Work with Moscow in Central Asia

baikonur A scene from “Baikonur” (2011), the movie (dir. Veit Helmer)

Work with Moscow in Central Asia

March 21, 2013

When Uzbek security forces killed hundreds of protestors in the city of Andijon in May 2005, both Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and a bipartisan group of senators called for an international investigation, while Moscow and Beijing backed the Uzbek government. Tashkent soon ordered U.S. forces out of the country and, in November 2005, joined the Russian-led CSTO (from which it withdrew again in 2012 to pursue a strategic partnership with the United States that risks deepening Central Asia’s polarization).

During his first summit with Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow in June 2009, President Obama emphasized that the American military presence in Central Asia dovetailed with Russia’s own interest in fighting Islamist extremism, leading Moscow to walk back its demands for U.S. forces to leave their remaining airbase in Kyrgyzstan. Medvedev also agreed to allow the transit of U.S. troops and equipment through Russian territory, helping set the stage for the creation of the Northern Distribution Network. This series of transit routes across Europe, Russia, and Central Asia leading to Afghanistan allowed the U.S. and its NATO allies to reduce their dependence on lines of communication through Pakistan, which Islamabad has shut down on multiple occasions and has been a boon for cooperation among the U.S., Russia, and Central Asia.

Notwithstanding this renewed cooperation, Washington announced in September 2011 that its post-conflict vision for Afghanistan centered on building a New Silk Road, designed to integrate the economies of Central Asia and Afghanistan into global markets. The crux of this strategy was new infrastructure (roads, railways, border crossings, and pipelines) leading from Central Asia to population centers and ports on the Indian Ocean. The most prominent component is a holdover from the 1990s, building a Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline.

NATO is meanwhile discussing ways to use military partnerships to reorient Central Asia’s militaries toward the Euro-Atlantic world. For many in Central Asia as well as Russia, the New Silk Road initiative—which Hillary Clinton first mentioned at a conference in Chennai—looked mostly like an effort to reorient regional economies toward new U.S. partner India at the expense of existing ties to Russia, as well as China.

While there is nothing wrong with efforts to build new trade and transit infrastructure across Central Asia per se, they ought to be driven by market logic rather than reflexive hostility to Russian and Chinese influence. While concern for Central Asian sovereignty had a place in the 1990s, the proliferation of trade and investment ties with a range of outside powers—led by China—has made these concerns outdated. And with threats to stability from within multiplying, Russia’s desire for a more active role in Central Asia offers an opportunity to address the problems of extremism, drugs, crime and regional rivalry—all without a major U.S. commitment that is unlikely to be forthcoming. Russia has assets on the ground, including troops Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and has proposed re-deploying its border guards along the porous Afghan-Tajik border. Russian efforts to bolster the CSTO could also provide a vehicle for multilateral security coordination among the Central Asian states, especially if Uzbekistan re-joins—which it will be more likely to do if it sees that Washington and Moscow are not engaged in a competition for influence in the region. . The U.S. should be thinking now about how to partner with Russia and the CSTO to maintain peace and security in post-2014 Central Asia.

Washington cannot afford to abandon the region entirely; maintaining access to Afghanistan via Central Asia will remain important, while the United States can and should do more to encourage reform domestically. At the same time, overcoming its reflexive hostility to Russian influence will allow the United States to be more selective about its engagement and move beyond the crude geopolitical maneuvering that has characterized relations with Moscow for much of the past two decades.

Washington is in no position to take the lead in securing Central Asia after 2014. It should take advantage of Moscow’s interest to work collaboratively against the region’s shared threats.

Jeffrey Mankoff is with a fellow and deputy director of the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program.