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Central Asia
through the lens of the war in Ukraine

Soviet History Lessons is excited to introduce our newest interviewee, Claudia Palazzo — a singular thinker and writer from a new generation of geopolitical analysts specializing in Eurasia. Palazzo is currently a Ph.D. candidate in intelligence and security studies. She previously served as the Rome correspondent of The Kyiv Post and now collaborates with a wide range of think tanks and research institutes.

Alissa Ordabai: This year we have seen a number of investigations in the press about Central Asia facilitating Russia’s war effort against Ukraine. Reports appeared in the Times, Radio Liberty, iStories and Der Spiegel, among others. And then just last week Kazakhstan has announced that it was banning export of 106 titles of goods, including microchips. What are we observing here? Is this an attempt of the Kazakh government to appease Russia on the one hand, and on the other – to try to avoid Western sanctions? Or is there another way of looking at this? What is happening?


Claudia Palazzo: Let me say something very frankly. There is a fundamental problem: many technologies are dual-use. And you cannot simply prevent some kinds of goods from being imported or exported on the global level. We have seen chips, semiconductors, and various electronics intended for other purposes used in building Russian weapons which are, in turn, being used in Russia’s war against Ukraine, and not only. But those technologies are not always coming from Central Asia. There surely must be a responsibility that lies both with the facilitator of these deals, but, also, with the sources of these deals. Because these technologies are often produced and retailed by Western countries, and it is for an economic reason that we are risking to sell microchips that can be used in Russian smart bombs, for instance. This is not only the fault of the intermediary. Dual-use means that we have a large sector in the global market which is too porous to be fully regulated and controlled. But we have to come to terms with this and try to establish preventive mechanisms and make them as effective as possible.

To address Kazakhstan specifically, and generally the Central Asian nations, the problem is that there is an established system for these exchanges. An order from a Western country can be arranged to be delivered to a Central Asian nation: say, Kazakhstan. But those goods go through Russia, and when they go through Russia, they just stop there. This is how these deliveries work. Now, how can such transactions be tracked, supervised, prevented? It is not really possible. But what is possible is to entrust more responsibility – and its enforcement – not only on the buyer, but on the seller, in order for to scrutinize the final users in a better way and beforehand, along with exerting pressure on the intermediary (in this case, the Central Asian states). Enforcement is crucial. We have seen this every time when we – only too late – realize that European-made, usually older, technologies and weapons are being used in some conflict hotspot even by non-state, terror organizations. So, prevention, shared responsibility, enforcement on both ends.   

To address the final part of your question, yes, maybe Central Asian nations are trying to appease Russia in this, but are we sure that their first aim is about foreign relations? Or is it about internal market economy and making revenues from what we can call – in a very broad way – a “black market”? If we view things under this light, are we sure that, when we focus only, or primarily, on the relations with Russia, we aren’t ourselves applying a colonialist approach toward Central Asian countries? Otherwise, aren’t we witnessing selfish interests of economic and market elites of the individual countries, along with geopolitical considerations?

AO: Antony Blinken visited Astana back in February and said that the U.S. was watching movements of goods between Central Asian and Russia, and offered $25 million to Central Asian states to help them diversify trade relationships. Which sounded like a bit of a joke. Does the State Department have any kind of long-term policy toward Central Asia?

CP: Here too I will be very frank. When analysts and intellectuals are devoted to an area of studies, we are affected by a bias that makes us view our regions of interest as the main priority. And all of us are right when we consider, let’s say, the Middle East, or Central Asia, or Russia, as the main priority.

The problem is that every government, every possible entity has limited resources. And to distribute these resources in a rational way, means to prioritize. So, let’s suppose that in the current international shape of things the absolute priority is – and let’s suppose it, because it is not being said – to contain Russia. Thus, we must, first of all, direct resources to confront Russia militarily while it is attacking Ukraine, and to confront its propaganda, the spreading of its propaganda throughout the world. And we are talking about Europe, Central Asia, Africa, Latin America, etc.

If we assume this standpoint, Central Asia policy is certainly important, but it becomes relatively secondary if we think of the need to allocate resources first of all to arm Ukraine, to support its military effort, and to concentrate on the difficult diplomatic effort on the European front. We do not want Central Asia to become the helping backyards of Russia in its war effort against Ukraine. But if we are seeing Central Asia under this light, of course it becomes secondary in comparison to the direct engagement toward the help for Ukraine.

That said, I wouldn’t consider, as some analysts have done, that the U.S. has neglected Central Asia during those years. This is not true. Why? Because there has never been a totally blank moment in the U.S. engagement toward Central Asia. Let’s break it into several moments that will serve as examples of the U.S. engagement in Central Asia in the current “era”. Let’s start with 2001, when the War on Terror began. Boots-on-the-ground engagement in Afghanistan required a direct engagement with Central Asian states even in military terms. For instance, renting the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan.

Second, we had a moment of “stalemate” in Afghanistan, and in relation to this the U.S. Central Asian policy was more concentrated on people-to-people contacts, high-level diplomacy, and these kinds of things – while still remaining present, though less directly, in terms of military relations.

And then we had a third moment, which was the total withdrawal from Afghanistan. And here the analysts started to fear that because of the absence of a military foothold, maybe the U.S. was going to totally neglect Central Asia. But this has not turned out to be the case. Central Asia has never got out of the U.S. “radar”, both at the expert community level (analysts were constantly elaborating on developments and shaping of Central Asia) and at the policy-making level, though more indirectly. And now when you tell me about subsidizing diversification of the market, $25 million may seem like peanuts, but how can we really assess these amounts? We have to put it in comparison with other amounts that must be allocated elsewhere.

With recent developments – even the revamping of the C5+1 platform – just now Secretary Blinken participated in this, and has defined it as an historical moment. Of course, we can take it as “just” a diplomatic statement, “just words”, but even this would already be significant. And, in my opinion, it is more than this.

So, what is my assessment coming back and answering your question? There is a policy toward Central Asia, but I think we should not overemphasize the need of a direct U.S. engagement with Central Asia now, especially when immediate and massive efforts are required to help Ukraine, and with new tragic fronts to be monitored in the Middle East. We cannot expect too much more. On the other hand, there are other means to cure relations with Central Asia without hardcore engagement through money or through direct political engagement. There are many other ways that can be less costly but maybe more effective, in my opinion.

AO: Which brings me to my next question. I spoke a couple of years ago with John Lenczowski who was the guy who under Reagan restructured Radio Liberty and the Voice of America, received large amounts from the budget to staff and re-equip them, and to re-formulate the counter-propaganda strategy of the United States toward the Eastern bloc. I recently asked Eliot Borenstein of NYU why the stance of the State Department is so different nowadays and why equal amounts of money and attention aren’t being paid toward the issue. His answer was basically that target audiences don’t pay attention anymore, no matter how much money you invest into VOA or RL. What would you say to this? Do you think there is still hope and the State Department could still make an effort to counter Russian propaganda or is it a lost cause?

CP: No human phenomenon is perpetual and unchangeable. And that’s why I never feel hopeless in relation to anything. I think that is why you are doing what you are doing, being a journalist, and I am being an analyst, and we are trying to understand and to speak out about politics and society.

I often concentrate on information, propaganda, and the social media landscape. It’s a crucial aspect. We used to consider the traditional media mainly, but it’s not just that. And you know it much better than me – if you follow the indigenous sources on social media, it’s not absolutely true that Russian propaganda is the only source, or the mainstream source, relied upon by the peoples of Central Asia.

The problem is more complex. Just recently I have listened to a very interesting conference about the Russian propaganda aimed toward Central Asia. It was a very interesting panel hosted by CABAR. The experts explained how local people tend – on the one hand – to read and to believe Russian sources, and how they also try to find the confirmation of what they have read on social media by turning on the TV. So Russia may seem to have the upper hand in this, but on the flip side, social media posts from Central Asian accounts which are reaching even me in the other  part of the globe, show people, for instance, personally struggling against “Z symbols” in their cities, on an individual basis, and disseminating their own points of view.

So, as far as what my observations are telling me, there is some sort of mediatic polarization. At least we can state that the media environment in Central Asia is not monolithic. And I would like to add one other thing. Hadn’t we had outlets such as Radio Liberty, Radio Free Europe, Voice of America and similar kinds of media, we wouldn’t have the same ability to understand local realities and to act accordingly, and to draw conclusions.

So, I really don’t know how a person can feel hopeless about this. I don’t think in any part of the world people are so naïve. People may be manipulated, for sure, by the mechanisms of disinformation we unfortunately know too well. But on the other hand, as much as this disinformation works, counter-information works, too. It may be less appealing, perhaps less immediate, but it works, and plus, it has a special audience that can help disseminate its messages further. Maybe it’s a more pyramidal form of information dissemination, but it has its own effective ways. So, we could never state that counter-information is useless, even when we can’t see it bringing results in short-term with the same effectiveness as disinformation. But in the long run, counter-information is just essential.

AO: The British Foreign Office recently declassified some of the reports the British diplomats were sending from Moscow to London in the 1970s, and these reports are saying, “Not everyone is listening to Radio Liberty, but people who matter, do.”

CP: Oh, really?

AO: You have also just now mentioned softer, alternative ways to engage with Central Asia, as opposed to just giving them cash. Back in the early 1990s the United States was giving young Kazakhs education grants to study in the U.S. in the hope that in a few years’ time those graduates would form the new intellectual elite which would hopefully help to change polity in the region. And the grants were in the fields of economics, banking, business management. No grants for people who wanted to study law, psychology, philosophy, or political science, or history. Would you say that grants to study philosophy, or human rights, or post-colonialism, would affect polity in Central Asia in any significant way, or do big societal shifts take something more than distributing education grants? I know that analysts do not like questions with a lot of “what ifs,” but perhaps you have a personal view on this matter.


CP: Thankfully, we have data to corroborate personal views. We have experimental data analyzed under different angles by sociologists, economists... and many people also have their own personal experiences: when you create grants mechanisms and foster youth exchanges, you create a bridge between two countries and two cultures. Now, on how can this evolve toward a societal change? We have to touch upon this from two angles. First of all, you stressed the kind of grants awarded, the varieties of specialties. Looking at it now, maybe it was an error to concentrate on business management, in general. Why? Because of a very structural reason, in my opinion: some countries in their power tenure have as a pillar the fact that the economy is structured around oligarchies. And, therefore, you may have a resource-rich country (which is the case of some Central Asian states), but there is no distribution of money, and therefore of power.

This means that even if you let a grant-aided business manager from Turkmenistan, for instance, to study at a U.S. university, you could have two outcomes: either this guy is from the power establishment in his own country, and he will return there with enhanced specialty tools, but not with a different mentality; or he does develop a different mentality, but he will not enforce it, because he is a part of the ruling elite. The other outcome is that the guy opens up his mind to different and new views, but therefore could become someone who loses his roots. Because he doesn’t share things with his home anymore and he cannot live in a way he reckons isn’t “just”, or at least “rational” anymore.

Maybe instead, as you have rightly pointed out, grants should have concentrated – also, but not only – on the humanities: law, art, culture, and it could have been a different case. But the problem remains. When you are a foreign-bred intellectual from some country and you want to go back home to apply your new knowledge, if you don’t have power and economic base to do your job, you are not going to be able to let your voice be listened to at the societal level. You will become an outcast.

Therefore, I would say it’s not just about the specialty, but something crucial – protecting with international attention people who work in their field in their own country. Because if you leave them alone without funding and without international support and attention… If a journalist is trying to point out what is wrong with his autocratic country, this journalist would probably be arrested or somehow silenced within a few months. Instead, it would cost much less to read what this guy is saying, to help him carry out his job. This would cost much less than any macro-investment in an economic field. You are investing into people who have their own motivation to speak out. Also, going back to your previous question, this would give us more hope.

AO: People in Kazakhstan feel rather unfortunate in this sense. We have observed over the years countries which are very torn, very destitute, but which were still able to produce amazing people achieving amazing careers and contributing to humanity. And, unfortunately, in Central Asia this is such a huge problem.

CP: Definitely. We should, in my opinion, capitalize on this also politically. What I was referring to is culture, people-to-people contacts and highlighting the beautiful aspects of a place, of a society, of a culture. I think this works also in political terms. We have evidence of this in every kind of science – positive reinforcement works better than negative one. And helping the growth and practice of cultural efforts is the most emancipatory and noble struggle we could promote.

AO: There are Russian philosophers who in relation to Russia say that Russians have to publicly condemn the crimes of the Soviet period, especially the Stalinist period. That these crimes have to be acknowledged and condemned. This doesn’t mean that we have to drag 80-year-old men to prison, but condemn the practices: condemn the GULAG, condemn Stalin once and for all. This hasn’t been done in Russia and neither has it been done in Central Asia. But it is even more difficult to do so in Central Asia, because there they have the cult of the ancestor which makes it so hard for people in Central Asia to condemn their grandfathers. In Central Asia it is akin to bringing shame to your family. Which makes it so hard for people to condemn their grandfather’s silence while people were being dragged off to the GULAGS and shot by the millions. Even if this doesn’t mean condemning their entire lives: just the crime of silence.

CP: After the WWII experience, it has been so hard for everybody to come to terms with their past. Each family in Europe and beyond has since then had at least someone who had dealt with wars, authoritarian regimes, the tragedies of the past century which unfortunately do not seem to be disappearing. “My grandfather was a killer.” Who could say this? I don’t think that demanding this from an individual – who could not necessarily even possess the cultural tools to make an unbiased assessment of history – is right, or useful in any way.

On the political level, we have witnessed a condemnation of the Stalin era. It was done as far back as in the USSR, as early as when Khrushchev came to power. This didn’t really work to any end, if not that of wiping out the previous power establishments in the Kremlin just to make room for new ones. So, we simply moved from Stalin to Khrushchev, and that’s it. Maybe a 1937-38-like moment had not taken place after that, but the massive suppression of personal, civil and economic liberties was still ongoing. The same was happening with Gorbachev, who is so widely celebrated in the Western narrative as a facilitator of democratization. And this is because the actual outcome of his era was letting the Soviet Union collapse. But this was not the declared aim of the CPSU General Secretary, right? This was the unintended consequence of Mr. Gorbachev rule, conducted by exerting authoritarian and colonial power, just as before, but while speaking sweet words, and, especially, within a changed international and domestic environment.

AO: One only has to remember massacres in Baku and Almaty.

CP: And in Tbilisi, and in Vilnius, and... in almost every single republic. So, the expectations we have of historical revisionism (I use this term in its strictly historiographical connotation) may not be useful to our human political development, and especially I don’t think it is right to demand it from individuals, because it is simply too much personal for too many people. One cannot simply state that his grandfather was an assassin. A collectivity’s stance is a different thing, expressed by political decision-makers.

What we are witnessing now is that any little step previously made in order to expose the crimes of the Stalinist and Soviet era, are now being destroyed – with Russia heavily exploiting the narratives of the Great Patriotic War, and the grandeur of the Stalinist era, weaponizing the past for its current war effort in Ukraine, and more generally in its relations with former Soviet republics. An unprovoked aggression toward a peaceful country, trying to make its own way through history, Ukraine, has nothing to do with denazification and other pieces of disinformation that unfortunately too often do resonate, especially among left-wing political communities in the West. So, we have to differentiate several aspects of this weaponization of history. This should be mainly an effort, in my opinion, of the expert community, historians, academics, journalists.

AO: This brings me to my last question. Kazakhstan may not at the moment be producing world-famous writers or philosophers, but we have some folk philosophers who sometimes come up with sharp observations. One such observation which often comes up in social media is that Kazakhstan and Central Asia in general will not become truly democratic for as long as Russia remains authoritarian. Do you think this piece of folk wisdom is based on being rather poorly informed – both philosophically or politically – or is there a grain of common sense to this?

CP: Usually, common sense is pretty much in contrast with scientific knowledge. That’s why often, when we do research, we state that we found “counter-intuitive results.”

As I was mentioning before, I generally do not think that any human phenomenon is unchangeable. And, honestly, I don’t think that there is such a thing as a destiny of a country. Instead, there are causes, characteristics – endogenous and exogenous – which form political, geopolitical, cultural and societal realities. And all of those are completely changeable.

We have had instances in which there has been serious advancement of democratic power in Central Asia. I am thinking of Otunbayeva presidency in Kyrgyzstan, and I am thinking of some, maybe odd, unexpected, phenomena which we are witnessing even now, during Russia’s war in Ukraine. For instance, President Tokayev being very bold in confronting Putin on several occasions. We may just deduce the reasons behind these... and we could even think they have some sort of a deal…

AO: …that it’s a cover for deliveries of electronics.

CP: ...But we don’t have evidence of that. But, still, what we saw, we saw. It happened. And it has public consequences. So, deal or no deal, but it happened. Therefore, coming to your question, I don’t think that there is some sort of determinism, or a destiny, that Central Asia will never be democratic. Instead, I think this resides in a number of contributing factors, among which – first of all – is the will of the Central Asian people and how they form their will. Which means how people are fed both in terms of information and physically.

Because you don’t think of human rights and democracy when you don’t have anything to eat. Therefore, there is a need to help as much as possible economically and culturally, and then people will be able to form and express their own will. So it is about creating the conditions for the people’s free will to be expressed. If no kind of effort is being made to provide the basic foods of democracy – which is information and a certain kind of sustainability of everyday life – then we will not see any changes. 


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