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Islamist threat to Russia looms large at Central Asia security summit

The Kremlin is increasingly concerned about an Islamist uprising in one of the weak autocracies along its southern flank, most of which will be attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit today in Ufa, Russia.

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    From left: Tajikistan's President Emomali Rahmon, Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek Atambayev, Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov pose for a photo ahead of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Ufa, Russia, Friday.
    Ivan Sekretarev/AP
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For all Washington's intense focus on the self-declared Islamic State and other Islamist militants, the threat such groups pose is largely a distant one. The danger is real, but it is one where the risks are primarily to US interests and allies thousands of miles away, not the homeland itself.

But for Russia, just a few hundred miles from Islamist territory in Afghanistan, the danger really could emerge right next door.

The threat of Islamist takeover in one or more of the three weak, authoritarian post-Soviet states — Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan — that border Afghanistan is a long-standing fear in Moscow. And it will be a major topic of discussion as Russia hosts a summit of the Central Asia-oriented Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO] in the Urals city of Ufa today.

All members of the group, which is led by Russia and China, have an intense interest in stability in Central Asia. But efforts to forge a security component for the SCO have foundered on sharp differences among its six members.

Experts say Russia is taking the lead through the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization [CSTO], a military alliance that includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, partly to lay down defensive preparations, but also to strengthen its own grip on the turbulent region.

"There seems no doubt that Russia will face serious threats in Central Asia within a few years," says Alexander Golts, an independent military expert. "Even before Islamic State appeared it was clear that radical Islam will ultimately prevail in Afghanistan. No one in Moscow any longer believes the US is going to prevent that outcome, and it will be left to Russia to deal with the fallout."

Vulnerable regimes

In recent months, Russia has held anti-terrorist war games in Tajikistan, where it maintains a permanent military presence, involving thousands of troops from all CSTO countries. Tajikistan has an 800-mile border with Afghanistan, which has been largely peaceful since Afghan-based militants provoked a bloody civil war in the country in the 1990s. But Taliban activity has reportedly spiked across the Amu Darya river in northern Afghanistan, leading Moscow to recently pledge an unprecedented $1.2 billion in military aid to the mountainous former-Soviet country. Russia also plans to beef up its own contingent in Tajikistan from 6,000 to 9,000 troops, and deploy its own newly produced drones to help patrol the frontier.

A bigger headache for Moscow is Uzbekistan, a populous and deeply impoverished country ruled by Islam Karimov, an aging Soviet-era autocrat. Russian experts say the danger of a succession crisis, which could erupt any time, could open the door for seismic unrest in the country.

Mr. Karimov, fearing Russian intentions, pulled out of the CSTO a few years ago, and has since concentrated on building the strongest army in Central Asia. But he is accused of brutally putting down an Islamist-inspired uprising in the volatile Ferghana Valley a decade ago and has suffered strained relations with Western countries ever since. Nevertheless, the US appears on track to  provide 300 specialized armored vehicles to help Uzbekistan control its own 90-mile border with Afghanistan.

"Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are vulnerable regimes, and many terrorist groups of Uzbek and Tajik ethnicity maintain bases in Afghanistan and cooperate with the Taliban there," says Leonid Gusev, an expert with the Moscow State Institute of Foreign Relations, which trains Russian diplomats. "The threat has dwindled in recent years, but it could certainly reappear if the situation changes."

The third post-Soviet republic that shares a border with Afghanistan is the gas-rich, authoritarian hermit state of Turkmenistan. Mr. Gusev says that its leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, recently appealed to Moscow and Beijing to provide "private military services" to help secure the Turkmen-Afghan border after a string of Taliban bombings destroyed electrical infrastructure.

"The Russian leadership has understood that this region, particularly Uzbekistan, with its huge population and crushing poverty, provides excellent grounds for militant Islam. Unrest is inevitable," says Mr. Golts. "Unfortunately, Moscow's response so far is only a military one."

Over the past five years, Russia has been training a rapid deployment force, under CSTO auspices, that could react quickly to any regional threat. "The CSTO is being used here to grant legitimacy, if Russia decides it needs to intervene quickly in any part of the region," Golts adds.

A Kazakh scenario

Moscow's worst nightmare is that a breakdown in Kazakhstan, ruled since Soviet times by an aging authoritarian president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, could bring waves of refugees – and potentially jihadists – into the heart of Russia. Though Kazakhstan is currently stable, a struggle to succeed Mr. Nazarbayev could change that.

"Russian strategists used to believe that Kazakhstan would shield Russia [from serious turmoil in Central Asia], but not any longer," says Golts. "If Nazarbayev goes, there is a real fear that Kazakhstan could become unstable. The border between Russia and Kazakhstan is wide open. That threat is scary and real."

Reports suggest that thousands of Central Asians have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join IS and experts worry about the impact on unstable regional regimes if those fighters return. There have even been claims that the extremist Islamic State may be establishing itself in Afghanistan,

Gusev says Moscow may be exaggerating the threat as it pursues its own geopolitical goals, but the future is uncertain.

"It really doesn't look like there's much to the reports of IS establishing itself in Afghanistan," he says. But the Middle Eastern terror group does has an ecumenical appeal to young Muslims, which can transcend the ethnic differences that limit the Taliban's potential reach.

"If IS keeps growing and being perceived as a success, young jihadis are going to want to affiliate with it. It's something to worry about."

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