Work with Moscow in Central Asia

Russian domination of the steppes is no longer a serious threat.

During a question-and-answer session in Dublin in December, then secretary of state Hillary Clinton declared that the United States would seek to slow or stop what she termed Russia’s effort to “re-Sovietize” the post-Soviet space. Clinton’s statement is in keeping with a long-standing U.S. emphasis on rolling back Russian influence over its post-Soviet neighbors, including Central Asia. With the United States pulling out of Afghanistan—and Central Asia’s own future increasingly questionable—that approach has passed its sell-by date. Rather than view Russia’s push to regain influence as a menace, Washington should think more creatively about how to work with Moscow to address the region’s shared threats.

As the United States draws down forces from Afghanistan, Russia is seeking to bolster its influence next door in Central Asia, through both bilateral agreements and multilateral integration projects. Moscow recently signed agreements prolonging deployment of its troops in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both of which have also announced their intention to join the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan customs union. Russia is also pushing to strengthen the region’s main security bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), including through upgrades to its rapid-reaction forces and expanded training exercises. In the run-up to his return to the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin published an essay calling for the creation of a Eurasian Union, which Moscow says could happen as soon as 2015. Russian officials emphasize that such Eurasian integration will be the priority for Russian foreign policy in the coming years—precisely the development Hillary Clinton condemned in Dublin.

Since the early 1990s, the centerpiece of U.S. policy in the region has been ensuring the independence and sovereignty of the Central Asian states, specifically, limiting their economic and political dependence on Moscow. In contrast to the situation in the early 1990s, with over 20 years of independent statehood and ever-growing economic links to India, Turkey, and above all China, today’s Central Asia is in no danger of being recolonized by Russia. Central Asia’s main gas producer, Turkmenistan, now sells more gas to China than it does to Russia, and Beijing is now the top trading partner for four of the five Central Asian states. Turkey, meanwhile, is the top destination for exports from Tajikistan and number two for exports from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The growing economic presence of outside powers gives the Central Asian states the ability to hedge against excessive dependence on Russia, reinforcing the sovereignty that has been at the heart of U.S. policy for two decades.

The most serious threats facing Central Asia today are not external domination but internal breakdown. Though the war in Afghanistan has provided an impetus for cooperation, relations among the five Central Asian states are poor. Tensions over water and borders have the potential to spiral out of control (Uzbekistan has sealed and mined much of its borders with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, for instance, and threatened to use force to prevent the completion of a dam project it opposes in Tajikistan).

Meanwhile, corruption, repression, and poor governance are widespread, fueling an upsurge in militancy across much of the region, while creating fertile soil for the spread of Islamism as an alternative to the failing status quo. Tajikistan is wracked by a low-level insurgency. Kyrgyzstan has suffered from chronic instability in recent years, including protests that overthrew governments in both 2005 and 2010 as well as pogroms against ethnic Uzbeks in late 2010. Central Asia is the main transit corridor for Afghan opium, and widespread corruption fuels the drug trade. Though largely driven from Afghanistan by U.S. military operations in 2001-02, Central Asian jihadists have increasingly re-grouped in Pakistan’s tribal areas in collaboration with the Pakistani Taliban. Many in the region fear the withdrawal from Afghanistan will exacerbate these problems.

Despite the worsening situation on the ground, U.S. policy remains overly fixated on keeping the Russians (and to a lesser degree, the Chinese) out. The focus on checking Russian influence in Central Asia goes back to the 1990s. With bumper stickers proclaiming “Happiness is Multiple Pipelines,” the Clinton administration pushed to move oil and gas from the Caspian to European markets to limit Russian market power over Central Asia’s energy producers. Washington also encouraged NATO to extend its reach through its Partnership for Peace and Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council initiatives. Part of this strategy was an emphasis on political and economic reform, which the U.S. viewed as desirable in its own right, but also as a way to loosen the region’s institutional links to Russia.

This tug-of-war with Moscow continued in muted form after 9/11. Within months of the attacks, the United States had signed agreements to use airbases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, while the remaining Central Asian states provided other forms of logistical support, such as overflight rights, refueling and forwarding of supplies. Moscow, which was eager to bolster its own credentials as a partner in Washington’s “global war on terror,” reluctantly went along—though only after it became clear that the United States was going to deploy troops to the region regardless.