Since the start of the current conflict in Ukraine, there have been growing glimpses coming through media reports, social media feeds and personal networks of Central Asian mercenaries and volunteers fighting on both sides of the Russia-Ukraine war. But the emergence of this new foreign fighter phenomenon — less than a decade after thousands of Central Asians joined ISIS in Iraq and Syria — is raising increasing concerns and important questions for Central Asian security. Unlike the phenomenon of Central Asians fighting in Iraq and Syria, the cleavages in Ukraine are much closer to home and echo those in Central Asian society, which makes this mobilization much more divisive internally.
While accepting Russia’s big footprint in their security and economic lives, Central Asian countries have tried to conduct “multi-vector” foreign policies. These countries know that having good (or at least balanced) relations with Russia, China and the United States is important in the long term — and that Central Asian leaders who’ve tried to play the big powers against each other often wind up the loser.
Kazakhstan’s violent upheaval this month underscores that governments and international organizations need to more effectively help Central Asia’s 76 million people build responsive, effective governance across their five nations. Mass protests or communal violence also have struck Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in recent years. As the United States, allied governments and international institutions seek ways to promote nonviolent transitions toward more stable, democratic rule, new research suggests that they explore for partners in an often-ignored sector—Central Asia’s active and disparate Muslim civil society.