The day after commending Kazakhstan for not bowing to the Kremlin, French President Emmanuel Macron was in Uzbekistan declaring that Paris and Tashkent have agreed to form a strategic partnership.
Suffice to say, all of this did not go unnoticed in Moscow.
Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan pursue “multi-vector foreign policy”, a broad concept that allows the two biggest post-Soviet Central Asian countries to step up relations and cooperation with anyone they please. But it’s all very subjective and, in public, their leaders keep it that way, fully aware that for both Russia and China there are in fact red lines. The former believes Central Asia is still very much its “backyard” and should remember where its loyalties, in the final analysis, must lie, while the latter is intent on sooner or later affirming itself as the number one partner in the region as Russian influence fragments.
Macron’s remarks to Kazakh counterpart Kassym-Jomart Tokayev during his Kazakhstan visit were rather strident—"France values ... the path you are following for your country, refusing to be a vassal of any power and seeking to build numerous and balanced relations with different countries”—as he made the French and European case for becoming a bigger player in Central Asia.
In Uzbekistan, his charm offensive was more restrained, but he was at the same time direct in persuading President Shavkat Mirziyoyev that their countries should establish the highest level of bilateral partnership, namely a strategic partnership. Ahead of his trip, Macron would have known full well that the Kremlin would see him as exploiting inviting openings only there because Russia is so consumed by the distraction of the war in Ukraine.
The US, Germany, Turkey and China have also been busy wooing the Central Asians while the Russian bear is otherwise occupied, and while top Russian officials are not flipping out in front of the media, you can bet there are some cross words being said behind the scenes.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova gave a flavour of this when she was asked to comment on Macron’s visits to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Warning France and other EU states not to "intimidate" countries that have ties to Russia, she was reported by AFP as saying: "Every state and the Central Asian states naturally have the right to their foreign policy.
"But there is an anti-Russian agenda that Western countries and Western leaders are incorporating into their contacts with a number of countries and in particular with Central Asian countries."
The briskness with which Macron arrived in Russia’s “sphere of influence” will, not, however have come as much of a surprise to Moscow, if any surprise at all.
Only last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was telling Belarus’ BeITA news agency that the West was attempting to pull and lure Russia’s “neighbours, friends and allies” away from it.
“Look at how Western powers are wooing Central Asia,” said Lavrov. “They have created numerous formats such as ‘Central Asia plus’ involving the United States, the EU, and Japan ... On top of the Central Asia plus EU format, the Germans have created their own format. The French won’t be wasting time and will do the same,” he said.
“These frameworks for diplomatic engagements are aimed at luring our Central Asian neighbours, friends, and allies towards the West which promises them economic and trade incentives and delivers relatively modest aid programmes.”
Lavrov cautioned Russia’s “Central Asian brothers” that cooperation with the Western powers could not be “compared with the benefits the Central Asian countries enjoy from cooperating with Russia ... in sensitive areas such as border security, law enforcement training, and traditional security.”
Lavrov’s confidence that the Central Asians won’t lose sight of the benefits of keeping Russia as their number one strategic partner is certainly not shared by all Russia watchers.
Well-known Russia affairs analyst Mark Galeotti told CNBC on November 4 that Macron’s Central Asia visit would have touched a nerve in Moscow but that the region has increasingly been looking elsewhere, to Europe, China and the US, for trade and security guarantees.
“Yes, the Russians are grumbling at what they see as Macron’s posturing ... but it’s more that this kind of initiative reminds them of the fact that, really, they are losing their authority in Central Asia,” said Galeotti.
“There clearly is concern [in Russia at Central Asia’s geopolitical trajectory], but more than anything else, I think the concern is driven by a painful awareness, that, in a way, Central Asia has already been lost,” he added.
“Essentially, Moscow’s main hold on Central Asia had long been, essentially, as a security guarantor,” he observed, adding that “Russia was the country you went to when you were looking for assistance in security matters.”
“But ever since February of last year [when it invaded Ukraine], we’ve seen a very rapid decline in Russia’s authority in Central Asia.”
Since the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, the independent “Stans” have stuck to the golden rule that former overlord Russia should not be antagonised. They still do so, but not with nearly so much foreboding or concern as before. As Galeotti also pointed out, Russia’s “final backstop of authority was the possibility that it could invade or intervene, but now, with 97% of the Russian army mired in Ukraine, no one’s really worried about that anymore.”