Russia frets over Eurasian domino theory

Russia frets over Eurasian domino theory

By Yong Kwon

Post-Soviet Russia has been consistently perceived as anti-American. Despite several shifts in Moscow's foreign policy during the past two decades, the Kremlin's opposition to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) operations in former Yugoslav republics, its war with Georgia and the recent protest against military action in Libya have all been attributed to Russia's designs to leverage its influence against the West.

However, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's and President Dmitry Medvedev's defense of state sovereignty has political and economic rationale that transcends a simple desire to demote American interests abroad. Russia's standing concerns regarding security in Central Asia and the global energy market all reveal a sophisticated foreign policy doctrine that attempts to hedge

Moscow's irreducible interests in a complex global system.

Russia has historically occupied an extremely awkward geographical position that made its foreign policy orientation with other great powers awkward. This is especially true in Moscow's relationship with Washington. The only way for Russia to have a completely compatible relationship void of disagreements with the United States is if their interests align in not only Europe, but also in the Caucasus, the Arctic Circle, Middle East, Central Asia and Northeast Asia.

As Moscow has an obligation to pursue policies that best serve its own interests, friction with Washington becomes a near inevitability. This is not the least because Washington often fails to empathize with the fact that a crisis in one area of Russia's periphery inevitably yields unintended consequences elsewhere along Russia's vast frontier.

Since the early 2000s, Moscow has been singularly concerned with the influx of drugs flooding across the porous borders of Central Asia into Russia. The consumption of these drugs by the Russian people contributes to Russia's rapidly declining population and strains its already exhausted healthcare system.

Widespread use of intravenous drugs combined with other strains on the welfare of the Russian people could reduce the Russian population, which stood at 150 million in 1991, to a figure as low as 100 or 80 million by 2050. While political scientists continue to dispute over whether demographic decline affects the overall status of a state a great power, Russia's rapidly declining population stands as a serious liability for the country's ability to develop socially and economically.

The best way to decrease the trans-Eurasian drug trade is to bolster the economic stability and security of the Central Asian states. However, development of this economic periphery remains predicated on several factors; primarily, the ability of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to protect their investments and secondly, Russia's capacity to ensure stability in the global energy market. Both tasks require a degree of cooperation from other great powers, specifically the United States.

Facilitating Russia's key objectives, Central Asia is slowly emerging from the economic periphery and moving towards greater integration with the global market. In addition to pre-existing Russian energy corporations and the rapidly expanding Chinese natural resource extraction projects, foreign investments are slowly trickling into the region to bolster development. South Korean corporations have shown great interest in limestone and shell deposits in Kyrgyzstan while Australia considers investments in Kazakh copper mines.

Last week, Osh province in Kyrgyzstan received commitments for foreign investment worth $24 million during an investment forum. Kyrgyzstan also plans to attract investments for the construction of hydroelectric plants that will place the second poorest Central Asian state at the forefront of the region's energy export market.

Kazakhstan can also expect greater capital investment as it has reaffirmed its commitment to enter the expanding Islamic bond market and by July 1 is preparing to remove all customs borders between itself, Russia and Belarus. On top of this, Kazakhstan is looking forward to developing the Kashgan super-oil field, raising its status among oil exporting states. These are remarkable developments considering last year's ethnic and political upheaval in Kyrgyzstan and the global economic downturn.

However, the stability of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan remains on thin ice. The presence of Islamic fundamentalism, a massive drug trade and instability in the global energy market all threaten to shatter the initial successes of these economies.

While the Osh investment forum was taking place, Bishkek announced that it will deploy more troops to the Kyrgyz-Tajik border south of Osh province to guard against incursion by fundamentalist militants and narco-traffickers. On the same day, Astana announced the deployment of an unspecified number of its troops as peacekeepers to Afghanistan. These actions show how serious both states are in securing a stable region for continued growth and development.

Russia is naturally interested in supporting these efforts because they are in line with its national interests, but its capacity to aid is limited due to the sheer scale of the problem. Russia's Federal Service for Drug Control reported seizing around 6.9 tons of hashish in 2008, but remained far from scratching the surface of the estimated 3,858 tons produced annually in Afghanistan.

Moscow genuinely wants a strong American presence in Central Asia to secure the borders and create a more stable Afghanistan. Russia's desires for US engagement in the region can be seen in its silence over American military presence in Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan (see Clawing back credibility in Kyrgyzstan , Asia Times Online, Sep 3, 2010 ), which is in stark contrast to Moscow's vociferous opposition to the Pentagon project to place a land-based SM-3 (Standard Missile 3) interceptor missile system in Romania.

Russia had proposed to make the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) more focused on combating international crime. Although shot down by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the proposed changes intended to increase the presence of the United States in Russia's traditional "near-abroad". All of Russia's recent approaches to US foreign policy in Central Asia points to Moscow's doctrine of resolving key regional issues at a multilateral level.

The Russian Federation acquired a valuable experience in its formative years of foreign policy construction while fighting in the Tajik Civil War (1992–1997). The final peace agreement between transnational Islamic fundamentalists and the Tajik government was not achieved through Russia's overwhelming military firepower, but rather through active diplomacy with Iran.

Since the end of the Boris Yeltsin era in 1999, Russia's new approach towards its near abroad has been one that has not focused on direct control over former Soviet states' security and economy. Moscow's passive attitude towards China's economic expansion into Central Asia and the Russian government's unwillingness to continue subsidizing natural gas exports to Belarus show these shifts. Putin and Medvedev's new approach to Central Asia required each state to pull its own weight.

However, circumstances prevent a region that had been so dependent on Russian support and energy exports to suddenly obtain economic sovereignty. Especially when the global recession and the recent proliferation of instability in the Middle East could serious hamper development in Central Asia by destabilizing the global energy market. These are not issues nascent economies such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan can tackle on their own.

In this context, Russia's opposition to armed intervention in Libya is entirely rational; it is not a simple matter of defending the principle of state sovereignty, but an intrinsic security dilemma for Russia to allow the energy market to fluctuate. Moscow definitely understands the ties between the crisis in the Arab world and security in Central Asia. The coming crisis in Syria and Yemen will be another test to Russian foreign policy makers who watch the instability moving ever closer to the oil exporting states of the Persian Gulf.

American foreign policy makers need to be more involved in Central Asian security and understand the long-term ramifications of military action in economically sensitive regions of the world. It is not as though the United States will not gain anything from a more cooperative relationship with Russia. Despite successes in decreasing opium production, Afghanistan still produces nearly all of the world's supply of opiates.

As a major entrepot of narcotics exports to the world, securing the borders in Central Asia will bolster political stability in Afghanistan. Furthermore, Moscow's invitation for Washington to be more deeply involved in Central Asia provides an opportunity to hamper the region's militant transnational fundamentalist and build political capital in states that will become major energy suppliers in the near future.

The United States and the Russian Federation both face an important juncture in their foreign policies. Both states see their intervention in Central Asia/Afghanistan-Pakistan as intrinsic to their national security. There is no reason why greater cooperation between the two great powers should not be actualized.
The Asia Times


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