2022: The year of proxy wars throughout Central Asia

2022: The year of proxy wars throughout Central Asia

By Ismail Hakki Pekin

The European Union (EU), the United States, the NATO and the Chairperson-in office the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) held a quadripartite coordination meeting concerning the tensions along the Russian-Ukrainian border. The meeting was the first of its kind in history. NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg evaluated the meeting as a “Strong signal of unity at this critical time” on his social media.

Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitriy Peskov stated that the US and British plans to supply weapons to Ukraine, including man-portable air defense systems, were extremely dangerous and would do nothing but escalate tensions in the region.

United World International expert Elif Ilhamoglu interviewed retired Lt. General Ismail Hakki Pekin, former Head of the Chief of Staff Intelligence Office, about the recent events in the conflict zones where Russia faces against the Atlantic, specifically Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Mali.

The US is escalating the crisis in Ukraine

Talks between the United States and Russia over the crisis in Ukraine have failed. And the tensions at the Russian-Ukrainian border still remain. As the US Secretary of State Blinken has held talks with the EU leaders on the issue, the UK decided to deliver arms support for Ukraine, including anti-tank defense systems. How would you evaluate these developments? How do you think will the conflict evolve? And the Turkish Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin has offered to mediate between both sides. What is your opinion about this mediation offer and the role of Turkey can play?

There is a situation in Ukraine that the United States keeps provoking. Thus, both sides are mutually stepping up their own security measures. Russia considers a NATO membership of Ukraine and the alliance’s eastern enlargement as a security threat.

The United States on the other hand, does not want to make any concessions on this topic. Both sides are expected to pursue their own interests until the very end. I can clearly tell you that Russia will not withdraw its troops from the places where they have already been deployed. Russia is in a strong position here, and can fully prepare to deploy troops in the region at any time.

The US might be planning to provoke Russia to fully deploy its troops into the region. Just like they did during the Cold War. Yet, I do not think that Russia will fall for this simple trick. If Ukraine gets a NATO membership, this would pose a serious threat to Russia, and in fact, Russia’s goal here is to prevent that from ever happening. The Russian position is better right now in terms of a conventional warfare.

Therefore, they will most likely be going to threaten Russia by deployment of nuclear weapons, possibly somewhere closer to Russia. To counteract this, Russia is also preparing to send nuclear submarines to Cuba and to its Kaliningrad enclave. This means deployments extremely close to the US, almost entering its ‘backyard’. However, I still do not see a possibility of full-fledged war. However, the irregular militia forces in Donetsk may strike towards eastern Ukraine or along the Black Sea coast. I do not think Russia will attempt this with its regular armed forces, and will probably use the irregular militias instead. The US is also doing the same. Instead of its own forces, Washington uses the Ukrainian forces by training, arming and encouraging them together with the British.

As for the mediation offer of Turkey, the conflict is no longer just about Ukraine, it is about the entire NATO, the United States and Russia. That is why I think it would be very difficult for Turkey to intervene as a mediator on this issue. Both parties will probably not accept Turkey’s mediation offer in these circumstances. Turkey’s NATO membership is of course, a great factor here.

The protests in Kazakhstan could spread out throughout the rest of Central Asia

The nationwide state of emergency in Kazakhstan has officially ended, and a normalization process has been declared. How would you assess the latest developments in Kazakhstan? Could you describe the role of the CSTO as a success? Is it possible that these protests spread out to the rest of Central Asia?

The United States has sent a clear message to Russia with this incident. They said that ‘if you keep intervening in Ukraine, we will go around and intervene in your backyard’. Russia on the other hand, responded by deploying the CSTO peacekeeping forces. They did not intervene alone. That was a very important move.

And in terms of these protests spreading to other countries, there are many terrorist organizations in countries such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Many of these organizations operate in those countries via Afghanistan. The US can use these terror organizations in Central Asia against Russia. These three countries are very critical in this regard. These countries also have some border issues with their neighbors. It is important that these border issues are resolved peacefully. There can be many problems, such as the issue in Fergana Valley. The Organization of Turkic States can be very important in solving these problems.

We can understand that from now on, ethnic tensions will be provoked in this region. This is essentially Russia’s weak point. Russia is also expected to take measures in this regard. We are predicting an American irritation for Russia in this region. On a broader perspective, the US is carrying out a policy of attrition throughout the Black Sea, the Balkans, Africa, the Middle East and the Russian homeland itself. As during the Cold War, the United States and the West are trying to stop Russia through its weak economy. As you know, NATO has set itself two main goals: to stop Chinese economic growth and to stop Russian expansion. Therefore, we can safely say that the protests in Kazakhstan are over, but it is now time for Central Asia to enter a new era.

The United States will try harder to disturb Russia and China by irritating the radical Islamic elements in the region. Even the Taliban can be used in Afghanistan. The Taliban is in need of financial supplies, so the US can make a use of their needs. Again in Afghanistan, some certain groups can be trained and channeled towards Central Asia as a threat to Russia. 2022 already appears like a year in which the great powers don’t fight each other directly, but their proxies and armed organizations under their control will do so.

Sanctions on Mali and the instrument of France for a military intervention in the region

How would you evaluate the recent heavy sanctions of ECOWAS against Mali? The United States and France supported the sanctions resolution at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), while China and Russia opposed the sanctions against Mali.

As you already know, the region was under heavy French control for a long time. And France has not been able to deal with the terrorist activities in that region all by itself. Then the US intervened and deployed its forces there, but had to withdraw later. France wants to rule over the region once again. Its primary goal is to continue with its colonial ambitions in that region. There are plenty of oil reservoirs in the Sahel region, plus it is a booming economic market.

That is why some nationalist organizations in the Sahel region have opposed such efforts from France. France on the other hand, has staged coups against the governments that are cooperating with these nationalists. France is playing all its cards to keep its grip on these regions. It is very important that Russia and China have rejected the resolution at the UNSC in this context.

This is also quite important for Turkey. The path of Turkey has to be cleared from French obstacles in that region. This is what actually lies behind the aggressive French attitude towards Turkey. France does not wish Turkey to be an active player in Africa. If France loses its grip, it may lose all its advantages, such as the regional trade being made over French currency to this day. Naturally they do not desire such consequences. In order to support it in their issues, the United States and the United Kingdom are also supporting France in this issue. Because the US also does not want France to oppose them within NATO.

Mali is already facing many humanitarian crises, such as nationwide famine. These economic sanctions only worsen the country’s already bad situation, and nationwide riots may escalate. The activities of terrorist organizations such as Boko Haram may increase again. The whole region would only go downhill from that point. France, on the other hand, would once again take advantage of this horrible situation and show it as an excuse for another military intervention in the region.

Ismail Hakkı Pekin
Retired Lt. Gen. Ismail Hakkı Pekin is the former Head of Turkey’s General Staff Intelligence Agency between 2007-2011. He was born in 1951 in Iznik. He is married and is the father of two children.

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March 2023