On September 15, leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Chinese-led regional cooperation initiative, met in Samarkand, in Uzbekistan. Headliners Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping — on his first international trip in nearly three years — looked to “challenge the world order” by offering an alternative to “Western-centric institutions.” As the strongmen in attendance exchanged platitudes in public and plans in private, a glimpse of this new world order revealed itself just next door.
On the second day of the conference, Tajik forces penetrated deep into Kyrgyz territory, sending 120,000 civilians fleeing and resulting in over 100 deaths. The conflict was the second invasion of a Russian treaty ally — and the second failure of Russia to respond in two weeks; the first was Azerbaijan’s attack on Armenia. As Xi and Putin craft their dream of a new world order, opportunistic strongmen see an opening to relitigate their geopolitical position on the battlefield, with few consequences. Tajik president, Emomali Rahmon, has surmised, accurately for the time being, that Russian-bred chaos is a ladder.
The mountainous and exclave-filled border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan has been a flashpoint between the two states since independence. Soviet attempts to fit the largely urban Tajiks and largely nomadic Kyrgyz into cohesive nation-states in the early 20th century put tens of thousands of ethnic Kyrgyz and Tajiks on the wrong side of the border from their newly defined homelands. Alleged abuses of Tajiks in Kyrgyzstan or Kyrgyz in Tajikistan often trigger short border skirmishes. The last major flare-up occurred in 2021 when Tajik forces severely beat Kyrgyz civilians.
Though both sides reached a ceasefire including joint security patrols, isolated skirmishes continued. In the year to last week’s conflict, five separate skirmishes had left 10 dead.
Unlike the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, where Azerbaijan spent a month very publicly testing Russian resolve before acting, the warning signs of a major flare-up in Central Asia were almost nonexistent. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan participated in two separate joint military exercises this summer (both are treaty allies through the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, CSTO), the two presidents held an amicable meeting, and both committed to attending the SCO summit in Samarkand.
The major shift was in Nagorno-Karabakh, where Armenia learned the hard way the value of a Russian security guarantee. Russia had taught Kyrgyzstan the same lesson a decade before. After then-president Karmabek Bakiyev dragged his feet on the construction of a new Russian base in the country, Russian media, still predominant in Kyrgyzstan, turned its full force against him. The Kremlin then hiked gas prices, putting the Kyrgyz economy on the precipice. Popular protests erupted and overthrew Bakiyev. The country descended into chaos, with pogroms and reprisals between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz that left nearly 900 dead. The Russian-backed provisional government requested CSTO assistance. The appeal was rejected.
Over the following decade, Kyrgyzstan failed to diversify its security guarantees: the American transit center at Manas closed and, while China issued massive loans, military cooperation remained minimal.
Tajik leader Emomali Rahmon, by contrast, has emerged as one of the new Great Game’s most capable competitors. Tajikistan is dotted with bases staffed or operated by Russians, Indians, and Chinese. The country boasts Iran’s only international drone factory while simultaneously accepting tens of millions in US military aid and training.
With widely distributed risk on the Tajik side, and the value of a CSTO security guarantee evaporating in the Caucasus, the Tajik side had every incentive to exploit its advantages to dictate terms of any eventual border settlement. The risk appears to have paid off: Putin responded with generic calls for peace, while the Chinese Foreign Ministry hoped the “two countries have the ability to work through their differences.” Leaders throughout Russia’s backyard increasingly understand that the cost of aggression is plummeting, while the benefits are soaring.
Xi and Putin arrived at Samarkand promising to “challenge the global order.” As the deteriorating situation along their borders shows, they have, but more by error than by design.
Ben Dubow is a Nonresident Fellow at CEPA and the founder of Omelas, which specializes in data and analysis on how states manipulate the web.