Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#14 - JRL 7176
May 7, 2003
By Stephen Blank
AUTHOR BIO: Professor Stephen Blank, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Since the war in Iraq, Russia has launched a comprehensive effort to bring Central Asia and the CIS under its control using military and economic instruments of power to counter Americas presence there. These moves reflect the Russian military-political elites continuing unwillingness to forsake its hegemonic approach to Central Asia or to accept the legitimacy of Americas presence there as invited by local sovereign states. Apart from further militarizing Central Asias politics and stimulating its division into competing blocs, these new initiatives also aggravate declining U.S.-Russian relations and reflect an effort not only to subordinate key states to Moscow, but to surround and pressure Uzbekistan, Central Asias most independent and strongest actor.

BACKGROUND: Russias elite remains unreconciled to Americas economic-military presence in the CIS, which it regards as a threat to the reconstitution of Moscows hegemony there. The war against Iraq reintensified fears of Moscows losing ground in Central Asia and precipitated coordinated moves against Central Asian states and America. Moscows recent moves follow Washingtons refusal to make concessions to Russia to win its support over the war with Iraq, implying that Russia gains nothing from partnership with America. Elite pressure for striking to recover lost ground in the CIS is unremitting and uncontested. This is led by the foreign and defense ministries, the least reformed of any post-Soviet institutions in personnel or outlook. These moves center on Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, the states most to Russian pressure, and rely heavily on military, secret police, and energy or economic instruments of power. In Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and even Azerbaijan Putin has supported these ministries as they try to pressure those states to comply with Moscow and create military blocs counter to the American presence in Central Asia.

Late in 2002, Russian special services helped facilitate an abortive coup against Saparmurad Niyazov of Turkmenistan with the clear intention of persuading him to continue to ship Turkmen gas through Russian pipelines. Gazprom and the special services coordinated pressure has now paid off with a new deal, where Niyazov agreed to ship his gas through Russia. This deal helps sustain Russian President Putins plan for a Moscow-led gas cartel that would squelch Caspian producers efforts to break free of Russia's grip.

In Tajikistan, Russian diplomats attacked local media outlets that questioned the need for a Russian base and threatened to curtail the remittances of Tajik workers back to Tajikistan to coerce Dushanbe to accept a permanent Russian base there. In Kyrgyzstan, Russia exploited U.S. demands for democratization to obtain an air base at Kant. This bases ostensible purpose is to strike at terrorists but given Russias record of never striking at them before, this sounds dubious. More likely, it will be the hub of support for President Askar Akayev against domestic threats and for the new military organization that Moscow is creating against Americas presence there. This Organization of the Collective Security Treaty of the CIS (OCST) is intended to be an alliance with a clear bloc structure and charter that will copy NATOs Article V, calling for automatic use of force in the event of threats to any other member state. Moscow is pushing to create a rapid reaction force which could be deployed automatically and not after lengthy consultations.

Moscow has also begun criticizing coalition operations in Afghanistan of being ineffective and has promised to send more troops to the area, probably to the bases in Tajikistan and Kant. The latter is rumored to be the site for a deployment of 6000 troops and 20 planes and the aerial base for support of this rapid reaction or other ground forces in the area belonging to the CSTO.

IMPLICATIONS: These moves represent an effort to strengthen what has hitherto been a singularly ineffective talking shop. Russian media reports confirm that Americas victory in Iraq, Washingtons refusal to consider Russian interests as seen by Moscow, and Russias growing fear of being ousted from the CIS triggered them. Various CIS members efforts to draw nearer to NATO and Washington or to secure economic independence from Russian oil and gas pressures also clearly play a major role here. It is hardly surprising that moves to pressure Georgia due to its signature of a new treaty with Washington, and calls for Azerbaijan to forsake ties to Washington and move closer to Moscow, coincided with the Central Asian initiatives. Similarly, Russian diplomats have publicly opposed Kazakstans efforts to build its own Navy to defend its Caspian shore. Likewise, Putins continuing efforts to enclose CIS economies in a closed bloc called the Eurasian Economic Association (EurAzEC) indicate enduring aspirations for a monopolistic hold on local energy economies.

These moves do not aim to recreate the Soviet Union. But they do represent an increasingly coordinated attempt to realize the diminution of these states effective sovereignty by creating a Russian-dominated sphere of influence that entails their military-economic-political subordination to Russia and allows Russia opportunities to monopolize access to and influence over their energy holdings and defense policies. It also entails the support for dictatorship abroad and for anti-democratic rule at home. Third, it means dividing Central Asia into blocs as Moscow clearly seeks to undermine Islam Karimovs pro-American policies and rule in Uzbekistan, even to the extent of spreading rumors of his imminent demise. One way to do so is to surround Uzbekistan with satellites to curtail its ability to develop freely and enhance its regional influence. Fourth, these policies also strike at American policies in Central Asia by increasing pressure upon local states to limit Americas freedom of action, undermine their support for Washingtons war on terrorism, and eventually create conditions to induce Washington to leave the area. Ultimately, Moscow would like to curtail American and other foreign opportunities for investment here, because an independent and competitive energy sector in Central Asia undermines the oil and gas sector in Russia upon which the Russian economy depends.

CONCLUSIONS: All things considered, Russias strivings for exclusive hegemony in Central Asia and the CIS will probably fail. Moscow lacks the economic and military resources to dominate these areas single-handedly. Moreover, America is unlikely to let it do so and plunge these states into perpetual stagnation. Unfortunately, Russia has now thrown down a gauntlet to America and stimulated the rivalry in Central Asia that it feared. Russias new bases and efforts to coerce local governments into a military alliance ensures that America will neither soon leave its bases nor do so unilaterally. The consequences of that departure would be disastrous for those local states and for Russia as well.

Continuing calls for a redivision of spheres of influence and other such atavistic policies suggests how little Moscow appreciates its own limited capacities for sustaining and projecting power abroad and how little it has learned from Yeltsins quixotic efforts to establish hegemony by force. In doing so, they may bring the whole edifice of regional security as well as hopes for regional progress crashing down upon both Central Asia and themselves.

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