Russia & the US – consequences for Central Asia (Part II)

Dmitri Shlapentokh / Indianna

For some members of the elite of the involved countries, including the United States and Russia, the growing instability in the huge area of Central Asia, Afghanistan and beyond, is an incentive to increase cooperation against the common threat, all problems notwithstanding. Following this logic, Obama’s administration made several positive statements, and even more important, positive steps to ensure Moscow that it is seen as an essential Western, especially American, ally, in bringing stability to the region, including to Kyrgyzstan. Robert Blake, the U.S. Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, states the events in Kyrgyzstan push Russia and the U.S. together. James F. Collins, former U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation, noted in Foreign Policy that Moscow always collaborates with the U.S. in fighting terrorism, and did so even “during the dark days after the 2008 Russia-Georgian War.” And, another observer noted, “The Kremlin’s return to Afghanistan comes with the support of the Obama administration….”

Some members of the Central Asia elite also praised the rapprochement between Moscow and Washington. For example, some Kazakh observers also praised the cooperation between the U.S. and Russia in the stabilization of the situation in Kyrgyzstan. The Russian side reciprocated. As in the case with the Americans, Russians made many positive and reassuring statements. Some regard the U.S. predicament as an opportunity to remind America of the necessity for close cooperation with Russia.  There is also the implication that Moscow would appreciate Washington’s courtship in order to gain tangible benefits. For example, this symbiotic relationship was implied by a contributor to the semi-official publication, Izvestia. The contributor noted that a recent revelation of secret documents not only indicated that the U.S. policy in Afghanistan is not stellar but shows that the U.S. should cooperate more actively with Russia, which has had a lot of experience in this part of the world.

Dmitry Babich, a prominent Russian journalist, concluded that Russia actually wanted NATO to succeed in Afghanistan for Russians understand well that in case of a debacle only bin Laden would benefit. Evgenii Kozhokin, a prominent Russian diplomat, noted that every country wishes Kyrgyzia to be stable. Other Russian pundits even implied that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe could well send peacekeepers to the area or at least make Central Asia a zone of its direct responsibility. There were even sensational rumors about plans for Russian troops to fight directly on the U.S. side in Afghanistan. Argumentry Nedeli, the well-known Russian vehicle, aired this idea in public.

When Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov was visiting the United States, his American counterpart, Robert Gates, asked if, perhaps, the Russian military could help NATO in the fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan. What information is available to Argumenty Nedeli indicates that the Defense Ministry began ordering the study of the military-technical aspects of this assistance right after Serdyukov’s return to Moscow. “Someone suggested the use of the 45th Separate Reconnaissance Regiment of the Internal Troops. With a lot of its officers having seen combat in Afghanistan, this is one of the best formations in all of the Internal Troops and actually throughout the Armed Forces,” said a General Staff officer. The author of the quoted article also pointed out that the authorities were preparing a propaganda campaign so as to brainwash the populace to accept the move. Of most importance, however, is not just the rhetoric or rumor but the concrete steps taken. To be sure one could see some of them. In the beginning of the Obama administration, Russia offered “transit for railway shipments of non-lethal supplies, as well as air corridors for weapons and supplies.” The routes via Russia and, of course, other countries of the former USSR became increasingly important for NATO as the routes via Pakistan became increasingly difficult. Recently, Russia decided to sell 20 helicopters to NATO for Afghanistan and promised to increase its efforts in helping the Karzai government to improve the economic situation in the country.

Still, one should not overestimate Moscow’s willingness to cooperate fully with Washington, as well, of course, for Washington to do the same with Moscow. As a matter of fact, despite all “détente” between Moscow and Washington, NATO continues to keep suspicious eyes on the East: “NATO continues to update contingency plans for the defense of the Baltic States, on Russia’s doorstep.” This, of course, reinforces Moscow’s old suspicions as well as, Moscow’s desire to think not about coordination with the West but about its own interests, usually quite narrowly understood. And, in the case of present-day Moscow, the interest is nothing but cash.
Russian elite approach to the U.S.: the continuing suspicion.

One should remember that positive, concrete steps made toward the U.S. and NATO were made not only geopolitical considerations, i.e., Moscow understands that NATO/the U.S.’s defeat in Afghanistan would create many problems for Russia; but also because of purely mercantile considerations, which continue to loom large in the minds of the Russian elite. The U.S. pays well for transit and the corridor, and the helicopters were also not donated. Thus, one should also remember that Russia’s involvement in reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan is not just done at the expense of U.S. influence but also is due to the desire to make money. If no cash is involved, Russia continues to be uninterested in cooperation with the U.S and still looks at Washington with suspicion.

The American presence in Manas continues to be a bone of contention; it is seen as one of the strongholds of the U.S. presence in the region. At the same time, Russia is trying to squeeze the U.S. from Central Asia because it is afraid the oil/gas pipe/lines could bypass Russia, and the American presence in Central Asia could well make this possible. And this is the reason why Russia not only created a military base in Kyrgyzstan but also plans to create another one.
In this context, Moscow ignores the consideration that the closing of Manas could create a problem for the U.S./NATO troops in Afghanistan. Even less does Moscow see a positive role of Manas as a force for stabilization in Kyrgyzstan. Even after the chaos of the spring-summer of 2010, the American presence in Manas still bothers the Moscow elite; and the fact that Roza Otunbayeve, President of Kyrgyzstan, did not make “explicit declarations concerning Manas” was met with disappointment in Moscow. Some Russian commanders view the U.S. as a sort of primordial enemy with whom no real rapprochement is possible.

Indeed, members of Russia’s military brass were also skeptical in regard to cooperation with the U.S. that General Vladimir Shamanov – the commander of the Russian Airborne Troops, one of Russia’s military and political hardliners – who was engaged in both the war in Chechnya and the Russo-Georgian War (2008), could be an example. He recently noted that he had predicted the U.S. debacle a long time ago and America’s recent problems did not surprise him. He also noted that the U.S.’s departure could create problems in Central Asia, particularly in Tadjikistan, with the possibility of spreading the problems further north, as he implied. At the same time, he did not indicate that he regards U.S./Russia cooperation as the solution. As a matter of fact, he implied that the U.S., while asking Russia for cooperation, still regards it as an adversary; and he expected that Washington might well create problems in Georgia. And when he was informed by the Minister of Defense that Russian troops could well be engaged in fighting on the American side in Afghanistan, he was really outraged and clearly did not mince words in expressing his objections. One, of course, could not know what Shamanov’s objections were. Still, the ideas circulated in the Russian press provided insights to the possibility of Shamanov’s arguments. He could well have pointed out that the U.S. has found that it could not win in Afghanistan, and that, moreover, the U.S. understands well that even Russia’s engagement in the war would not change the situation for the better. Shamanov might also have stated that the U.S. insistence on Russia’s engagement in the war has nothing to do with dreams of victory but has an entirely different goal. The Americans simply want to channel the Islamist insurgency in Russia’s direction; it is just a Machiavellian trap that Russia should avoid at all costs.

Even those members of the Russian elite who regard Islamic extremism as the major threat for Russia and who usually advocate cooperation between Russia and the West––and who view Russia and the West as part of the same civilization—are not fascinated with the U.S. as an ally.  This is the case with Rogozin He stated that NATO does not want to cooperate with the ODKB and, thus, as he implied, not engage in double deals with Russia. Thus, a considerable number of the Russian elite is suspicious in regard to a relationship with the U.S., including cooperation in solving problems in Afghanistan and Central Asia. For quite a few of them, the U.S. attempt to induce Russia to directly engage in the war in Afghanistan is just a Machiavellian plot designed to harm Russia. Some assume that even victory in Afghanistan is not as important to the U.S. elite as weakening Russia, which Washington still sees as the major force preventing the U.S. from dominating the Eurasian heartland and eventually the entire world. Even those who assume that the U.S., indeed, regards the defeat of Islamic insurgents as the major goal and are not obsessed with harming Russia, are still skeptical in regard to Russia’s engagement in the war. The point here is that, as these Russians believe, that the U.S. and NATO, led by Washington, have never thought about the interests of Russians. For example, NATO troops do not engage in fighting narcotics; NATO does not seem to care that drugs would get to Russia where thousands of Russians would die from them. In the views of others, Americans created the chaos in Afghanistan and Iraq, and implicitly elsewhere, and then left, ignoring completely the interests of the people in the regions. And those who joined in the Internet discussions implied that one should not engage with Americans in full-fledged cooperation and, as it was also implied, Russia should think about its own interests. For all of these skeptics, the American elite are conniving Machiavellians. They either tried to translate their obvious defeat in Afghanistan and Iraq in strategic victory in the long run by directing insurgents against their historical enemies, i.e., Russia, China and Iran.

The U.S. hardly cares about many of its allies. They are used and disposed of as soon as they find that they are useless. In the context of this approach, the U.S. elite might not see Russia as the enemy but still does not care that the chaos created by the invasion in Iraq and Afghanistan and the spread of narcotics traffic would harm Russia and other countries. All of this approach implies that members of the U.S. elite are perfect Machiavellians. Following the dictum of the Florentine, they are void of any moral scruples not only in dealing with their enemies but even with those who are their friends.

Another approach is based on an entirely different premise. The proponents of this approach see the U.S. elite as sort of zombies, with quite a limited and distorted vision of the world. The U.S. incursion into Eurasia, according to the proponents of this view, was caused by their myopic assumption that the U.S. type of democracy is best among all possible political systems and could be easily implemented if the “bad” government would be removed. This myopic thinking is caused by an erroneous perception of history in the last 20 years. The U.S. elite is convinced that the collapse of the USSR was caused by the USSR’s inability to compete with the U.S. economically, militarily and ideologically. The U.S. elite fails to understand that the USSR ‘s collapse was caused not by some objective reason but plainly because of Gorbachev’s, and later Yeltsin’s, blunders and open treachery. This myopic and actually irrational thinking not only explains the U.S.’s leap into Afghanistan and Iraq, where American pundits were assuring the public that victory would be easy and cheap, but also other actions and statements of the U.S. elite. Those members of the Russian elite who regard the U.S. as irrational and myopic could well substantiate their views by appealing to an article published several years ago in Foreign Affairs, the quite influential journal that is regarded as the mouthpiece of the foreign policy community. The authors of the article noted that Russia’s nuclear arsenal is deteriorating rapidly and China’s nuclear forces are still in infancy. Consequently, neither country could withstand a U.S. preemptive strike. Indeed, the authors suggested that such a strike could well obliterate both Russian and Chinese forces before they could retaliate. By obliterating Russia and China, the U.S. would emerge as the absolute global master.

The Foreign Affairs article was read in Russia and by some indications alarmed considerable segments of the Russian elite. For them, it was an indication that the U.S. elite is irrational, reckless and, one could assume, plainly insane. One could also assume that these views could well exist among some segments of Russian elite at present. All of these views of the U.S. as either a calculating, cynical, Machiavellian or irresponsible, almost insane, player hardly help to create a positive image of Washington and induce Russia to embrace the U.S. wholeheartedly. By definition, any rapprochement would be quite limited. Indeed, the limits or Russia/U.S. rapprochement were demonstrated recently by Russia’s decision to finish finally the Bushehr nuclear station despite the U.S.’s clear displeasure and rumors that either the U.S. or Israel or both are ready to strike against Iran.

The problems of the Central Asian states

The problems of bringing stability to Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia in general, and beyond is due not only to quite limited Russian-American cooperation but by other issues. To start with, the members of the Central Asia elite, including the Kyrgyz elite, and possibly some segments of the populace, do not always welcome the Western presence. The Kyrgyz elite is also not united in its vision of the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, as the force that could help them to stabilize the situation in their country. An even quite modest proposal to bring policemen from Europe led to opposition among some segments of the Kyrgyzstan population, which is afraid of repetition of the “Kosovo scenario.” The implication is that foreign policy/troops would protect the minorities, in this case Uzbeks, and they would finally squeeze out the majority, Kyrgyz, who would share the fate of Serbians in Kosovo. While the U.S. could well be viewed with suspicion by some of the Central Asian elite, the same could be said about Russia and vice versa. Their mutual distrust is indicated by the actual paralysis of the Central Asian states’ military alliance. The Central Asian states, together with other states of the former USSR, are part of ODKB, the defense treaty created October 7, 2002. But, it is plagued by conflicts among the participants and hardly plays any role in ensuring the defense of the participants.

Indeed, the recent meeting, August 2010 of ODKB indicated the deep conflict between the participants. Russia had a serious conflict with Belorussia and Tadjikistan, and Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and Tadjikistan have a tense relationship. And all of them either ignore Kyrgyzstan or actually aggravate the situation. This is the case with Uzbekistan, which closed the border with Kyrgyzstan and by doing this creates a problem for Kyrgyzstan traders.
Furthermore, the members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization made it clear that it would not engage in sending troops to Kyrgyzstan. It is clear that neither Russia nor the West, including the U.S., nor the countries of the former USSR, nor even Kyrgyzstan, is ready to cooperate fully with each other. Russia, for which chaos in Afghanistan and, possibly, Central Asia creates a clear and mortal danger, is reluctant to act alone, at least at present. Indeed, despite all talks and rumors, no concrete steps have been taken. And, if Russia would send troops, it would most likely be quite a limited force, which could hardly make the war more winnable for the anti-Taliban coalition. Even in Central Asia, full-fledged Russian involvement is questionable. Indeed, when Otumbayeva asked Russia to send peacekeeping troops, Russian refused.


Both the U.S. and Russia have recently taken visible steps toward rapprochement. For the U.S., this is mostly due to the risk of imperial overstretch and rapidly dwindling resources. The U.S. also is faced with clear signs that its allies are anxious to disentangle themselves from Afghanistan and that they are even less eager to take additional responsibilities in Central Asia.
For Russia, the reasons are more complicated. On the one hand, Russia welcomes the opportunity to provide Moscow with a visible, if not dominant, role in a considerable part of post-Soviet space. Moscow also shares with Washington the concern over destabilization in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Some concrete steps have been made and some members of the elite of both countries express good feelings toward each other. Still, there are deep-seated suspicions reinforced by actions that hardly inspire confidence in the opposite side. Russia still approaches Manas with suspicion and proceeds with the completion of Bushehr. The U.S. assures East Europeans that it will protect them against a potential Russian threat. There is no full confidence not only between the U.S. and Russia but neither among the Central Asian states. And none of them trust completely either Russia or the U.S. or each other. In this situation and at this time, cooperation has grown inevitably limited. All of this makes it quite hard to secure stability in Central Asia and beyond.



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