Eurasia Reimagined

Kyrgyz women and children pray inside a tent at the outskirts of Osh on August 20, 2010.

As Kyrgyzstan descended into chaos after President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in April 2010, most observers were focused on the fate of the key U.S. airbase there. They feared that Moscow had orchestrated the unrest as revenge for Bakiyev reneging on his alleged promise to shut down the base and would now demand that the new government follow through on that pledge. But instead of indulging in geopolitical gamesmanship as usual, Russia and the United States actually worked together, pursuing back-channel talks that facilitated Bakiyev’s safe escape into exile. Periodic consultations since April have thus far managed to prevent conflict between the Cold War adversaries in the one country where both have military outposts. This marked a tectonic shift in the geopolitics of Eurasia. For the first time in over a decade, what Russia calls its "near abroad" was a locus of cooperation, not confrontation, between Russia and the United States.

This shift has opened a window of opportunity to fundamentally rethink U.S. foreign policy in Eurasia — a term used here to refer to the countries of the greater Black Sea region and Central Asia — a strategically situated area with massive natural resource wealth and great economic potential. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has formulated its approach to countries as diverse as Azerbaijan and Ukraine through a Russia-centric lens; U.S. policy toward the region as a whole became a function of its plans for dealing with Moscow. Although Washington focused on ensuring Eurasian states’ independence in the 1990s, the past decade saw U.S. policy toward these countries devolve, becoming mired in outright U.S-Russia strategic competition. Although that competitive dynamic has diminished significantly over the past year and a half, its legacy still defines Washington’s engagement with the states of the region.

U.S. policymakers must abandon the tired Russia-centric tack and develop new individualized approaches to the states of the greater Black Sea region and Central Asia. By treating each country based on its merits, as opposed to approaching the region as a set of contested territories, Washington can serve long-term U.S. interests and avoid re-creating a nineteenth-century-style Great Game. The Obama administration may have "reset" relations with Russia, but it must now develop a clear parallel strategy to reimagine its policies toward Eurasia — ones tailored to the specific U.S. interests at stake in each country and transparent to all other states.

In the first few years following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the United States embraced Boris Yeltsin’s Russia as an aspiring market democracy — a stance that entailed prioritizing relations with Moscow over ties with other regional capitals. But soon the U.S.-Russia relationship soured, largely as a result of Russian meddling in the affairs of the other newly independent states. So-called Russian peacekeeping missions in Georgia, Moldova, and Tajikistan came to resemble military occupations, while Moscow at times openly supported separatist movements in areas with high concentrations of ethnic Russians, such as Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and northern Kazakhstan. Russian elites clearly had not reconciled themselves to their neighbors’ independence. As Moscow’s ambassador to Washington put it in 1993, Russia’s relations with Ukraine were to be like "New York’s with New Jersey." In short, the sovereignty of the newly independent former Soviet republics was under genuine threat.

The United States moved to counter this threat and prevent a Russian-led anti-Western bloc from emerging in the Soviet Union’s wake. Although Washington claimed it was interested in bolstering state sovereignty, encouraging regional and international integration, promoting democratic governance, and supporting economic reform, it was, in fact, mostly concerned with the first goal. In the Caucasus and Central Asia, the United States pushed for new pipelines that would break Russia’s export monopoly and provide both producer and transit countries independent revenue streams. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline heading from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey was considered by many in Washington, as the scholars Svante Cornell and Mamuka Tsereteli put it, "a crucial factor in building true sovereignty and independence for these states and enabling them to freely choose their foreign and security policy strategy and orientation." The U.S. military embarked on bilateral defense cooperation with most of the states of the region, in large part to groom a new generation of officers whose worldview would not be Moscow-centric. Aid budgets were apportioned in order to prevent a Russian resurgence: despite being home to half the population of the newly independent states, Russia received only 17 percent of assistance funds earmarked for the region in 1998.

By the end of the 1990s, this independence-minded strategy had largely succeeded. Although territorial disputes and so-called frozen conflicts remained threats to regional security — and some in the Kremlin harbored dreams of "gathering the lands" like their imperial predecessors — the independence of Russia’s neighbors had been firmly established. At the same time, however, then Russian President Vladimir Putin began to assert Moscow’s influence throughout the region in ways that set off alarm bells in the West. Likewise, "color" revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, which brought ostensibly pro-Western leaders to power, and the George W. Bush administration’s decision to champion these leaders angered the Kremlin. As a result, competition between Washington and Moscow quickly spun out of control.

Washington pushed for accelerated NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine not based on the contributions they could make to the alliance but to prevent Russian dominance in the region. The new governments in Kiev and Tbilisi were largely democratic, but Washington also embraced authoritarian regimes willing to push back against Russian influence. This doctrine was most vividly demonstrated when then U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney delivered a blistering critique of Russia’s political system in Lithuania in 2006, referring to the Baltic states as the "very front lines of freedom in the modern world," and then promptly boarded a plane to Kazakhstan for energy and security talks with President Nursultan Nazarbayev — a leader not known for his democratic credentials. This new Great Game — one that incorporated not just Central Asia but also the Caucasus, Ukraine, Moldova, and even Belarus — was in full swing. The August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, which Moscow saw as a U.S. proxy state, was its climax.

Playing the game not only brought Washington to the brink of confrontation with Moscow but also distorted the United States’ priorities in Eurasia and hollowed out U.S. relationships with states in the region. Instead of forging long-term partnerships, the United States simply sought leverage, neglecting aspects of engagement that provided no benefit in the push and pull with Moscow. U.S. policymakers went out of their way to downplay human rights concerns with the region’s autocrats for fear of pushing them into Russia’s embrace. Indeed, by treating the states of Eurasia as little more than spoils to be won or convenient clubs for clobbering the Kremlin, the U.S. government gave all the region’s leaders a trump card in their dealings with Washington: the threat of "turning to Moscow."

Nearly two decades of this approach conditioned the way regional leaders see the United States and the world. Eurasia’s elites still view their countries as pawns on a grand chessboard, as opposed to fully fledged sovereign states with independent policies. Many genuinely believe that, despite the Soviet Union’s collapse, the zero-sum game between Washington and Moscow continues unabated and that their countries’ future will inevitably be decided within that framework. The Ukrainian government has, for example, passed a law establishing its "non-bloc" status, a Cold War-era notion that is all the more antiquated in the context of improving relations between NATO and Russia. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan recently threatened to "look to the north" after being sidelined from the U.S.-led effort to normalize relations between Armenia and Turkey last year.

Now that U.S.-Russian strategic competition has subsided, Washington should be able to reformulate its policy toward the states of Eurasia. A new strategy should be based on three principles. First, U.S. policy toward these countries should be predicated on their respective merits. In seeing Eurasia primarily through a Russia-centric lens, policymakers and analysts have avoided the basic question of what U.S. interests are at stake in a given bilateral relationship beyond a country’s utility as a bulwark against potential Russian expansionism. A revised approach to Eurasia must begin with a sober assessment of a country’s assets, such as geographic position, natural resource base, trade opportunities, economic potential, diplomatic influence, and security capacities, as well as liabilities, such as corruption, instability, and susceptibility to transnational threats.

Washington should also pay far less attention to leaders’ pronouncements of geopolitical loyalty and cease lavishing attention on countries just because their leaders declare themselves pro-Western. Instead, U.S. policymakers need to maximize the potential of strategic partnerships with these countries even if their elites proclaim fealty to Moscow. Most of all, this approach means engaging with Eurasian countries themselves rather than using them as bargaining chips with Russia or other powers. There are ample reasons to get involved with the region for its own sake, in areas ranging from transcontinental trade development to the mitigation of ethnic strife.

Second, the United States should engage the states of Eurasia not only when it comes to security and natural resources but also diplomatically, economically, and culturally. Very limited exchanges funded by the State Department, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and other institutions have done wonders to build human capital and encourage diversified development in Eurasia since the end of the Cold War. Exchanges and conferences involving students, mid-career government officials, entrepreneurs, musicians, and journalists should not be relegated to second-tier status when engaging states such as Azerbaijan, Moldova, or Uzbekistan.

Third, U.S. policy in the region should emphasize transparency, while simultaneously rejecting Russian notions of "spheres of influence" and antiquated zero-sum arguments from Eurasian governments. Washington should be unapologetic about its involvement but should also be open to cooperation with Russia on issues of mutual interest, such as the mitigation of transnational threats and Caspian maritime security. Substantive but pointedly nonconfrontational engagement will increase U.S. influence in Eurasian affairs and give Moscow an opportunity to extract itself from the zero-sum trap, while at the same time raising the costs of playing the role of spoiler in the region.

When the United States tries to best Russia in a geopolitical tit-for-tat in Eurasia, both Washington and the region lose. As a result of its geographic position and history, Russia will inevitably win a head-to-head competition with the United States for influence in the area. Russian leaders, for example, will always visit Baku and Dushanbe more often than their U.S. counterparts. The only way for Washington to "win" is not to play the game. 

Instead, the United States should build substantive relationships with the countries of the greater Black Sea region and Central Asia, providing tangible security, diplomatic, and economic benefits for the United States and Eurasian countries, while allowing for more effective support of representative government. The people of Eurasia would also benefit because local elites could stop thinking about their countries as geopolitical pawns and instead focus on economic development, institution building, and regional cooperation.

The strategic and humanitarian crisis in Kyrgyzstan has opened a window of opportunity to reimagine U.S. policy in Eurasia and demonstrated the perils of the zero-sum approach. By reducing U.S. policy toward Kyrgyzstan in recent years to little more than a bidding war with Moscow over basing rights, Washington found itself bolstering a brittle, corrupt regime, thus helping to create the conditions for the recent unrest. Genuine engagement of the country would have shored up key governance institutions while still ensuring the durability of basing arrangements.

A failure to develop new frameworks for U.S. policy in Eurasia will not only preclude substantive engagement with the countries of the region but also inevitably renew strategic competition with Moscow. Such a new round of tug-of-war in the region would once again force the United States to focus its policies on countering the Kremlin, which would likely spell the end of the Obama administration’s reset of U.S.-Russian relations.

Washington must change its policies now to prevent this outcome; the window to reshape U.S. policy in Eurasia is open, but it will not remain so indefinitely.

Samuel Charap is a Fellow in the National Security and International Policy Program at the Center for American Progress. Alexandros Petersen is Senior Fellow with the Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. This article was published by Foreign Affairs. Photo credit: Getty.

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