Rome—Because of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, there is much talk about Moscow’s supposed desire to create a kind of USSR-Lite. But it is not just in Europe where Vladimir Putin is campaigning to restore Russian influence.
Central Asia is another traditional “near abroad” for Moscow, or in the words of former Russian president Medvedev, a “zone of privileged interests.” Putin has been actively courting the region’s presidents to fully join Russia in an economic and security precinct: Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, Tajikistan’s Emomali Rahmon, Kyrgyzstan’s Almazbek Atambayev, Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, and Turkmenistan’s Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow.
The Kazakhs and Kyrgyz have signed onto Putin’s free trade Eurasian Economic Union (along with Armenia and Belarus). Tajikistan is on the way. The Uzbeks and Turkmen are holding out.
Militarily, Russia maintains bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and along with Kazakhstan, all belong to the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Moscow-led counter to NATO.
The reasons for Russia’s interest are are many: investment in oil and gas and for feeding the region’s abundant fossil fuels into Russia-centered pipelines; to rebuild dominant sway in the area; and to guard against Islamist political and insurgent infiltration from Afghanistan into Central Asia and toward Russia’s border.
The region has long been a priority for Moscow’s foreign policy. In the 19th Century, Britain and Russia vied for influence in a complex low intensity competition known as the Great Game.
The contemporary Great Game has new players alongside Russia. China has interest in Central Asian markets and in drawing oil and gas from the region. Turkmenistan sells more natural gas to China than Russia. Besides a pipeline, China is connecting the region with roads and railway and providing development loans. Beijing recently sold anti-aircraft missiles to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
The United States, bogged down in Afghanistan, has ceded much influence. It closed its only military bases in the region, in Kyrgyzstan, last year. No US president has ever visited the region. Only belatedly, due to the Ukraine crisis, has Washington focused at all on the future of former Soviet states.
The US is the least of the Great Game players and the ever-passive Obama Administration seems not to have a grand strategy at all.
Stratfor analyzes Russia’s military moves.
The cost of US retreat.
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan out of orbit.
For the pop culture version of Russia in Central Asia, the 1970 film White Sun of the Desert (Белое солнце пустыни), a 1970 action film set during Russia’s civil war…in Turkmenistan!