Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s trip to Central Asia on October 20-21 reinvigorated the already lively discussion over the true nature of Russian-U.S. interaction in the strategic region. Most Moscow analysts tend to view Lavrov’s quick regional tour as the Kremlin’s “asymmetrical response” to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent Central Asian mission and a clear sign of the continuing geopolitical rivalry between the two countries. But some influential Russian and American foreign policy specialists point to the frequently overlooked strategic common ground in the region and call for closer cooperation between Moscow and Washington where their interests overlap.
Remarkably, during his trip Lavrov visited Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — precisely the two countries that Rice demonstratively bypassed. The talks that the Russian top diplomat held in Ashgabat and Tashkent are of vital importance for the Kremlin, a number of Russian analysts argue. Moscow, they say, is demonstrating its resolve not to cede to Washington the initiative in the tough competition over the spheres of influence in Eurasia, trying to more aggressively engage the regional countries that appear to have dropped out of the U.S. Central Asia policy’s orbit.
Russia’s interests in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan differ, but both countries are seen as extremely important for the Kremlin’s overall regional strategy. Turkmenistan is Central Asia’s principal gas exporter, and Moscow wants to be sure that its massive long-term gas pact with Ashgabat is observed. Furthermore, as a Caspian littoral state, Turkmenistan is a key player in the ongoing talks on the division of the energy-rich Caspian Sea. Politically, Turkmenistan enjoys the status of “permanent neutrality” and the country’s mercurial leader Saparmurat Niyazov has recently downgraded Ashgabat’s participation in the CIS to the level of associated membership. But Moscow appears keen, as one commentator put it, to adapt Turkmenistan’s neutrality to the interests of Russia’s regional policy by making sure that its weak association with the CIS is preserved and the country doesn’t drift away from the Russia-led grouping and toward some “alien” geopolitical alliance.
For its part, centrally located Uzbekistan, which borders all other post-Soviet Central Asian states as well as Afghanistan, seems destined to become the Kremlin’s full-blown strategic partner, now that it finds itself under severe pressure from the United States and the European Union. Russia’s growing ties with the regime of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who is increasingly seen as a pariah in the West, will likely be further buttressed by the new treaty on allied relations that is reportedly being worked out in Moscow. According to Russian sources, the draft treaty may include a clause on mutual military assistance in case of external military threats. In addition, the Kremlin believes it is high time for President Karimov to bring his country back to the Moscow-controlled Collective Security Treaty Organization.
The two high-level diplomatic visits to Central Asia from Washington and Moscow seem to add weight to the opinion that Russia and the United States are engaged in the traditional geopolitical zero-sum game. But there are some Russian experts who suggest that the American presence in volatile Central Asia is a positive factor that contributes to Russia’s security.
True, Moscow would not like to see the strengthening of U.S. positions in the region where it traditionally dominates; but it should also be clear, they add, that Russia is not prepared and in fact does not want to bear the full responsibility for securing political stability and economic development in Central Asia. Thus, the argument goes, in reality the Kremlin is interested both in preserving a “certain level” of American presence in Russia’s strategically sensitive “southern underbelly” and in maintaining some sort of partnership with the United States. One policy paper that is to appear in the next issue of the journal Rossiya v globalnoi politike even argues that in the majority of the Central Asian states Moscow should try to either share responsibility for regional stability with an outside “third force” – be it China, the United States, or the European Union – or shun this burden altogether.
Similar views were aired at the October 18 conference in Moscow that brought together foreign policy practitioners and theorists. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Yakovenko told the audience that the United States had “completely normal” energy interests in Central Asia and that there would be “normal, honest competition.” For his part, U.S. Ambassador to Moscow William Burns also chose to sound a conciliatory note. His country, Burns said, needed “humility” in its relations with Russia. He also emphasized that “whatever differences the United States and Russia may have … there is a great deal of strategic common ground that gets overlooked.”
It is not the intention or in the interest of the United States to get involved in a competition to erode Russia’s interests in Central Asia, Burns assured his Russian colleagues. Both countries, he said, have a shared interest in stability in the region.
(Kommersant, Rossiiskaya gazeta, October 20; Moscow Times, October 19; Kreml.org, October 17; Polit.ru, October 10)