Many Russians miss their empire. After 1991, when the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union dissolved, many Russians refused to accept that outcome, nor the loss of half the Russian empire that the czars spent several centuries putting together and the communists managed to hold onto for 70 years until they lost it. By the late 1990s, a new generation of Russian leaders were trying to exploit that sense of loss. That was somewhat encouraged by the fact that some of the new states formed from the dissolution of the empire (Armenia, Belarus, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan) had reason to maintain close economic and military ties with Russia. These independent states did not want to rejoin the empire, but they did want to regain some of the benefits of being part of an empire, especially the military ones.
Armenia and Azerbaijan renewed old disputes and needed protection from each other. Oil-rich Azerbaijan also needed protection from Iran while Belarus was poor, corrupt and not as passionate about independence as the other thirteen new nations formed from the empire. Early on Russia was describing these former imperial territories as the “near abroad” and deserving of special status when it came to diplomacy and international cooperation. Most of these fourteen new nations wanted less to do with Russia, not more. The new states to the west were attracted to the EU (European Union) and NATO. The new nations to the east were increasingly attracted to growing Chinese wealth and military power. Russia chose not to make a big deal about the Chinese efforts. After all, China was still a communist police state and was not making a fuss about territorial claims it still had on Russian territory on the Pacific coast. At the same time, Russia let the five Central Asian states (and former Soviet territories) know Russia would do what it could to help if Chinese economic expansion morphed into political domination. In the west, the EU and NATO were offering cooperation, not domination and Russia leaders chose to interpret that as a conspiracy to destroy Russia, a nation where paranoia is easier to sell than progress.
Going into the 21st century, Russian leaders began using a different term, “New Russia” to describe what they are doing in Ukraine and, without saying so, plan to do elsewhere. The objective is to restore the defunct Russian Empire. It was built by the czars over several centuries, taken over by the communists in the 1920s and then lost by the communists in 1991. This caused half of the Soviet population to leave for newly formed nations. Current Russian leaders, especially Vladimir Putin, are quite explicit in describing this loss of empire as “the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.” Many Russians agree, although most of the people in the 14 new nations created from the wreckage of that empire do not. In 2014 Putin called for Ukraine to negotiate autonomy (and eventually statehood) for Donbas. That would be followed by Donbas asking to join the New Russia. Russia had already seized Crimea from Ukraine and incorporated it into Russia.
The other targets (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus and Central Asia) for the New Russia did not see the Russian offer as an opportunity, but more of a threat. There was one exception, the Central Asian state of Tajikistan. Throughout the 1990s the Tajiks were having a lot of problems maintaining their national unity and independence and Russia provided a needed lifeline. Russia was helpful dealing with Tajikistan’s southern neighbor, Afghanistan, as well as the civil war within Tajikistan and efforts by Islamic terror groups to establish themselves in Central Asia, particularly Tajikistan. Like the other four new states formed from Soviet Central Asia, Tajikistan was poor (the poorest of the four) and thinly populated (nine million people). Once independent it could not maintain large armed forces or depend, as they did, when part of the Russian Empire, on help from imperial forces. Tajikistan asked Russia to leave behind some Russian troops and Russia agreed. This was not supposed to be a long-term deal but that is how it turned out. Russian forces behaved, were discreet and were helpful. Russia also provided training and equipment to improve Tajikistan’s tiny (about 80,000 troops) armed forces.
In late 2012, after months of hard negotiating Russia and Tajikistan have reached an agreement on what Russia will pay for its bases in Tajikistan and extended the lease to 20 or 29 years. The bases are used for 9,000 Russian troops of the 201st Motor Rifle Division. That unit was at half strength and had sent most of its heavy weapons back to Russia. Current gear included 96 tanks, 300 Infantry Fighting Vehicles, 54 self-propelled artillery vehicles, 1,100 other vehicles, eight helicopters, and five ground attack aircraft. The 201st was there during the Soviet period and the post-Soviet Union Tajik government asked Russia to leave the 201st in place to help with internal security. This was a problem because Tajikistan shares a long border with Afghanistan, a country Russian troops had only left (in 1988) a few years before Tajikistan became independent in 1991.
Until 2005, Russia had 11,000 border guards manning the frontier with Afghanistan. But the Tajiks didn't like foreigners guarding their borders, especially with the amount of money Afghan drug smugglers were offering to border guards to look the other way. While Russia could crack down on this if any of the guards were Russian, such was not the case when Tajiks were on border duty. This is still a sore point between the two nations.
Tajikistan is a part of the Heroin Highway that brings these drugs into Russia from Afghanistan. Corruption in Tajikistan and brutal violence used by the Afghan smugglers has meant that most of the heroin gets through to Russia. The presence of the 201st Motor Rifle Division has had little effect on the drug smuggling. Russia has several million drug addicts and has been willing to cooperate with NATO to attack drug production in Afghanistan. As part of that cooperation, Russia has offered more and more assistance in moving NATO supplies and troops to Afghanistan via Russian railroads and air space. The Russians have refrained from charging extortionate fees because they want NATO forces to continue fighting the Afghan drug gangs. This effort was not as successful as hoped although after most NATO forces left Afghanistan in 2014 the Afghan security forces performed better than expected.
The current deal with Tajikistan makes it worthwhile for Russia to upgrade the four army camps and one airbase they occupy. To get the long lease, Russia agreed to sell Tajikistan weapons and military equipment at a sharp discount and train Tajik officers in Russian schools, for free, for the duration of the agreement. Tajikistan also promises to help keep the heroin out of Russia. Tajik is considered likely to make an effort because the cheaper opium is also flooding into Tajikistan and creating so many addicts that even the ruling families are noticing. The Russian presence not only gives the government some extra muscle in any future civil wars or outbreaks of Islamic radicalism but also provides some protection against larger neighbor Uzbekistan.
Despite being the northern neighbor of Afghanistan and part of a key drug smuggling route, Tajikistan has managed to keep Islamic terrorist threats, especially from al Qaeda under control. In 2013 the security forces arrested 118 suspected Islamic terrorists. Early in 2013 ten men were arrested and found with weapons and documents indicating plans to carry out terror attacks in the Tajik capital, as part of an effort to disrupt the up elections in late 2013. No such disruption occurred. Meanwhile most of what Islamic terrorist activity there is takes place in a few areas. At the same time, al Qaeda had spawned a more aggressive faction; ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). While Tajikistan was able to contain al Qaeda, and the Taliban was a national, not international, operation, ISIL was much more aggressive. Russia had been able to contain ISIL and Tajikistan wanted to import some of that capability.
Meanwhile, ISIL was showing up throughout Central Asia. Not in large numbers but there was no doubt ISIL was trying to set up shop in Central Asia. In Tajikistan and throughout Central Asia it’s the thickly populated river valleys that tend to be where the Islamic radicals get established and become dangerous, and that has been going on in Tajikistan since 2008. In the Rasht Valley near the Afghan border, troops have frequently found caches of weapons and medical supplies. These apparently belonged to Islamic radical groups preparing to hunker down for the Winter. These Islamic radical groups mostly come from Afghanistan and Pakistan and are usually associated with al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The main supporters for Islamic terrorism in Tajikistan are tribes that have lost out in the competition to control the central government and benefit from all the cash and control that provides. Russia has been particularly helpful in keeping the Tajik government on top of the terrorist threat and has long-term agreements to station troops and anti-drug police in Tajikistan, mainly to interfere with the drugs smugglers coming out of Afghanistan but also to keep the Islamic terrorists, who usually work with or for the smugglers, under control. Russians have been helping out in Central Asia for over two centuries now, no matter who is running the Russian government.
The Rasht Valley is not the only place where Islamic terrorists have been active. Further north there is a much larger valley with much more potential developing into an Islamic terrorist hot spot. There has been growing unrest in the lush Fergana Valley of Central Asia since the late 1990s. The valley is 300 kilometers long, 70 kilometers wide, and comprises 22,000 square kilometers (8,900 square miles). Fed by two rivers, it is a very large oasis in an otherwise semi-desert region. The densely populated valley is home for 11 million people of varying ethnicities (25 percent Kyrgyz Turk, 19 percent Tajik, and 56 percent Uzbek Turk). The Uzbeks see the Kyrgyz and Tajik as interlopers, courtesy of the Soviet Union era borders, in what they consider an Uzbek valley. Meanwhile, the Uzbeks are divided into several factions who have not historically gotten along but are now united in a desire to control the entire valley. That is a possibility, as Uzbekistan has a population of 30 million compared to Kyrgyzstan with six million and Tajikistan with nine million. But all three countries are poor, although per capita income in Uzbekistan (about $1,800 a year) is about fifty percent higher than the other two.
During the Soviet period (1920-91) the provincial borders in the Fergana Valley made little difference and local ethnic groups (Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Kyrgyz) intermingled. Those old Soviet provincial borders are now national frontiers and the ancient ethnic animosities have reappeared because crossing these borders is now a crime and the border guards shoot to kill.
The Kyrgyz portions of the valley contain a lot of Uzbeks because when the Soviets rearranged the borders they did not move people. Despite all the water in the valley, there are too many people. In the last century, the population has increased five-fold. The result has been poverty and government corruption that has made the Fergana valley a hotbed of discontent. Some of the unrest is led by Islamic radicals but everyone in the area is unhappy with the Uzbek government. The violence in the valley has not yet reached crisis proportions, but the three nations owning portions of the valley are seeing more violence and not much willingness to compromise. The disputes are a major issue with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, with the Tajiks keeping quiet. These disputes also involve Russia, still the major power in the region, which advised the three countries to work out their differences. Russia will only send peacekeepers as a last resort and so far it has not come close to that.
Meanwhile, Russia has agreed to upgrade the Tajik forces to Russian standards. This means thousands of Tajik officers, NCOs and enlisted specialists going to Russian for training and more new equipment and weapons for the 85,000 troops in the Tajik forces. As a result of all this China has been more willing to do business with Tajikistan and is one of the three largest trading partners with Tajikistan. China has a small border with Tajikistan, which cooperates with China to keep Islamic terrorists from crossing the border with China’s Xinjiang province. China also settled a border dispute dating from the early 20th century. While China gave up claims to 28,000 square kilometers of Tajik territory, Tajikistan turned over to China 1,158 square kilometers of territory China claimed. China also has a small border with Afghanistan and wanted to do business there as well. But the violence and corruption in Afghanistan are far worse than anything in the other Central Asian states. China recognizes that this is largely because of Pakistani interference in Afghanistan. While China is a major investor in Pakistan and the largest arms supplier, China has not yet been able to persuade Pakistan to leave Afghanistan alone.