Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Russia in Central Asia: The Dynamics of Great-Power Politics in a Volatile Region

Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Russia in Central Asia: The Dynamics of Great-Power Politics in a Volatile Region

Article excerpt

Russia's assertive strategy in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea under the pretense of protecting ethnic Russians and Russian speakers present new challenges to the fragile Central Asian countries along Russia's southern border. In this article I analyze Russia's recent efforts to strengthen its influence in Cen- tral Asia and evaluate the prospects for the Chinese and US pres- ence in the region. Under Vladimir Putin's leadership, Russia is using hard and soft power-military, economic, and cultural levers-to secure a hegemonic position in what Moscow consid- ers its sphere of privileged interests. Russian influence in Central Asia may increase in the near future, but China's economic power and diplomatic skill are likely to give it an advantage over the long term.

Central Asia figures in the strategic calculations of the world's great powers as well as of key aspiring middle-ranked countries. Geographically, two major powers-Russia and China-border on this region and have vital interests there. Iran and Turkey have cultural, economic, and historical ties to Central Asia; for India and Pakistan, post-Soviet Central Asia's links to Afghanistan make it an extension of their bitter rivalry. The European Union's strategy has been pursued through a normative agenda that pro- motes European values of democracy, good governance, and human rights. The United States, though geographically distant from the region, has been deeply invested in the political stabil- ity and economic development of Central Asia through Interna- tional Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operations in Afghan- istan. As the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) scale back operations, the potential for political instability, religious extremism, and ethnic conflict prom- ise to make Central Asia more rather than less important in global politics in the near future.

The great powers in Central Asia-Russia, China, the United States, and the European Union (EU)-face changing opportuni- ties and constraints two decades after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Notwithstanding underlying tensions over long-term secu- rity concerns, Russia and China have engaged in a balancing strat- egy against the United States in Central Asia, based on fear of US regional dominance and a desire to protect the authoritarian status quo. US foreign policy seeks-albeit not very successfully-to balance security and democracy promotion goals. The EU, in con- trast, prefers a values-based soft-power approach to using tradi- tional instruments of great-power statecraft.

Central Asia's vulnerable states hedge their bets through mul- tivector policies that avoid subordination to any of the major pow- ers, ensuring a surprising degree of independence in their foreign relations. These strategies exemplify Randall Schweller's trench- ant observation that "balancing is driven by the desire to avoid losses; bandwagoning by the opportunity for gain" (Schweller 1994, 74). The small isolated states of Central Asia have proven adept in responding to opportunities stemming from regional great-power competition.

I argue that Russia under Vladimir Putin is pursuing a newly invigorated strategy to exercise its prerogatives as a regional great power. As US and NATO forces draw down in Afghanistan, the US and European positions and influence in Central Asia will decline. The EU's normative approach toward democratic trans- formation is unlikely to prove effective with authoritarian Central Asian leaders, who are determined to preserve their hold on power and maintain stability at all costs. Moscow will take advan- tage of a diminishing Western presence to acquire new sources of influence along the southern periphery, as it has in Ukraine. How- ever, China's steady economic penetration and skilled diplomacy give Beijing a regional advantage over the long term.

Realist Theory and Central Asia

A Competitive Arena

Great-power interactions in Central Asia are often described as a new "Great Game," reminiscent of the nineteenth-century compe- tition between Britain and Russia. …

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