Monday, August 11, 2008

The Georgia Factor in Central Asia: What lessons will the Region’s Leaders Take Away from the South Ossetia Crisis?

Tank in Georgia

The only leverage the US has ever had in Central Asia relates to our implicit counter-balance to Russia. The Central Asians have lived under Moscow’s shadow for decades, and they have constantly sought ways to slowly distance themselves from Russian control. With the fall of the U.S.S.R., the U.S. presented itself as the obvious source for counterbalancing Russia in the region. While no Central Asian states have been prepared to bank on the United States entirely as an alternative to Russia in the region, America’s presence has meant that the Central Asian states do not always need to take marching orders from Moscow. No Central Asian state, therefore, has been prepared to turn its back entirely on the U.S. As soon as Uzbekistan found out what it meant to be entirely isolated from the west after Andijan, for example, it looked to re-establish relations with the U.S. Likewise, other Central Asian states have always made just enough concessions to American interests to keep us engaged.

While the U.S. has not always taken full advantage of this leverage (witness our complete inability to engage a post-Turkmanbashi Turkmenistan in a meaningful way), it has led to what has been a mutually beneficial relationship between the U.S. and the Central Asian states. In the early 1990s, Kazakhstan let western oil companies in to develop its oil fields at the exclusion of Russia, and after September 11th, both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan went out on a limb to allow the U.S. to set up airbases on their territory, an act, which annoyed the Russians to no end. Most importantly to the Central Asians, however, engaging the Americans has always allowed them a means to circumvent Russia when they really needed to do so. Perhaps the biggest advantage to the Central Asians in this regard has related to their export of energy resources. While the region remains dependent upon Russia for the transport of their oil and gas exports, the involvement of the west in the extraction of natural resources has limited Russia’s ability to completely low-ball the Central Asians on the price of their energy resources and the terms of their transport.

The recent conflict between Georgia and Russia, however, may change these geopolitical dynamics in Central Asia entirely. Everybody in the former USSR considers Georgia to be one of America’s closest allies in the region, and they are all watching to see what the U.S. can actually do to help Georgia as it faces a Russian onslaught. This is not to say that most former Soviet citizens, Central Asians included, are cheering the Georgian side in the conflict – in fact, the contrary is true. Fed a regular diet of Russian news and information, most people likely view Georgia as the aggressor. The Central Asian media, for its part (even the opposition press), has been generally silent on the conflict. But, nonetheless, one has to think that the Central Asian leaders are watching carefully to see how strong a partner the U.S. actually can be in the face of Russian agression.

If Russia succeeds, after it has bombed strategic sites inside Georgia, in emerging from this conflict without any substantial repercussions (which it probably will), the Central Asian leaders will inevitably see the U.S. as a weak partner, unable of providing support when a country faces a Russian onslaught. The Russians will also likely capitalize on this sentiment by reminding Central Asian leaders that they cannot rely on the U.S. and that Russia is the only power able to provide them security. Furthermore, Russia will be embolden to dictate to Central Asians all the more, since – if the Americans cannot help Georgia, they will definitely do little against Russian aggression in Central Asia. And, the United States is unable to act any differently because – as with China – we have put ourselves in a position where we cannot outwardly defy Russia, especially in an armed conflict. We have burned too many bridges internationally by provoking conflicts ourselves, and we have become too invested in Russia’s economic success.

As a result, U.S. leverage in Central Asia can be expected to diminish substantially. Central Asian leaders will only become less trusting of relations with America and less tolerant of U.S. efforts to engage them on democratic reforms. In short, the conflict in Georgia is likely to have serious ramifications that reach far beyond the imaginary borders of South Ossetia. It has the power to reinforce a long-held belief in Central Asia, and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, that western liberalism is not a realistic path for former Soviets to follow. The only path to follow is one dictated by Moscow and the Kremlin. Whether one likes it or not, that path will be understood popularly in Central Asia, even more than it is now, as the region’s fate.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

so what will be the implications for upcoming SCO Summit?

12:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Relations between Central Asia and the United States are already diminishing. Kyrgyzstan wants the United States out and there has been a populist movement to close down Manas. Russia has revealted four more facilities at its Kant airbase.

The Central Asian Republics can't rely on the West for foreign investment unless you have tons of gold (thanks Canada), or goods, or humanitarian aid for that matter. If you ask me, the West has turned its back on Central Asia, and it was only a matter of time before they returned to the arms of the Kremlin.

Also, it seems like all of the Central Asian Republics are starting to turn to China despite SCO relations.

Thanks and keep up the good work!

1:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Georgia is being a good ally. Their militaries (mostly special combat forces) were trained by US instructors. Moreover, it should be noted that numerous military officials (various types) are very welcome in that Eastern European country.

This is very important for at least two major reasons: controlling possible Iraq related problems in the circle and the preparation of strong military (air) base if conflict with Iran gets inevitably escalated.
Soon or later US troops will be leaving Iraq. It will be time for Iraqis to demonstrate whether they are still capable to handle the granted freedom, civil (elected) government and human rights. It would be foolish to think that there will be all problems settled between fighting clerical and ethnic sides. Their inability to get over the 7th century theological and sectarian disputes for the sake of their future generations is already witnessed by international societies. There is a good chance for spreading that political chaos in the region and beyond negatively affecting US political allies, geo-political and economic interests.

Therefore, certain US troops should be stationed in close vicinity but with friendly and cooperative environment – such as Georgia. In general, with US and NATO assistance Georgia has already modernized existing military bases and infrastructure according to NATO standards.

Re-deployment of limited US immediate response forces in Georgia would be a win-win solution for both sides. For the US it is a long-term solution to control Iran-Iraq situation on constant bases and expand air defense system capacity being developed in Eastern Europe. It also will be advantageous for US to monitor Russian wrongdoings from closer distance.

For Georgia it would be a definite plus to have its airspace controlled by US and NATO allies. This would chill down Russian ambitions to act as a nasty player against Georgia, US and NATO countries. The eradication of Russia from the Eastern European (Southern Caucasian) political map would make all types of separatists more modest, talkative and cooperative to settle disputes by the means of negotiation in West reintegrated sovereign Georgia.

11:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to disagree wholeheartedly. Having the US and NATO in Georgia will not "chill down Russian ambitions" it would just antagonize Russia more. If this were to occur, Russia would feel more threatened than it already does. Russia is not afraid to pick fights big or small.

The US monitoring Russian wrongdoings will once again make Russia mad. I don't know why people find it so hard to understand that Russia is tired of foreign influence being in it is periphery or sphere of influence.

The Russian bear is out of its cage, and guess what? It is pissed.

12:58 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

View My Stats