While the US-Russia relationship has been deteriorating rapidly since 2014 and faces a new crisis with the current situation around Aleppo, the bilateral relationship in Central Asia has been relatively stable…because it was already weak and unbalanced.
The United States has progressively lost its visibility in Central Asia, through a combination of strategic withdrawals (the Manas transit center closed in 2014 on Bishkek’s demand), limited engagement of US firms (even less now with the declining need for Caspian oil and gas and the endless postponements of Kashagan exploitation), and lack of massive investments, especially compared to China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. To this should be added a kind of fatigue on both sides: US civil society’s activities in the region have been slowing down, and the advocacy community partly lost hope in changing the political situation on the ground. At the same time, Central Asian regimes and public opinions have been more and more critical and/or disappointed toward the US democracy agenda and promotion of minority rights. Rising conspiracy narratives about the US role in destabilizing both Eurasian and Middle-Eastern countries became a dominant feature of local opinions.
At the same time, Russia reasserted its role in the region: Moscow’s tour de force in Ukraine confirmed its predominant status as a strategic and military player in the region. Russia showed its ability to destabilize a neighbor, but also a commitment to secure the local authoritarian regimes and their vision of law and order against any new colored revolution. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan had to commit to the Eurasian Economic Union, and Tajikistan is negotiating its entry. Even if Russia’s economic power is declining in terms of investments, remittances sent by Central Asian local migrants are also sharply diminishing, and the Eurasian Economic Union has brought unsatisfying results for local economies, Moscow remains second after China in terms of economic power in the region. More importantly, Russia’s soft power, and especially its media influence, is at its peak, also generating copycat versions of several Russian laws by local governments.
The gap of influence between Russia and the United States in Central Asia is thus widening, with Washington losing its status and being relegated to an almost second-tier country. The ‘Great Game’ in the region is now played between Russia and China, and both seem to have found a good equilibrium in sharing power over the region. The Central Asian regimes doubt the US commitment in the region given Washington having to deal with other theaters of action, and felt let alone before Moscow and Beijing. They will be hesitant to commit to any too openly pro-US position, knowing it could cost them heavily for an unknown result. Despite the 5+1 forum launched by Secretary of State John Kerry, the US role in the region is thus slowly fading.
Russia-US relations in Central Asia are shaped by this growing inequality of status. Moscow remains very attentive to any US move in the region, but does not feel as insecure as it does in the shared Europe-Russia neighborhood and South Caucasus. As for Washington, it tends to build a policy for the region that is too much shaped by Cold War memory (such as thinking that Moscow hopes to recreate the Soviet Union) and is unable to take stock of Russia’s soft power strike force.
And yet, Moscow and Washington could share more common interests in the region than either want to recognize. First in terms of priority, both express concerns about the potential impact of IS propaganda on Central Asian Muslims, and tend to overstate the role of Central Asians who left to fight in Syria. For Russia, the issue is more vital than for the US, given the number of North-Caucasian and other Russian citizens fighting there. Both worry about any risks of political destabilization coming from Central Asia—with, however, huge differences in the way they support the local authoritarian regimes. Karimov’s smooth succession seems to give Moscow more reason to believe in the local regimes’ ability to maintain stability, at least so far, differing from the US perspective on authoritarianism. Both countries hope for the Afghan reconciliation process to succeed in at least avoiding a new war spiral and spillover effects on the neighboring countries. But Russia does not care about the political nature of the next Afghan government, while Washington is more sensitive to preserving social and gender achievements of its post-2001 involvement. Both would like to see the fight against regional narcotrafficking be more efficient—with, here too, important breaches in how they address the corruption of state organs issue.
US-Russia relations in Central Asia are probably destined to stay unbalanced for a long time, as it is difficult to imagine new US deep involvement in the region that would raise the stakes. However, changes could come from the Central Asian countries themselves, or from Moscow’s own engagement in the region, reopening a window of opportunity for the US. Without it, Central Asia will remain at the periphery of the US-Russia relationship, molded by many other, more acute, theaters of tensions.
Marlene Laruelle is Research Professor of International Affairs and Associate Director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES) at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.