Imperial Restoration: Russia’s Foreign Policy Imperatives

Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin, Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev and Ukrainian leader Nikolai Podgorny review an army parade in Moscow's Red Square, Russia, November 7, 1972
Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin, Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev and Ukrainian leader Nikolai Podgorny review an army parade in Moscow’s Red Square, Russia, November 7, 1972 (Sovfoto)

Short of Westernizing and accepting that no European power has any designs on Russia anymore, the country’s strategic priority must be to restore preponderance in the “near abroad” in order to satisfy its insecurity complex. Once that it accomplished, Russia can start thinking about forming global alliances to challenge the world’s dominant oceanic power, America.

Even the Soviets, for all their early internationalist pretensions, found they could not ignore Russia’s geopolitical imperatives. The First World War had left Russia bereft of an empire. Finland, the Baltic states, the Western Borderlands, including Ukraine, and the Trans-Caucasus were all lost. Germany was defeated but the new states of Eastern Europe were too weak to resist it.

Before Germany reasserted itself, Russia managed to restore some of its empire, incorporating the Baltics, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, the Trans-Caucasus and Central Asia in the Soviet Union. But it was barely enough to block Nazi Germany. The logical course of action after World War II was to expand further — deeper into Europe and deeper into Central Asia. Hence the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Up until 1960, Russia even enjoyed an alliance with China, creating a communist empire that absolutely dominated Eurasia. No single entity had ever been so paramount on the continent and none ever would.

Such preponderance was unsustainable. The Soviets realized too late (or preferred to ignore) that their ideological novelties would not save them from the fate that had befallen their tsarist predecessors. The further Russia expands beyond its European core, the less stable its empire. Its economy cannot sustain the military expenditure needed to repress so many other peoples nor can its society bear the tensions of a multiethnic empire — especially when Russia must compete globally with a seapower determined to check its ambitions.

Defeat in the Cold War left Russia back where it started almost a century earlier. Its immediate goal now is to bring the 26 million ethnic Russians living in the “near abroad” back into the fold. They equal in number the entire population of Siberia and the Russian Far East combined.

The Baltics appeal to Russia for various reasons. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have over six million people, at least 20 percent of whom are ethnic Russians. Their subordination to Russia makes the latter a more culturally European state. And these countries command a large stretch of the Baltic Sea coast.

As naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan put it in The Problem of Asia and Its Effect Upon International Policies (1900), Russia’s “irremediable remoteness from an open sea has helped put it in a disadvantageous position for the accumulation of wealth.” Without Riga and Tallinn, Russia’s access to the Baltic Sea is limited and subject to winter freezes.

Russia’s search for warm-water ports has always been somewhat fanciful, though. Far more important is Ukraine.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to former American president Jimmy Carter, wrote in The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives (1997), “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire.” It could still be an imperial state — “but it would then become a predominantly Asian imperial state, more likely to be drawn into debilitating conflicts with aroused Central Asians,” if not China.

Take Ukraine, on the other hand, and “Russia automatically again regains the wherewithal to become a powerful imperial state, spanning Europe and Asia.” It raises its population by a third, gives it agricultural lands as well as access to coal and other natural resources, particularly in the Donbas region, and denies European powers energy security. It was through Ukraine that the Nazis accessed the oilfields of the Caucasus and it is through pipelines in Ukraine that half of Russia’s natural gas exports to Russia flow west.

Moreover, possession of the Crimean Peninsula and the port of Odessa enable Russia to project power into the Black Sea and from there, the Mediterranean. Hence the Soviets were quick to assert themselves in Ukraine after the 1917 revolution and hence Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and his government’s support for a separatist uprising in the Donbas.

Russian domination of Ukraine also transforms Poland into the geopolitical pivot of Eastern Europe. An independent Poland is acceptable to Russia so long as it is neutral and weak. Before the 1789 French Revolution, that was the case. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was weakened by its multinational character, its precarious finances and a nobility that kept the monarchy in check. A new constitution, proposed in 1791, proposed to change all that. The state was centralized and the monarchy made hereditary, restraining it from elite intrigue. The prospect of a strong, independent Poland that could set an example to the peoples of Central Europe who lived under the yoke of empire, was appalling not just to Russia but Austria and Prussia as well. The three powers conspired to take away half its territory. When Polish nationalists rebelled, in 1794, they wiped Poland off the map altogether.

More than a century later, after the First World War, Poland was revived and the process repeated itself. Barely two decades later, Germany and Russia carved up the country once more in the infamous 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that the Poles have not forgotten about more than half a century later.

By removing Poland from the equation, however, Russia found itself bordered on a Germany no less geopolitically insecure than itself.

During the nineteenth century, Prussian and later German statesman, especially Otto von Bismarck, managed to stave off conflict between the two land powers. But after fighting Germany in two world wars, Russia took no chances and occupied half of it.

There are parallels here with Ukraine. So long as it is weak and subdued, Russia can live with an independent state on its western frontier, acting as a buffer between it and the West. Once the people in that state develop too strong a sense of national identity and determine to be Central European and Western, Russia must overpower them.

Further south, Russia must command the Caucasus as a fortress against the political and religious dangers of the Middle East. Although the people there are the Russians’ cultural and political inferiors and too divided among themselves to defend the area, they — like all mountain folk — are also fiercely independent and unlikely to ever fully submit to Russian rule.

In an attempt to prevent permanent insurgency against them, the Soviets carved up the Caucasus in several autonomous republics and nominally independent states whose borders did not correspond at all with the ethnic and religious divisions of the people living in them. A few were even deported in their entirety, one of the most gruesome population transfers that took place in the Soviet Union. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of Chechens and Ingushes perished in their forceful resettlement to Central Asia. It was a brutal episode but not altogether a strategic failure.

In the long term, giving the people of the Caucasus autonomy and a pan-national sense of belonging would probably have been the better strategy. It would certainly have been the more humane. But the Soviets kept the region in check through fear and repression. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, and Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia declared their independence, it set off unrest in Russia’s North Caucasus as well. The priority at the time was pacifying Chechnya. Next, the Russians took to weakening the most pro-Western republic, Georgia, by having Abkhazia and South Ossetia break away from it.

Georgia matters because it could give the West a foothold on the eastern shore of the Black Sea and an alternative route for energy supplies. Russia’s absorption of Abkhazia in 2014 made the first prospect less likely. The second hinges on Azerbaijan which Brzezinski described, rather fancifully, as “the cork in the bottle containing the riches of the Caspian Sea basin and Central Asia.” Besides its own plentiful oil and natural gas reserves, Azerbaijan can transport hydrocarbons from Central Asia through Georgia and Turkey into Europe and thus threaten Russia’s gas monopoly.

In Central Asia, Uzbekistan is the pivotal state. The Soviets did their best to keep the peoples of Central Asia at war with themselves by forcing borders on them that did not at all correspond with ethnic realities on the ground. Uzbekistan is nevertheless relatively homogenous. Its population is 80 percent Uzbek. They can fall back on a proud history, beginning with the conqueror Tamerlane. The country is certainly independent-minded and has displayed some willingness to lead. And it has enormous natural riches to boot.

Nursultan Nazarbayev, Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin, the presidents of Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia, meet in Minsk, October 24, 2013
Nursultan Nazarbayev, Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin, the presidents of Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia, meet in Minsk, October 24, 2013 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

However, Uzbekistan is landlocked and would need the help of Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan to transport its wealth across the Caspian Sea or into China. For Russia, Kazakhstan, by far the largest state in the region and the wealthiest in natural resources, is the real prize. Situated on the Caspian Sea and hosting pipelines running east as well, it is indispensable if Russia is to secure preponderance in Central Asia.

Halford J. Mackinder, a British geographer and pioneer in the study of geopolitics, famously identified Central Asia as Eurasia’s “Heartland,” the pivot on which the fate of empires rests. Not because Central Asia itself is of such overwhelming economic or strategic importance, rather because whoever controls it tends to dominate Eurasian affairs — and global affairs by extension. Soviet control of Central Asia reflected its enormous power; Soviet defeat in Afghanistan foreshadowed the demise of empire.

It is not a stretch to claim, as Robert D. Kaplan does in The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate (2012), that “Kazakhstan is Mackinder’s Heartland!” If another power effectively “owns” this ninth largest country in the world, it is likely to hold sway over the whole of Eurasia.

There are only two candidates — besides the Kazakh themselves: China and Russia. The former has the economic advantage and is busy integrating Kazakhstan’s with its own economy. The latter still had the advantage in cultural and political terms. 20 percent of Kazakhstan’s population is ethnic Russian, a quarter of the population is Christian — something that helps explain Putin’s Russia’s newfound religious zeal — and the rulers in Astana still instinctively look to Moscow for direction. The Soviets also did much to integrate Kazakhstan’s infrastructure with Russia’s. China has a lot of catching up to do. The difficulty for Russia is that China has the money and the will to do so and needs Kazakhstan’s natural resources far more than anyone else.

There are three more independent states that frustrate Russian security in the south. Neither the tsars nor the Soviets quite managed to subdue either, let alone all, of them. Coming down from the Caucasus, Imperial Russia was able to overpower Iran in the late nineteenth century but only for a few decades and only in league with the British. The reason for seeking access to Iran is straightforward: it barrs Russia from the Persian Gulf.

Russia has another reason for maintaining close relations with today’s Iran. Its millenarian regime could foment religious strife in Russia’s Muslim-populated south. Iran doesn’t seem quite as interested in exporting its Islamic revolution as it once did. Still, Russia must not make an enemy out of the country if it cannot be an ally.

Turkey similarly checks Russia’s ambitions in the Black Sea and the Caucasus. It can deny Russia access to the Mediterranean Sea but will only feel strong enough to do so when it is backed by a powerful Western ally. Hence British support for the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century and America’s extension of NATO membership to Turkey in the twentieth. Russia must seek to weaken that link if it is to have unimpeded access to the Bosphorus and Dardanelles.

Brzezinski predicted that Turkey’s future orientation would be decisive for the region.

If Turkey sustains its path to Europe — and if Europe does not close its door to Turkey — the states of the Caucasus are also likely to gravitate into the European orbit, a prospect they fervently desire. But if Turkey’s Europeanization grinds to a halt, for either internal or external reasons, then Georgia and Armenia will have no choice but to adapt to Russia’s inclinations.

Russian overtures to Ankara, in the form of energy diplomacy, appear to be conspiring with the country’s own cultural retrogression and Europe’s wariness about admitting Turkey to the European Union to bring that second prediction about.

Finally, Russia requires the acquiescence of Greece to fully project its power into the Mediterranean and beyond. Mackinder warned, “Possession of Greece by a great Heartland power would probably carry with it the control of the World-Island.” If it subordinates Turkey, Russia could still be blocked by an oceanic power in the Aegean Sea. Once Greece succumbs to its influence too, the Mediterranean will be wide open.

Working in Russia’s favors are ideological affinities. Both countries are Orthodox Christian and much of Greece took to communism after World War II — to the point where Western powers felt compelled to support the royalist side in the 1946-1949 Civil War and prevent it from sliding into the East Bloc. But it will take more that a sense of kinship to establish Russian influence in Greece and for that it needs to reclaim its dominant position in the Black Sea first.

The Russian strategy cannot be one of imperial restorations, rather it must be aimed at “creating a web of relations that would constrain the new states and preserve Russia’s dominant geopolitical and economic position,” as Brzezinski put it. Territories that used to be in its empire must be denied full independence in terms of energy and foreign policy. Russia’s weapons are its hydrocarbon reserves, pipeline politics and its ability and, perhaps more importantly, willingness to use military force — even if it is on a small scale; Russia’s readiness to resort to intimidation and shows of force distinguishes it from the democratic, seabound Western nations that are uncomfortable with militarism.

Russia has one more advantage, one that can be exploited alongside the gradual subjugation of its borderlands: its vague, unstated, but not altogether incredible assertion to be leading an “anti-hegemonic” alliance against the West, specifically the United States. Its most important partners in this endeavor are China and Iran. There is some appeal for the latter in this. Iran has been ostracized by the West and no allies in its own region. Russia could be an important patron. It makes less sense for China to entertain such notions when its economy depends to a great extent on trade with America. It also competes with Russia for influence in Central Asia and could compete with Russia for influence in Mongolia and the Far East in the future.

Moreover, China is both a land- and a sea power and has far more natural advantages. Its climate is temperate, its rivers and the Great Canal facilitate national integration. China is ethnically more homogeneous than Russia. The Han Chinese comprise 90 percent of the population. While China’s history of a settled agricultural civilization battling nomads from the drier uplands is a mirror of Russia’s, the century-long struggle — which was invariably won by the sedentary civilization in the long term — did not leave China any less self-confident. There is every reason to suspect that in an “anti-hegemonic” alliance with Russia, China would be the senior partner.

Chinese Leader Follows Silk Road, Signs Energy Deals

Dusk in Xi'an, China, August 17, 2011
Dusk in Xi’an, China, August 17, 2011 (Jack Zalium)

While the American “pivot” to Asia seems stalled in light of the Syrian crisis, China’s pivot west, to Central Asia, is in full swing. Crisscrossing the region, in a path reminiscent of the Silk Road, President Xi Jingping has been making numerous well received speeches and deals from Ashgabat to Astana.

Unsurprisingly, many of the agreements arising from this trip relate to the energy sector. In Turkmenistan, the Chinese leader helped inaugurate the start of production at the world’s second largest gasfield, Galkynysh, while also finalizing a deal for the Chinese state-owned energy corporation, China National Petroleum Corp, to build facilities which should process 30 billion cubic meters of gas per year. Read more

Medvedev Predicts Eurasian Union by 2015

Outgoing Russian president Dmitri Medvedev has given impetus to the Eurasian Union by declaring that it will be up and running in three years.

An idea that has been around the block several times, the union would encompass Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and have as observer countries Armenia, Moldova and Ukraine. The union would be one of a myriad of regional initiatives set up in the post-Soviet space. Whether there will be meaningful integration remains doubtful.


The question is, can it work? For this economic union to be more than just a space through which goods pass and resources are extracted, meaningful economic liberalization is necessary and the issue of corruption and nepotism must be aggressively tackled. Many regional groupings have been set up and swiftly forgotten about. Will this be different?

Russia’s vision for the Eurasian Union is to forge itself as an economic land bridge at the center of major global supply chains, linking production and consumption. In so doing, Russia stands to become Asia’s window to the West and Europe’s gateway to the East. If successfully implemented, Russia would gain significant geopolitical clout and the opportunity to capitalize from economic diversification and technology transfers from firms seeking to maximize production and distribution efficiencies in Russia.

Russian minister of economic development Elvira Nabiullina laid out this vision when she said, “The Customs Union and Common Economic Space on this map are a block with economically and geographically advantageous location between the traditional production and consumption centers (Europe) and the main centers of the promising global growth.”

Forming an effective economic union between countries of the former Soviet Union will be hamstrung by domestic networks of corruption and nepotism. To avoid the domination of Russian interests, Central Asian countries will play Russia against Chinese economic interests and Eastern European countries will continue to vacillate between Russia and Western European interests.

Furthermore, it may prove to be a tough sell to non-Russian populations, in the post-Soviet space, that their countries will not simply be junior partners in orbit around Kremlin interests. Very likely, the Eurasian Union will begin primarily as an energy infrastructure bloc with limited customs liberalization, and some regulation of migrant workers’ visas into Russia.

The European Union has been floated as a possible model for the Eurasian Union but this ignores the fact that the European Union was founded by a few states of roughly equal strength. The simple physical and economic dominance of Russia means that it will want to play the leading role — an unappealing idea to the other members. Establishing a free-trade zone, which could be a possible first step toward unification, raises the specter of Russian products being dumped on less developed markets.

Of course, this analysis assumes that the idea actually goes anywhere. Belarus and Russia are technically in a union but there is precious little evidence of it. The possible benefits are clear for Russia but it is difficult to see what the other prospective member states would gain from the Eurasian Union. Indeed, some states, such as Turkmenistan, have been pursuing policies at odds with the Kremlin. Their freedom may well be limited by a tighter Russian embrace.

Additionally, the kind of liberalization required for global economic integration (with Europe and China, for example) may prove to be destabilizing for several of the Central Asian regimes and turbulent for Russian domestic society. Integration necessitates legal reform and the entrenchment of transparent institutions that can facilitate economic and social activities. This may partially explain the seeming lack of enthusiasm on the part of Central Asian authoritarian regimes to the idea of a union.

Over the last two decades, many regional organisations have been set up in a sometimes overt attempt to tie Chinese influence into some kind of institutional framework. The Commonwealth of Independent States is the closest thing to a forebearer of the Eurasian Union but on occasion, member states don’t even bother turning up to its meetings. There is already a Eurasian Economic Community with freedom of movement and a common economic space.

On a practical level, there is thus no obvious need for a Eurasian Union. The proposed forms of integration can all be pursued through preexisting structures. The strength of the union as a concept lies in its political appeal.

The entire project encapsulates Vladimir Putin’s various ideas on Russian identity. While using some European institutions as a model, he is avowedly stepping away from greater cooperation. Putin has always opposed societal movements such as “Russia for the Russians,” preferring instead to conceive of Russia as a multiethnic, multinational state. This union firmly places Russia within the context of its previous land based empire, though claims of neo-Soviet expansionism are of course overblown.

Not just an economic land bridge, the Eurasian Union, if it ever gets off the ground, would be a powerful example of Russia as a third way between Europe and Asia. Facing public discontent on an unprecedented scale, Putin needs something compelling for his third term. This project helps to restore Russians’ sense of their place in the world, while also checking the growing nationalist trend by partially restoring Russia’s overt dominance. There will probably be few tangible results of this call for union, except for Putin.

Wikistrat Bottom Lines


Russia would increase relations over their former satellite states in an effort to improve their own economy and image abroad. There could be a potential for an increased market in Eastern Europe and Central Asia that wouldn’t typically be accessed through conventional means. It could certainly help shore up Putin’s domestic position and cut off nationalist opposition.


Belarus’ dictatorial style of government and Russia’s “managed democracy” may be a hindrance to progress within the proposed union.

Letting in the candidates Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which have recently had problems with civil unrest, could be a stumbling block to their entry.

Europe may see a joining of the former Soviet states as a potential hostile environment, both in an economic and political context.

China could see the union as a threat to its influence in the region, e.g. gas purchases.

Having control of these territories was a burden to the USSR. Having an influence will also be costly.


The formation of the union will depend on Russia’s continued relationship with its former satellite states, especially Kazakhstan, which first proposed the idea.

Thomas Barrett, Michael Breen, Michael Moreland and Graham O’Brien contributed to this analysis.

Central Asian Battlefield 2027

A game of hungry hippos
A game of hungry hippos (Dylan Hartmann)

Should revolution sweep Central Asia in a “Silk Road Awakening” next decade, its republics, rich in resources but impoverished in terms of infrastructure and institutions, could find themselves at the mercy of neighboring great powers descending upon the region like four “hungry hippos.”

This is the premise explored by a team of Georgetown University students participating in a grand strategy competition with the geopolitical analysis community Wikistrat. Their worst case scenario? Continental Asia as a ticking time bomb.

Neighboring powers have been vying for influence in Central Asia since the demise of Soviet power there, inspiring some analysts to forecast a “New Great Game” in reminiscence of the Anglo-Russian power struggle during the nineteenth century.

As both the British and the Russians found out, Central Asia is a tar pit filled with confusing micro-nationalities, borders arbitrarily drawn without regard for ethnic divides and a geography that is bound to frustrate any attempt at military intervention. But it’s also rich in natural resources and could propel whichever country dominates it to the status of global power. China, Iran, Russia and Turkey each have a strong motive for building leverage in the region should an opportunity to do so present itself.

Such an opportunity could be a wave of popular uprisings come 2027. The Georgetown students warn that the situation could be very similar to that in Libya today where the fall of a strongman heralds chaos and disorder. “Few political leaders emerged among the republics,” Georgetown’s David Rosenblum predicts, “and those who did found the attempt to make the different ethnic, linguistic and religious groups happy nearly impossible.”

Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, Tajiks, Pamiris, Kara-kalpaks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Uigurs and Uzbeks created plenty of personal interest problems. Unifying these groups also proved difficult due to the sparse population density typifying much of the vast region.

Of the gravest concern for the region would be a sudden and significant drop in oil and gas production.

China, Iran, Russia and Turkey were quick to observe that state-owned companies responsible for pumping gas or oil and guarding energy infrastructure do not function nearly as well when that state is failing. The responses from Ankara, Beijing, Moscow and Tehran were swift now that their national interests were threatened by Central Asia’s collapse.

China could see unrest spreading into Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia where ethnic minorities have long been ambivalent about Communist rule. Moreover, China’s high dependence on imported oil and gas could ignite a crisis and spark riots if the energy flow from Central Asia were suddenly interrupted. Thus China dispatches peacekeepers and UAVs to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to protect the natural gas pipeline that traverses these countries. “A number of geologists were also spotted throughout Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, prospecting for rare earth elements.”

In Tehran, the immediate concern would be the risk of an Azeri uprising proclaiming allegiance to Azerbaijan. Having just weaponized its nuclear potential, Iran would still be heavily outgunned by Israel. “With abundant supplies of oil and a population thrilled to be free of burdensome economic sanctions, Tehran had only two objectives in Central Asia,” according to Harry Bethke.

Stop the protest movements from spreading as it threatened the Islamic Republic’s territorial integrity and acquire the infrastructure needed to become an official global power — a space launch site.

Ayatollahs in space? It would put Iran’s nuclear capabilities in a spot even harder to reach than the holy bunkers at Qom. Iranian advisors would soon be on the ground in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Turkey, still not a member of the European Union, would finally take matters into its own hands and seek to unify the Turkic people from the Golden Horn to Urumqi, China. “Leading a revitalized Grand Turkestan would certainly put Turkey on the map,” the Georgetown students observe. “But acquiring nuclear weapons wouldn’t hurt either.”

While leading the charge to link Grand Turkestan to its rightful place, Turkey would begin acquiring the necessary material to begin a nuclear weapons program. Fortunately, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan had plenty of uranium and mines already constructed.

As for Russia, the situation playing out in its backyard could not represent more of a disaster. With terrorists and weapons flowing freely from Central Asia to its troubled North Caucasus and nearby great powers encroaching upon its traditional zone of influence, Moscow would suddenly experience the all too familiar feeling of other countries knocking on its doorstep. As Maria Vassilieva observes,

Russia now faced the EU and NATO to its west, China on its southeast, the possibility of a Turkish led amalgamation, Iran, or China on its south and the United States and Canada moving in close over the top with the melting ice caps.

Having properly cited their moral obligations and cultural ties with the Central Asian people, the four interested powers would be “somewhat surprised to see others there with them.”

Unlike the original Great Game, the competition for influence and control would not rely on troops physically acquiring territory alone, notes Alfredo Montufar-Helu Jimenez. “Select energy infrastructure and weapons materiel will be the main prize that China, Iran, Russia and Turkey all covet.” Controlling them could still demand military action however.

It’s possible for coalitions to emerge among the four powers with China and Russia developing a partnership to keep the upstarts, Iran and Turkey, from making any moves of strategic significance in Central Asia.

Russia and China would have largely similar interests in protecting energy infrastructure and eliminating the protest movements and air of revolution to keep things quiet in their respective provinces. Furthermore, their energy interests and energy infrastructure do not overlap. They have access to uranium and other minerals and have access to space stations to launch satellites and other weapons.

Iran and Turkey could upset these assets but an alliance between them is unlikely, allowing the others to “divide and conquer.”

The United States would have little reason to interfere. It has only to sit back and let the four competitors sort things out among themselves unless one threatens to emerge as a clear winner. In the meantime, the Americans would be busy leading an international effort of safeguarding Soviet era weapons of mass destructions that could easily fall in the hands of some terrorist organization amid the chaos.

Clinton Visits Tumultuous Central Asia

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is greeted by Ambassador Tatiana Gfoeller in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on December 2
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is greeted by Ambassador Tatiana Gfoeller in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on December 2 (US State Department)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited different countries in Central Asia to push for improved political freedoms in the former Soviet republics and affirm their role as security partners of the United States. As the war in Afghanistan drags on, these countries, many of which are battling internal disorder, remain significant as part of America’s supply routes.

Clinton attended a summit of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe in Kazakhstan Wednesday where she also spoke with the country’s president and foreign minister. She thanked Kazakhstan for cooperating with the West in the realm of nonproliferation. Earlier this year, she pointed out during a press conference, along with the United Kingdom, Kazakhstan and the United States secured over ten metric tons of highly enriched uranium as well as three metric tons of weapons grade plutonium. “That is enough material to have made 775 nuclear weapons,” she said. “And now we are confident it will never fall into the wrong hands.”

The secretary visited Kyrgyzstan next which has been site to considerable political upheaval in recent months. This spring, violence in the small Central Asian republic forced its president to flee to Belarus while the interim government subsequently struggled to hold on to power. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced as a result of the unrest.

After meeting with Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva, Clinton praised her for forming a coalition government two months after the country held parliamentary elections. “There are many who say parliamentary democracy, true parliamentary democracy, cannot work in Central Asia or in many other places in the world,” said Clinton. “We reject that and we think Kyrgyzstan has proven that it can.”

Neighboring Tajikistan has also witnessed waves of armed rebellion in recent months. As the central government appears unable to suppress the uprising, Joshua Kucera at The Diplomat warns of a “power vacuum in a part of Tajikistan that borders northern Afghanistan and southern Kyrgyzstan, both of which are themselves becoming more and more unstable.”

Despite the mounting instability in the region, the United States are preparing a range of strategic construction projects throughout Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The largest project entails the construction of an anti-terrorism training facility in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Currently, the only American base in operation in the region is the transit center at Manas, near the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek and close to its border with Kazakhstan. Last year, the now ousted president attempted to close the air base with parliament’s approval. Only the intervention of American and Russian diplomacy managed to reverse that decision in June 2009. In return for continuing to operate the Manas facility, the military increased rent payments from $17 to $60 million a year to the Kyrgyz government.

Clinton’s last stop in the region was Uzbekistan, the most populous republic in Central Asia but also its least republican. The country has never held an election judged fair by international observers while the executive wields most actual power. Dissidents are persecuted. Opposition parties are not allowed to exist and foreign media have been driven out of the country. Clinton urged the president, Islam Karimov, who has been in power since 1990, “to demonstrate his commitment through a series of steps to ensure that human rights and fundamental freedoms are truly protected.”

The State Department has defended Clinton’s visit to Uzbekistan as a chance to promote political reform but it is also an opportunity to affirm security cooperation. Uzbekistan is one link in what the United States call their Northern Distribution Network which brings supplies to Afghanistan through Russia and the different states of Central Asia.

The increased American presence risks exacerbating what some observers have dubbed the “New Great Game” which sees China, Russia and the United States competing for influence in Central Asia — very much like Russia and the United Kingdom used to quarrel over the region during the original Great Game in the nineteenth century.

There is moreover a danger of straining relations with Iran whose strategic orientation has shifted northward since the collapse of the Soviet Union. “In the past fifteen years,” according to Dario Cristiani of World Politics Review, “Tehran has been particularly active in trying to create a deep net of institutional and economic links in the region, in part to counter the increasing reach of Turkey, perceived as an American proxy, and of Pakistan, historically an enemy of Iran.” This, he pointed out, explains the strong attention paid by Tehran to nearby Afghanistan and Tajikistan, “which represent cornerstones of the Iranian strategy in the region.”

Iran’s ultimate goal is to become a technological and economic power in the region, and to this end, Tehran is supplementing its cultural and historical links with a more resolute economic presence, including investments in massive infrastructure projects.

Besides the dangers of geopolitics, Central Asia is a tar pit filled with confusing micro-nationalities, borders arbitrarily drawn without regard for ethnic divides, and a geography that is bound to frustrate any attempt at military intervention.

Up to the early twentieth century, Central Asia had no real borders. Rather the region was one large frontier separating the Russian Empire from the British Raj in India. With the emergence of the Soviet Union however and its aggressive attempts at spreading communism abroad, the former khanates of Central Asia were quickly absorbed and divided into neat little socialist republics. Neat, except that their borders were drawn with the express purpose of keeping the populations there divided lest they rise up against the Soviet usurpation.

The borders were redrawn several times during the 1920s and 30s, prompting violent demarcation disputes after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Separating the five newly independent states are Soviet borders; linking them are Soviet era roads, pipelines and electricity grids.

The Russian influence continues to pervade up to this very day. Kyrgyzstan for instance is desperately divided, with an Uzbek minority living in the west near the Uzbekistan border while north and south seem different countries altogether. The north, around the capital of Bishkek, is more developed, with some industry and a semblance of Russian culture. The south, largely agrarian and more Islamic, is cut off by a mountain range through which just two usable roads traverse.

When north and south clashed most recently, the country’s interim president asked Russia to intervene but so far, even Moscow hasn’t shown a willingness to submerge itself in this quagmire.