The Resurgence of Russian Interests in Central Asia

By Frickenstein, Scott G. | Air & Space Power Journal, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

The Resurgence of Russian Interests in Central Asia


Frickenstein, Scott G., Air & Space Power Journal


On the blogosphere, across the airwaves, and in print, many people have opined about how the Obama administration should approach Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, and numerous other international and domestic challenges. Despite the air base eviction notice from Kyrgyzstan in February 2009, however, there has been very little public discourse about Central Asia. Practitioners and scholars of airpower realize that access to the region is essential to ongoing operations in Afghanistan. Since Russia has extensive experience in Central Asia and seeks to play a greater role there, analyzing the evolution of its policy toward Central Asia is an important precursor to developing US policy for the region. Indeed, both architects of future engagement strategies and Airmen who ultimately operate within the parameters of such partnerships should seek to grow in their understanding of the nuances of Central Asia. This article does not recommend approaches for US policy- instead, it provides historical understanding to inform policy formulation and execution.

In order to analyze Russia's policy toward Central Asia effectively, one must first understand the Soviet and Russian historical legacy in the region. Following the collapse of the USSR, Russia was initially indifferentborderline irritated, in fact- toward Central Asia. Not surprisingly, the region's fledgling nations looked for help elsewhere as they ventured out of the Soviet nest. Russia soon became aware that it had lost a great deal of influence in the region, but in the latter half of Près. Boris Yeltsin's tenure, it regained very little clout since Central Asians perceived a disconnect between Russia's "walk" and "talk." The era of Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin, witnessed both enhanced focus and rigorous reassertion of Russian authority in the region. For each of these three periods, this article analyzes the security, economic, and political aspects of Russian foreign policy toward Central Asia and concisely assesses the results of Russian efforts. Before concluding, it discusses two important developments during Dmitry Medvedev's presidency, a period of assertive Russian foreign policy that is still unfolding.

Historical Development

The term Central Asia typically refers to the five former Soviet Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Russian tsars had conquered the region by the late nineteenth century.1 The Great Game continued as Russia vied with the British Empire for greater strategic influence in Central and South Asia.2 Attempting to integrate Central Asia into their own imperial realm, the Russians invested heavily in transportation infrastructure and agriculture; under the Soviet Union, "integration and absorption advanced with new vigor."3 During the Soviet period, the region's republics supplied resources, served as places of exile, and hosted sites for nuclear testing, the development of biological weapons, and space launches.4 In 1991 leaders of the Central Asian republics declared independence from the Soviet Union.5 Since then, relations among the Central Asian nations have typically been "limited or frosty," and some nations are "outright hostile" toward each other.6 These relatively young nations often assume the position of "client states in respect to their former master" even though they are "wary of Moscow's neo-imperial ambitions."7 Regional experts attribute Russia's lingering influence more to the mixture of proximity, history, and shared culture than to adept foreign policy.8

During the new Central Asian nations' first decade of independence, US interests in the region included the security of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), internal reforms, and energy. The United States immediately began ensuring the security of the enormous former Soviet WMD complex; throughout the 1990s, the United States committed billions of dollars in aid to the region, primarily aimed at political and market reforms. …

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