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Central Asia: Although they are geopolitical and economic competitors in Central Asia, Russia and the U.S. share an interest in combating the rise of Islamist extremism in that area. The region is ruled by secular autocrats, and the form of Islam practiced widely in Central Asia is largely resistant to extremism. However, jihadist groups with goals inimical to those of Washington and Moscow have now taken root in all five countries of Central Asia. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is perhaps the most prominent jihadist group, emerging in 1998 with the stated goal of overthrowing the Uzbek regime and installing an Islamic state. The IMU is allied with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and maintains a presence in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. More generally, the U.S. and Russia have an interest in promoting state-sponsored forms of moderate Islam and combating efforts by established jihadist organizations to recruit from and gain a foothold in the Central Asian Republics.
Moscow and Washington also share an interest in seeing the Republic of Kyrgyzstan protect and maintain its sovereignty — a sovereignty challenged by Uzbekistan. Relations between Kyrgyzstan and its large, dominating neighbor have long been acrimonious, and the two have clashed over energy, border claims, and military basing. Ethnic Uzbeks (many of whom are recent arrivals who squatted on unused Uzbek farmland) make up some 15 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population and are concentrated heavily in the south. Quiet cooperation between Moscow and Washington during the recent coup and subsequent fighting in Kyrgyzstan underscores our common interests.
Since Uzbekistan’s eviction of U.S. forces from their Karshi-Khanabad (K2) air base in 2005, Kyrgyzstan has hosted the only U.S. air base (Manas) in the region — a facility vital to the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. Roughly 15,000 personnel and 500 tons of cargo transit through Manas every month, and the base serves as the principal aerial refueling hub for the coalition war effort. While Moscow previously pressured the Kyrgyz government to close the U.S. base, the Kremlin now seems comfortable with our temporary war-related presence there as well as America’s use of Russian airspace to supply our troops in Afghanistan. However, this position, now under attack by Moscow hard-liners, will likely remain a bargaining chit in American/Russian negotiations.
One important component of China’s rise on the world stage has been its growing influence in Central Asia. To date, China’s primary interest in the region has been energy. Chinese state-owned enterprises, investment groups, and sovereign wealth funds have been snapping up Central Asian companies and the rights to Central Asian resources as well as laying the infrastructure to import oil and gas from the region. China has been very active in closing significant energy-related deals in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
Columbia University’s Alexander Cooley noted that in 2009, for the first time, Chinese trade with Central Asia exceeded that of Russia. At least in the near future, Russia’s economic importance in Central Asia will continue to decline relative to China’s. For Russia, the question will be: Are Moscow’s interests best protected with or without American (and Western) involvement in the region? Or, alternatively: Should Russia and China try to keep everyone else out of Central Asia? And what of American interest in supplying our troops, keeping fundamentalists out of power, and giving our companies an even playing field? Is America best served by any one country (i.e., China or Russia ) being dominant in Central Asia?
Georgia: Conversations in official circles are replete with references to the need to “settle Russia’s score” with Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili. He will be “repaid” for starting the war that disturbed the 15-year (see below) status quo with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Additionally, the Russian leadership has not forgiven him for turning his back on Russia after seeking and receiving Russian help in his successful effort to remove then Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze from office. This grudge may not, however, extend to the Georgian state. With a new Georgian leadership, Russia’s relationship with Georgia could normalize. However, as long as Saakashvili rules, Georgian/Russian relations are destined to remain very tense.
Another potential headache for Saakashvili lies with Georgia’s Armenian communities (about 7 percent of the Georgian population), who are increasingly dissatisfied with their lack of prerogatives.
Georgia’s Lost Territories: Many times during both the Czarist and Soviet eras, the Ossetians and Abkhaz made serious efforts to end Georgian administrative control over their territories. They preferred administrative control by Moscow because they disliked the Georgians far more than they disliked the Russians. It was, therefore, no surprise that, shortly before the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, both areas launched insurrections (supported by Moscow) that, by 1993, gave them de facto independence from Georgia. That status quo remained until Saakashvili triggered the 2008 war that led to the little-recognized independence of both South Ossetia (pop. 70,000) and Abkhazia (pop. 180,000). Today, as in Russia, almost all Abkhaz and South Ossetian officials have a KGB background and feel very comfortable working with their former colleagues of the Russian intelligence services.
In assessing Abkhazia’s future, it should be remembered that Abkhazia existed for 54 years as a nominally independent principality under the protection of Czarist Russia before being formally annexed in 1864.
Almost no one in Russia contemplates returning Abkhazia to a sovereign Georgia. But is annexation to Russia in the cards? Probably, but Russia can well afford to bide its time, as it did in the 19th century.
The fate of South Ossetia will likely be the same. Its memory of the 5,000 Ossetians killed before the end of its war with Georgia in 1922 as well as deaths in other Ossetian/Georgian struggles leading up to the 2008 fighting remains too vivid for it to peacefully become part of Georgia. Further, Russian military support of South Ossetia (and Abkhazia) means certain defeat for Georgia should it attempt to use force to regain lost territory.
Ukraine: Contrary to U.S. interests, Russia would like, at a minimum, to treat Ukraine almost as it treated Eastern Europe during the Cold War. At a maximum, however improbable today, it would like to see Ukraine once again as part of Russia. The steps toward either goal are the same, and the first steps have already been taken.
The election of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich as the new Ukrainian president has already resulted in a 25-year (to 2042) extension of Russia’s lease of the Sevastopol Naval Base located in the Russian-speaking Ukrainian province of Crimea. If Russia has its way, the Yanukovich presidency will: 1) facilitate continued Russian economic penetration of Ukraine; 2) slowly move Ukrainian democratic and human rights standards closer to the Russian model; and 3) discourage Western political involvement in Ukraine.
Independent of this effort, Moscow plans to build a bridge from Russian territory to Crimea. Further, as the Crimean population is now dependent on water from Ukraine, there are discussions in Moscow on the possibility of supplying Crimea’s water from Russian territory.
Finally, Russia is building a gas pipeline system that will permit it to deliver gas to Europe without going through the territory of Ukraine. This South Stream pipeline is projected to be completed in 2016. Then Russia will have the capability to squeeze Ukraine by raising gas prices while depriving it of transit fee revenue, both unsettling thoughts for Kiev given Ukraine’s weak economy.
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