Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 10

By Peter Rutland

On 29-30 April a group of U.S. government officials and scholars met in Seattle to discuss U.S. policy toward the Caspian Basin. The conference was cosponsored by the National Bureau of Asian Research and the U.S. Army War College. [1]

Perhaps most striking about the conference was the fact that the boundless optimism of the 1990s has given way to a more cautious assessment of the region’s prospects in general and the U.S. role there in particular. Talk of a “Great Game” or the “New Silk Road” was not to be heard. Instead, there was a sober analysis of the problems facing the region and of the limited leverage that the United States has to pursue its goals in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Advocates for a strong U.S. presence in the region can point to some important developments post-September 11 that strengthen their case. The war in Afghanistan led to the opening of U.S. military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan (and maybe Tajikistan). Clearly this is a sea change in the geopolitics of the region–and one that was bitterly resented by Russia, even as President Vladimir Putin ruefully acquiesced in the development. The U.S. military presence has been accompanied by a sharply increased aid program to the region, now more than US$750 million a year. This money goes a long way in these small and largely impoverished societies.

A further positive development is the breaking of ground last September for the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline that will export oil through Turkey. It is a rebuttal to those who argued that the line would never be built because Russian obstructionism would make the project too risky for investors.

However, alongside these positive developments, there have been a slew of disappointments: Widespread corruption; lack of democracy; the absence of regional cooperation; and the emergence of an environment conducive to organized crime, drug smuggling, and terrorist networks. The corruption and authoritarianism are an embarrassment, leading to awkward questions for the U.S. administration from Congress and human rights groups. But the rise of mafias, drugs and terrorists are problems that directly affect U.S. security interests.

The U.S. stance has evolved. Having secured their countries’ independence and sovereignty, the region’s leaders now have to deliver on political and economic development. To date, they seem to have been proceeding on the assumption that oil wealth gives them a free pass. But this is not the case. And if this is true, then the region’s oil wealth is part of the problem, and not part of the solution: The political corollary of the economic concept of the “resource curse.” Oil wealth may not lead to prosperity and democracy, but to corruption, tyranny and even interstate conflict.

This leaves the United States in a quandary. There is uncertainty both about what are U.S. core interests in the region, and what are the means to achieve them–what language and tools can be used to persuade local leaders. Several participants noted that it is easier to deter “bad” action than to compel “good” behavior. Clearly, the United States is not about to give up on the region, and there is hope that at least some of the countries may be “turned around” into more attractive partners.

Media freedom, rule of law and the rights of the political opposition are important factors that U.S. decision makers will be watching very closely. If the United States is not careful, having already “lost” many of the region’s leaders, it may also “lose” the opposition forces in the region–where embattled liberals may be displaced, in the long term, by Islamists of various hues.


Why did the United States talk itself into overselling the importance and potential of the Caspian basin in the mid 1990s? Several familiar factors were at work.

First, the region became a battleground for the “constant bureaucratic fight for resources” between rival agencies, who saw it as a new frontier that could be used to justify new programs. Second, the United States is a society driven and shaped by ideals, and this spills over into its foreign policy. To generate enthusiasm for a policy it has to be sold as bringing independence, democracy, prosperity and so forth. Sooner or later, of course, the gap between the rhetoric and the reality becomes apparent, and U.S. policy has to move on to the next “flavor of the month.”

Third, there is the proclivity to adopt a “one size fits all philosophy”–to assume that tried and true solutions such as a democratic constitution or trade liberalization will work just about anywhere. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.

Fourth, there is the consideration that, in the 1990s, U.S. foreign policy was primarily driven by U.S. domestic values and agendas. This is always true to some degree–many participants of the conference, for example, noted the role of the “Armenian lobby” in stymieing U.S. policy towards Azerbaijan. But the end of the Cold War in particular created a space within which thinking based in domestic concerns, and not in strategic calculations of national interest, came to the fore in Washington.


Having shifted once after September 11, U.S. policy toward the region may now once again be undergoing an important change of course. The Iraqi war has to a degree nullified the “Afghanistan effect,” in the sense that the focus of U.S. military and economic resources is now moving from Central Asia to the Gulf. At least one Central Asian leader has been told that “you are now competing with Iraq.”

It should be said that there are clear differences between the Caucasus states and those of Central Asia, although we tend to group them together as participants in the exploitation of the Caspian basin’s energy reserves. The Caucasians are more oriented towards Europe, the Central Asians more towards Asia. The former have considerably more freedom of speech than the latter. For the Caucasus the main security problem is “frozen conflicts” like Abkhazia and Karabakh, while for the Central Asians the main threat is cross-border Islamic terrorism. All the countries of the region, to varying degrees, have been keen to draw the United States and other powers into the region. They hope to gain assistance in tackling these security challenges while also balancing off the influence of Russia.

The countries of Central Asia do have a common interest in fighting Islamic fundamentalism. But they have not moved very far along in joint action to deal with the threat. In part this is because their sensitivity to the threat varies considerably. Turkmenistan, for example, did not see the Taliban as a threat at all. The peace brokered by Tajikistan’s warring parties in 1997 brought the Islamic Renaissance Party into the government–something that Uzbekistan strongly opposed, seeing the IRP as behind some of the attacks in Uzbekistan.

The new U.S. presence in the region is inevitably leading to growing militarization of the region. Much of the U.S. aid is devoted to arms procurement and military training, and the U.S. activity has triggered a renewed Russian military interest in Central Asia. The region may find itself trapped in a security dilemma. That is, the new military forces they are building up to fight terrorist groups might be seen as threatening by their neighbors, and this may spill over into inter-state conflicts–over disputed borders, for example. (One thinks of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in this context.)


Change has come too on the Russian side. Although it is less visible and dramatic than on the U.S. side, it may be even more significant.

Russia did not develop any coherent and effective policy toward Central Asia under Boris Yeltsin. It was a problem to be contained, or ignored, not an opportunity to be exploited. There has been a distinct change under Vladimir Putin. Casting aside vague and unrealistic plans for regional cooperation, Putin has worked the region in a pragmatic fashion, through bilateral deals, to create his own local “coalitions of the willing” among those ready and able to implement military cooperation, free trade, etc.

In addition, the Russian oil and gas companies have become very active players in the region, buying up assets and signing long-term delivery deals–most recently with Turkmenistan, for example. Through most of the 1990s the oligarchs were too busy fighting among themselves to play such a role beyond Russia’s borders. Now they are an active presence, with Putin’s blessing.

The arrival of U.S. military bases has stimulated Russia to upgrade its own military presence in Central Asia–through securing Kyrgyzstan’s acceptance of the stationing of rapid-reaction forces (1,500 troops, twenty aircraft) at the Kant airbase. Not all has been going well for Russia, of course. One of Putin’s major initiatives, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, was blunted by the U.S. military’s post-September 11 insertion into the region: The SCO proved totally unable to respond. And Uzbekistan, the biggest player in the region in military terms, has now almost totally severed its ties with Russia and gambles on its alliance with the United States.

Russia remains the pivotal player in blocking resolution of the “frozen conflicts” in the Caucasus. The multilateral approach that has prevailed over the past decade has not worked, and one cannot expect the conflicts to remain frozen indefinitely. Azerbaijan, for example, has been rebuilding its military with Turkish trainers, and one can easily imagine a post-Aliev scenario in which his successor, whoever he may be, chooses to go to war with Armenia to prove his political legitimacy. A similar logic could play out in Georgia. To prevent such a catastrophe, perhaps the United States should be thinking about how to “incentivize” Russia to do something to resolve these conflicts. After all, it played a positive role to that end in Tajikistan in 1997 (with Iran’s cooperation in bringing the Islamic opposition on board).

These developments lead to several interesting questions, such as: “Have we reached the point where a curtain is descending on Central Asia in terms of Russia influence?” and “Would it be bad if it did?” At least some of the U.S. participants at the conference were prepared to argue both sides of these questions. The answer in large part depends on the behavior of the region’s leaders–how they choose to govern their states, and how well they manage the transition to a new generation of leaders.

1. The conference was “not for attribution.” These comments are the author’s alone and do not reflect the views of any specific participants in the seminar, or its sponsors. The cosponsors of the conference include the following: Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies Center at the Jackson School, University of Washington, Pacific Center for Global Security in Seattle.

Peter Rutland is a professor of government at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and editor of the Russian and Eurasian Review.