. In recent years, a rapid increase in oil and gas exports has propped up economic growth and enabled the government to spend more on the armed forces.
At the core of those forces lies the former Soviet Union’s Turkestan Military District and the 32nd Army, whose units were stationed primarily in Kazakhstan and were taken over by the newly-independent state in 1992. The country also inherited large numbers of heavy weaponry pulled out in 1989-1990 from the western part of the Soviet Union ahead of the signing of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Kazakhstan was left in control of about 3,700 tanks (T-72, T-64, and T-62), 4,700 fighting armored vehicles, and 8,100 artillery systems. Those numbers were vastly redundant, making it unnecessary for Kazakhstan to buy any new weapons or military hardware for many years to come. The country also inherited a large fleet of military aircraft, including 40 Tu-95MS heavy bombers. Under a deal signed later with Moscow, the bombers were handed over to Russia and became part of the Russian Air Force. In return, Kazakhstan received 21 MiG-29 and 38 Su-27 fighters 14 Su-25 strikers, 17 L-39 combat trainers, one Il-76MD, one Tu-134Sh, and one Tu-154B plane between 1995 and 2002. In 1996-2000, Kazakhstan also received three S-300PS SAM batteries from Russia, and in 2015 another five S-300PS batteries previously operated by the Russian forces.
Over the past decade, Kazakhstan’s improving economic fortunes have enabled the country to step up its weapons programs. It has received a total of 132 BTR-80A and 180 BTR-82A APCs, numerous Tigr armored vehicles, three BMPT armored fighting vehicles, 12 TOS-1A heavy flamethrower systems, and up to 40 Mi-17 helicopters from Russia since 2010. Russia has also secured a contract for the upgrade of Kazakhstan’s MiG-31 fighter fleet. Plans have also been discussed to acquire S-400 SAM systems at some point in the future. A Project 10750E coastal minesweeper (the Alatau, delivered in 2017) and a sonar ship have been built in Russia for the Kazakh Navy.
Kazakhstan has also begun to buy Russian military aircraft in fairly large numbers. It has placed three contracts for a total of 23 Su-30SM fighters made by the Irkut Corporation in Irkutsk. Under the first contract, signed in 2014 and worth about 5bn roubles, Kazakhstan has received four Su-30SM jets, which were delivered to the Taldy-Kurgan airbase in April 2015.
In December 2015, Kazakhstan signed a second contract for an additional seven Su-30SM fighters. Four planes were delivered under that contract to the Kazakh Air Defense Force in 2016-2017. The remaining four were to follow before the end of 2018.
In August 2017, Russia and Kazakhstan signed a framework three-year deal for another 12 Su-30SM fighters. As part of that deal, a contract for eight jets was signed in May 2018. It has also been reported that the Kazakh MoD plans to buy a total of 36 Su-30SMs from Russia by 2020.
There have been reports that Kazakhstan is also showing interest in Su-35 fighters, Yak-130 combat trainers, and Il-76MD-90A transports.
In 2016, Kazakhstan signed a contract for four Mi-35M attack helicopters, all of which were delivered the following year. In 2018, it signed another contract for an additional four Mi-35Ms. It has also shown interest in Mi-28NE attack helicopters.
Even though Russia remains Kazakhstan’s leading arms supplier, Kazakh officials have often spoken of their intention to diversify their arms imports and buy “NATO-standard” weaponry from the West. Up until the mid-2000s, the only non-Soviet systems operated by the Kazakh forces were patrol boats provided by several foreign countries as a gift of aid (including nine boats built in the United States and paid for by the US government, six supplied by the UAE, four by Germany, three by South Korea, and two by Turkey). The United States later supplied four used Bell UH-1H helicopters and 40 HMMWV vehicles, also free of charge.
Then in 2007, Kazakhstan began to buy Western systems in large numbers rather than receiving them gratis. Since then, it has purchased Israeli UAVs and Turkish Cobra armored vehicles. It has upgraded some of its artillery systems and T-72 tanks in cooperation with Israeli and Turkish companies. It has also signed contracts with Airbus Helicopters for EC146 and EC645T2 light helicopters and Cougar transport helicopters, to be assembled in Kazakhstan from imported assembly kits. It has bought eight Airbus C295 transport planes, and is now negotiating a contract for four Airbus A400M transports. It has discussed upgrade options for its air defense control systems with BAE Systems, and set up several joint ventures with Turkish defense contractors. It has placed an order with Thales for 20 Ground Master 400 (GM400) ground-based radars, which will be assembled locally.
It has also set up a joint venture called Kazakhstan Paramount Engineering with South Africa’s Paramount Group. The company assembles Maradeur wheeled MRAP vehicles, and is also expected to launch local assembly of Mbombe APCs. The same joint venture also assembles SanCat Stormer armored vehicles designed by the Israeli company Plasan. An agreement has been signed with Turkey on local assembly of Cobra 2 armored vehicles.
Kazakhstan has also stepped up imports from China. In 2015, it bought several Pterodactyl I (Yilong-1, Wing Loong) heavy UAVs, and in 2018 China began deliveries of eight Y-8F-200 transport planes.
Astana is expected to ramp up its arms procurement programs, and it is increasingly showing preference for technologically advanced weapons systems. We therefore expect Western, Turkish, and Chinese suppliers to win a greater share of the Kazakh defense market.
Over the next decade, Kazakhstan’s key requirements will probably include large numbers of wheeled armored vehicles (including modern medium-sized APCs and MRAP vehicles), wheeled self-propelled artillery, short-range ballistic missiles, S-400 SAM and Buk-2ME/M3 SAM systems or their equivalents, new attack helicopters (such as the Mi-28NE), and multirole fighters. By and large, Russia should be able to meet those requirements, but that is contingent on a successful completion of several Russian R&D programs.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan was left in control of several units previously assigned to the Turkestan Military District, including the 108th Motor Rifle Division and a large fleet of military aircraft. It also inherited much of the Soviet heavy weaponry that was pulled out from the western part of the Soviet Union in 1989-1990 ahead of the signing of the CFE treaty. The republic took ownership of about 2,200 tanks, 1,600 armored fighting vehicles, and 1,100 artillery systems. But, because of its large territory and population, it then proceeded to increase the numerical strength of its armed forces instead of pursuing defense cuts.
The previous Uzbek administration of Islam Karimov, who had ruled since 1991, tried to plot an independent foreign-policy course, making efforts to distance itself from Russia and forge stronger ties with the West. Anti-Russian sentiment was also the main reason for an Uzbek rapprochement with Ukraine. Shortly after 2001, Uzbekistan allowed the United States the use of its military bases to support operations in Afghanistan. But it soon turned out that the West was only willing to go so far in its cooperation with the authoritarian Uzbek regime. Karimov was forced to adjust his foreign strategy and take Russia’s interests closer to heart. In 2005, Uzbekistan asked the United States to pull its forces from the Uzbek bases, and became more involved in the workings of various CIS institutions. In late 2006 Uzbekistan resumed membership of the CSTO, which it had suspended in 1999.
In December 2012, Uzbekistan once again suspended its CSTO membership. After the death of Islam Karimov in September 2016 and the election of Shavkat Mirziyoyev as the new president, Tashkent made yet another U-turn and began to pursue closer ties with Russia, although its latest CSTO membership suspension has yet to be reversed.
The main threats faced by the country are Islamic extremism and the potential for domestic political instability. Uzbekistan’s weapons procurement programs remain small. The largest of them have included the acquisition of 220 BTR-80 APCs from Russia in 1992-2002. Tashkent has also bought Russian small arms, infantry weapons, and several Mi-8 helicopters. The rest of its imports from Russia and Ukraine include spare parts, repairs, and maintenance services. In 2004, Ukraine built two Gyurza-type armored gunboats for Uzbekistan’s flotilla on the River Amu Darya; the contract was financed by a US grant under counter-narcotics and counterterrorism programs. The United States itself has supplied 14 boats.
As part of Karimov’s efforts at diversification, Uzbekistan tried to increase arms imports from some Western countries. In recent years, it has bought four Airbus C295W transports (delivered in 2015-2016), 10 Airbus Helicopters AS350 Ecureil light helicopters, and six Airbus Helicopters ?225? Cougar transports.
Uzbekistan’s participation in the CSTO under President Karimov did not lead to any great strengthening of the country’s military ties with Russia. In fact, during the last few years of Karimov’s rule, Tashkent stepped up its cooperation with the West. In 2014-2015, the United States donated to Uzbekistan much of the US hardware pulled out of Afghanistan, including 308 Oshkosh M-ATV MRAP vehicles, 20 MRAP repair and evac vehicles, and various other trucks. This was part of the 150m-dollar package of US military assistance provided in return for Tashkent’s consent to host a US military base in Termez (the Kokaydy airfield). The agreement regarding the base was never officially announced, and it was never implemented following Karimov’s death in 2016 – but the United States continues to use Uzbek airfields for various operations. In 2015, Uzbekistan tried to buy 12 KAI T-50 combat trainers from South Korea, but Washington did not allow it for fear of the technologies ending up in Russia’s hands.
Things began to change following the arrival of President Mirziyoyev, and Uzbekistan has now stepped up its arms imports from Russia. In November 2016, Moscow and Tashkent signed a bilateral agreement on military-technical cooperation. In late 2017, Uzbekistan signed a contract for 12 Mi-35M attack helicopters. More deals are expected in the years to come. There have been reports that Uzbekistan is negotiating contracts for Su-30SM fighters, Mi-17 helicopters, armored vehicles, and ammunition. Russia has also declared itself willing to sell weapons to Uzbekistan at domestic Russian prices. Nevertheless, Tashkent is not yet in a position to afford any expensive contracts.
Meanwhile, Uzbekistan has not abandoned the attempts at arms import diversification launched under President Karimov. It has placed orders not only with Western suppliers but also with companies from Turkey and China. In 2013, it signed contracts with China for several Pterodactyl (Yilong-1) long-range UAVs and at least one battery of the HQ-9, an advanced Chinese SAM system.
It has also bought small batches of armored vehicles from Turkey. In 2017, it signed a joint venture agreement with Turkey’s Nurol Makina under which 1,000 Ejder Yalçın 4x4 armored vehicles are to be built at Uzbekistan’s UzAuto facility.
This small and poor Central Asian state has been going through a long period of domestic political turmoil, deepened by regional tensions and border disputes with neighboring Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan also has its fair share of problems with armed Islamic extremism. The country pursues close security cooperation with Russia and is a member of the CSTO. In recent years, the Kyrgyz government has in fact become more eager to involve Russia in providing its own security. The country hosts a Russian airbase in Kant, but it also offers its airfields to the United States and other NATO members for their operations in Afghanistan.
At the core of the Kyrgyz Armed Forces lie several units of the former Soviet Union’s Turkestan Military District, including the 8th Guards Motor Rifle Division and the 5th Air Force Training Facility (which specialized in training foreign pilots). The country proved unable to maintain these large units to their full numerical strength. The fighting ability of its forces leaves much to be desired, and Kyrgyzstan has been heavily reliant on Russian military assistance in recent years.
It has received three Mi-8MTV helicopters and significant numbers of other weaponry from Russia free of charge. The United States has also provided some assistance in return for access to military bases in Kyrgyz territory. Washington has paid for the two Mi-8MTV helicopters and four An-2 planes Kyrgyzstan bought from Kazakhstan. It has also supplied some US-made trucks and military gear.
In recent years, Russia and Kyrgyzstan have signed several agreements under which up to 200m dollars’ worth of used Russian weapons and gear will be supplied free of charge. Russia has already supplied two An-26 transports, four Mi-24V attack helicopters, several Mi-8MTV helicopters, two batteries of upgraded Pechora-2M SAM systems, dozens of upgraded BTR-70M APCs, trucks, small arms, and other hardware since 2012 – all of it from the Russian MoD surplus and free of charge. The total value of that hardware is estimated at 126m dollars.
Under plans announced in 2018, Russia will additionally supply two Buk-M1 batteries and several helicopters, and is expected to provide further assistance in the years to come.
Kyrgyzstan has recently received some military assistance from China as well, including Chinese trucks.
Lacking the funds for any significant modernization or even proper maintenance of its Armed Forces, Kyrgyzstan will continue to rely on foreign assistance, provided primarily by Russia. The country’s military hardware requirements are mostly limited to light armored vehicles, small arms and infantry weapons, trucks, and helicopters.
Tajikistan, the poorest and the least developed of all the former Soviet republics, was plunged into a civil war after the break-up of the Soviet Union. That is why the Soviet 201st Motor Rifle Division that was stationed on its territory at the time of the break-up was taken over by Russia. The division became the core of the Russian military base in Tajikistan. The Russian forces stationed at that base are stronger than all of Tajikistan’s own units put together. The Tajik Armed Forces consist of the pro-government troops and the former rebels who fought each other during the civil war but then agreed to work together as part of the national reconciliation process. As a result, the Tajik army lacks unity, cohesion and strength.
Russia provides the Tajik forces with all their weapons and training. It has handed over to the Tajik MoD some of the hardware previously operated by the 201st Division, including helicopters, small arms and munitions, and upgraded BTR-70M APCs. Russia has also repaired and upgraded Tajikistan’s S-125M SAM systems. In 2006, it supplied two Mi-24P and two Mi-8MTV helicopters. The Tajik forces will soon receive more of the weaponry previously operated by the 201st Division (which has since become the 201st Military Base of the Russian Armed Forces). Tajikistan is a CSTO member, and is likely to remain a close Russian ally/dependent for the foreseeable future.
Moscow and Dushanbe have signed several agreements on the provision of Russian military assistance in recent years. In 2017-2018, Russia supplied several Mi-24 and Mi-8 helicopters, T-72B1 tanks, BTR-80 and BTR-70M APCs, BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles, D-30 122mm towed artillery, and ZU-23 23mm AA systems. Announcements have been made to the effect that significant arms deliveries will continue in the years to come.
In recent years, Tajikistan has been receiving some military assistance from China and even from the United States. That assistance is primarily aimed at strengthening the country’s ability to defend its own borders against infiltration by Islamists and drug traffickers. In 2016, China helped Tajikistan to build new border infrastructure and supplied small batches of VP-11 and Tiger armored vehicles to the Tajik Border Service. That service has also received trucks and special hardware from the United States.
Lacking the funds to upgrade or maintain its forces, Tajikistan will remain dependent on Russian support and assistance. Its requirements are mostly limited to light armored vehicles, small arms and infantry gear, trucks, and helicopters.