Vladimir Putin’s visit to Kyrgyzstan on October 12 marked his first trip abroad since the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant against him in March 2023. This visit signalled Central Asia’s increasing importance for Russia amid the isolation triggered by its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Putin visited all five Central Asian countries for the first time in years and contacted his counterparts in the region more often through phone and video conference calls.
As the range of Moscow’s international partners has shrunk, the Kremlin has begun to value its relations with the region more. Putin attended the summit of heads of state of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an intergovernmental organization made up of former Soviet republics. As part of his visit, Putin attended a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of Russia’s airbase near Kant, a facility that allows Moscow to project influence in the region. Putin has been largely absent from international travel since deploying Russian troops into Ukraine in February 2022 and has not been seen leaving Russia since the Hague-based ICC warranted his involvement in Ukrainian child deportation.
Putin’s recent visit to Kyrgyzstan has been criticized for highlighting his isolation and promoting his image. Political analyst Musurkul Kabylbekov believes that Putin’s visit demonstrates his control over the post-Soviet Asian space and his freedom to visit countries under Russian influence. However, political expert Seitek Kachkynbai suggests that the international community should evaluate Putin’s visit as Russia is now in the situation of Iran and is being removed from the political arena, sports, culture, and literature.
Bishkek’s neutral stance on the Ukraine war is attributed to the country’s economic dependence on Russia, which is the second-largest investor after China and a crucial supplier of energy and food. Over a million Kyrgyz citizens live and work in Russia, with their remittances accounting for up to three billion US dollars per year, about a third of the national gross domestic product.
Kyrgyzstan and the region must remain neutral due to national interests and current realities. The EU, US, China, and Japan accept Kyrgyzstan’s neutrality, as they understand they cannot lose the region amid pressure on Russia. They pursue a cautious policy and offer alternative ways to reduce dependence on Russia. The region’s neutrality may be considered a compromise, as Kyrgyzstan would state its support for Ukraine, not Russia.
Central Asia’s rising profile on the world stage has been reflected in events and high-level meetings since February 2022. In May 2023, the first China-Central Asia summit took place in Xi’an, and in June, Kyrgyzstan hosted the President of the European Council Charles Michel for the second Central Asia-EU summit. In September, all Central Asia leaders met US President Joe Biden in New York for the C5+1 format, the first-ever held at the presidential level. Political analyst Bakyt Baketaev explains that Kyrgyzstan’s presidents visited the US and China together because they could not pursue their sovereign policies.
Moscow has been attempting to mitigate the impact of international sanctions by boosting parallel imports, particularly with Central Asian countries. Putin’s recent visit to Bishkek has seen double-digit growth in bilateral trade, which some analysts believe is linked to Moscow’s attempt to bypass sanctions by boosting parallel imports. The export of automotive parts and accessories from Germany to Kyrgyzstan has increased, indicating that trade relations between Germany and Russia continue via Kyrgyzstan.
However, importing tools for war could lead to sanctions, as the West understands Kyrgyzstan’s isolation and dependence on Russia. In October, Kyrgyzstan’s central bank urged local institutions to increase controls to improve compliance with sanctions against Moscow. In July, the US imposed sanctions on four Kyrgyz companies for re-exporting electronic components and technology to Russia. Experts argue that Kyrgyzstan must be pragmatic in its multi-vector foreign policy, pursuing its goals and adhering to international obligations and treaties.