What The Heck Is Turkmenistan Up To? (Spoiler Alert: We Should Care)

On March 28th, Eurasia Net, reported that Turkmenistan launched large unannounced exercises “in the dead of night”.

These movements consisted of: Land, Air, Naval, Air Defense, and Special Operations forces.

But what the heck were they doing with all of that firepower?

The Turkmen Military is largely a land based force based on the Soviet Model, as evidenced by utilization of the “Motor Rifle Division”, of which there are four, as well as breaking aid defense into its own branch.

As such, training and morale tend to be low, but utilization of massive amounts of artillery, T-72s, the infamous ZSU-23-4 “Shilka, and other highlights of the 1980s make up for the doctrinal rut Turkmenistan finds itself in.

After all, a country that has a holiday to celebrate its neutrality is not likely to pick a fight.

One can rule out a show of force to intimidate a state actor.

Turkmenistan, unlike Kyrgyzstan  and Uzbekistan, is largely devoid of conflict with its neighbors.  It has friendly ties with both Russia and China, and provides the United States with an air corridor to Afghanistan, which makes deterring one of these actors unlikely.

The move could possibly be an attempt to reassert claims over the Caspian Sea, the dispute over these maritime borders with Azerbaijan, Iran, and Kazakhstan have been largely diplomatic in nature.  It seems unlikely this is a shift to more bellicose policy regarding control of the Caspian Sea, as the Turkmen navy is composed of a few coastal defense craft.

It is conceivable that this exercise is not a demonstration of power against a state aggressor, but rather a demonstration to both Turkmen and Turkmenistan’s concerned neighbors, of Ashgabat’s border defense capacity.

Recent skirmishes have occurred along Turkmenistan’s Afghan border, including several Taliban militants being stuck being Turkmen and Afghan forces.

This is not an isolated incident, and Ashgabat has responded with the construction of fixed fortifications along the border.

Of perhaps greater concern than Turkmenistan’s formerly cordial neighbors, is the developing Islamic State (IS) affiliate in Afghanistan.

While there are only 1-3,000 IS fighters in Afghanistan, the appearance of weakness along the border may draw the attention of Moscow, who would understandably be concerned.

Thus, it seems likely that this show of force by Turkmenistan is a message to Moscow of Ashgabat’s ability to rapidly mobilize against a Iraq/Syria style IS takeover.

Is is not clear if Moscow will be convinced by this display, who has historically assisted Ashgabat in border control.

In any event, we should pay attention to what happens in Turkmenistan in the coming months.

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Photo Credit: Gilad Rom/Flickr (CC by 2.0)

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About the Author
"John Massey has a B.A. in political science and history from the University of Alabama. His primary interest is in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but he also finds time to study French and political theory. "
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