Ever since Russia’s Defense Ministry announced it is to convert its military presence in Tajikistan from a division into a brigade, watchers of the region have been scratching their heads trying to work out the significance of the development.
Authorities in Tajikistan appear no more certain than anybody else what to make of it.
Russian news agency TASS on January 30 cited the commander of the Central Military District, Colonel General Vladimir Zarudnitsky, as saying that the reformatting of the base would make Russian forces more mobile, while reducing the volume of enlisted personnel.
“All the same, the role [of the base] as a Russian outpost in Central Asia and guarantor for peace and stability in the region will remain unchanged,” Zarudnitsky was quoted as saying.
A drastic reorganization of Russian forces in Tajikistan has been in progress since late last year, when news emerged that troops were redeploying away from a base near the southern city of Kulyab. The explanation for the move offered at the time was that it was part of plans to enhance combat readiness.
The motivations for the conversion to brigade status appear even more nebulous, and even Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Aslov confessed to being in the dark.
“Questions about changes to the organizational and staff structure of the 201st Russian military base in Tajikistan, as far as increasing or decreasing its size goes, have not been discussed at the official level,” Aslov told Deutsche Welle.
It seems remarkable that Russia’s armed forces are adopting strategic military decisions without bothering to consult their hosts, but the episode is characteristic of Moscow’s high-handed attitude toward Dushanbe in its dealings over the base.
Still, Aslov said he was confident that whatever Russia was doing was certainly intended to increase military readiness by supplying troops with modern weapons and other equipment.
In fact, the transition to a brigade fits in with a broader trend that has changed the face of Russia’s armed forces since the end of the 2000s. As security expert Gustav Gressel explained in a recent paper for the European Council on Foreign Relations, the reforms have “significantly reduced the overall strength of the Russian army on paper, cutting structures that relied on [mobilization] and introducing high-readiness combat-brigades.”
Gressel wrote that 40 brigades were formed out of the structure of the 23 divisions.
The goal of these reforms has been to enable the armed forces to dispatch large numbers of troops at short notice, Gressel said.
The regular trickle of bad economic news stories coming out of Russia has also lent some weight to suggestions that Moscow may be seeking to cut its costs by streamlining its Tajikistan operations.
But Dmitry Popov, a Central Asia expert at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, told Deutsche Welle that real reason for rearrangements in Tajikistan were more likely linked to the specific nature of security threats to the region.
Since the size of armed groups that could potentially make incursions into Tajikistan is unlikely to be large, a brigade would be more than equipped to repel attacks, Popov told Deutsche Welle’s Russian service.
And even then, military planning indicates that the responsibility for defusing such a crisis would not lie with the troops now in Tajikistan.
An exercise in Tajikistan held in May 2015 by the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization’s Rapid Reaction Forces envisioned an invasion of 700 militants flooding in from Afghanistan. Over the three days following a request of assistance from Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon — in the imaginary crisis — 30 military transport planes carrying 2,500 troops and 200 units of military hardware land into the south of the country in an area toward the Afghan border.
The clear implication here is that when push comes to shove, the 201st military base would find itself playing second fiddle and that its presence is supplementary.
Speaking to Deutsche Welle, Popov also argued that a reduced footprint could improve the Russian forces’ relations with the local community, which have been strained over the years.
“A brigade has a smaller staff, and that means its presence will generate fewer conflicts with the local population. And there will be fewer social problems for the servicemen themselves,” he said.
Keeping the the 201st military base adequately supplied with manpower has been a critical problem since its very inception in the early 1990s, when the division was incorporated as as reincarnation of the 201st Gatchina Twice Red Banner Motor Rifle Division.
In 1995, then Russian President Boris Yeltsin agreed under pressure from advocacy groups set up by soldiers’ families that the division should be staffed with only professional contract soldiers. But rights activists claimed in the years following, however, that many conscripts were being compelled to sign up in order to circumvent that restriction. In addition to that, Tajikistan has long been considered a posting of last resort for contract soldiers. Military observers believe a combination of those factors has contributed to the generally lackluster quality of personnel in the division.
Russia’s military leadership has wavered on its ultimate designs for the 201st military base, which was downgraded to a brigade in 2009, only for Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to restore its division status four year later.
Remarks by Shoigu in 2013 appeared to suggest that the plan was to boost troops numbers, although that appears to have come to naught. Moreover, overstretch by sections of the Russian armed forces either directly engaged in or supporting conflict elsewhere in the world may have robbed the momentum for 201st base’s expansion, requiring a strategic rethink.
In any event, barring any dramatic developments, Russia’s military presence in Tajikistan is assured until 2042 at the very earliest, when the garrison’s lease expires.