February 19, 2009
Alexandros Petersen

Alexandros Petersen, Dinu Patriciu Fellow for Transatlantic Energy Security and associate director of the Energy and Environment Program at the Atlantic Council, wrote an editorial for today's Guardian titled "Balancing Power in Eurasia."

The full text is provided below.

Barack Obama announced on Tuesday that the US would commit 17,000 more troops in an effort to stabilise Afghanistan. DC's renewed focus on the region comes coupled with broader shifts in foreign policy. The most profound of these was articulated by vice-president Joe Biden at last week's Munich security conference: a resetting of relations with regional powerbroker Russia. But by focusing on Russia – a country with its own troubled history in Afghanistan – the Obama administration must be careful to avoid leaving vital regional partners out in the cold.

Russia's aggressive stance toward its Eurasian neighbours is not likely to change as a result of US overtures. From the standpoint of decision-makers in Moscow, western-leaning governments in Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan pose a threat to Russia's security and prestige. This is a posture born just as much from the inherently suspicious worldview of intelligence agents-turned-policymakers – the siloviki – as it is from traditional Russian worries of geopolitical encirclement. Just days before Biden's remarks, the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation – until now a lacklustre talking shop of post-Soviet states – agreed to set up a rapid reaction force to combat "threats and challenges" in Eurasia.

US partners in the region are now legitimately concerned about whether their policies fall into that category. Georgia's government – with overwhelming popular support – has staked its all on European-style governance reforms, free market development and eventual Nato and EU membership. Azerbaijan, and its energy-rich neighbours across the Caspian, are crucial sources of oil and natural gas for western markets in desperate need of diversification.

While they have hinted at thinking in this direction, Obama and his team will have to make sure that the US and Nato remain engaged in Eurasia, both as an alternative to the countries of the region and for the dual security of Europe and Afghanistan. The space between those theatres is increasingly as important as the areas themselves. Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan provide essential supply routes for Nato forces in Afghanistan, and will become all the more important as the US ratchets up its military and development presence in the country. Despite their comfortable lives, the security of European citizens will remain in doubt as long as the countries of the Black Sea-Caspian region find themselves in geopolitical limbo.

Finally, the threat of transnational actors moving across the vast Eurasian space should be a global concern. Here, the US and Russia do hold significant common interests: in securing porous borders and combating smuggling, organised crime and extremist networks. And both can take advantage of the regional leadership of Kazakhstan, which has taken on border security as the flagship issue for its 2010 chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Opportunities for genuine east-west co-operation exist, but whatever their configuration, they require a key role for the US and western institutions in Eurasia.

Since Obama's victory in November, Moscow has been sending mixed messages to Washington and European capitals. This may reflect a genuine opening for a relations reset, but it most likely represents a deft "good cop, bad cop" approach on the part of Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin. In response, the US and its Nato allies would do well to speak with one voice. Biden's words were an important olive branch, but Obama must make it clear to the Kremlin that co-operation with the US comes with the trade-off of a greater western presence in Russia's backyard.