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If I only had a heartland…

September 29, 2011

It is no secret that Russia’s military forces, particularly the land forces, are reorienting themselves towards the “southern” front of the Caucasus and Central Asia. While so much discussion of these factors is couched in the language of neo-Soviet imperium and concern with Russian expansion, it bears remembering that the security dynamics of Central Asia are far less about a Manichean struggle of Russia versus the West than the US and commentators often choose to view it.

As Joshua Kucera points out at EurasiaNet’s Bug Pit:

Is Russia Training Kazakhstan’s Military To Protect American Oil From Iranian Attack?

That’s the provocative conclusion reached by the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, which seems to have gotten a hold of a document discussing the scenario of the Tsentr-2011 military exercises between Russia and several Central Asian countries that wrapped up today. The newspaper printed a map, purportedly related to the exercise, which envisages a joint Russian-Kazakhstan force in the Caspian Sea repelling an attack from the south — from the southeast, “up to 70 F-4s and F-5s” and from the southwest, “up to 30 F-4s, F-5s and Su-25s.” Well, a quick look around the militaries of the southern part of the Caspian Sea that have those sorts of aircraft brings one to only one conclusion: it’s Iran. (You can see scans of the documents, in Russian, here.)

Now, this does not mean that the entire world is interested in joining the US in a crusade against Iran – far from it – but it does demonstrate that the calculations of Russia and CSTO countries in determining their security agendas is complex and contingent on the array of forces and threats within the region.

Unfortunately, it is easy for our preconceived assumptions to function as blinders in foreign policy. In reality, the US interest in Central Asia, while strong, should not be viewed in the same way as in Europe or East Asia. For decades, the US assumption has been that the path to peace and the furtherance of US objectives has been hegemonic stability under benign US supervision. These models seemed to yield good results in the westernmost and easternmost rimlands of Eurasia during the Cold War and post-Cold War, and the US has become used to the idea that if not for its oversight and presence, a region would inevitably fall under the sway of a deeply hostile power or produce anarchy which would inevitably entangle the US later.

Of course, the entire notion that the US ever could become the new decisive military power in Central Asia has always been a fantasy vision. By virtue of its geography, it is impossible for the US to maintain lines of communication to Central Asian states except at the behest of powers such as Russia, Pakistan, China, or Iran. Quite simply, there is absolutely no way an offshore maritime hegemon and its coalition can cost-effectively maintain the kind of presence they do in an area such as Europe in Central Asia. Yet, as Joshua Foust so incisively noted, predictions of horror besetting the region in America’s absence have been a constant drumbeat in geopolitical commentary for years. Zbiginew Brzezinski’s “Eurasian Balkans” concept helped spawn whole genre of sundry fears, including but not limited to Uzbeks becoming some sort of neo-jihadist Timurid dynasty, an influx of radical Chechens, oil wars and all kinds of other geopolitical phantasmagoria. Yet the region remains surprisingly stable, as Foust emphasizes.

Instead, Russia remains deeply concerned about maintaining some semblance of the security status quo, both against external threats, such as Iranian intervention, as well as internal threats, which range from jihadist groups to protest movements. The reality is, as Foust points out, that there is a viable potential hegemon and concert of power system to maintain order in Central Asia. The problem for many Americans is that, in utterly logical fashion, it is the neighboring continental power and its counterrevolutionary cohort of former colonies. Despite the quixotic nature of an offshore power’s attempt to stabilize a landlocked part of Eurasia, US and even European analysts too often cling to fantastical notions of a new great game, a new silk road, or a new concert of Western-aligned powers to exploit this Eurasian heartland. Yet an insistence on taking up the security burdens of the region, or the denial of that burden to the one power bloc currently capable of undertaking it in a manner at least somewhat amenable to US interests, actually drains the resources and diplomatic ability of the US to effectively invest in the sort of economic programs that might actually benefit the West, albeit in a less dramatic fashion than the self-proclaimed Mackinderites and the like envision. Those American-owned, Russian-defended oil fields in Kazakhstan are a much better approximation of the grand strategic division of labor in the region than Afghanistan is currently.

Ultimately, if the US continues to choose to antagonize Russia and the principles the CSTO upholds (and the CSTO is certainly not comfortable with the Arab Spring, R2P, or rethinking the prerogatives of the sovereign), it will be to the benefit of countries such as Iran, Pakistan, and China. Insisting on a power vacuum the US cannot sustainably fill will simply create opportunity for the region’s other neighbors to expand their interests. Compared to Iran, Pakistan, and China, Russia’s foreign policy stance towards the US is far less problematic. Russia is not a major state sponsor of terror against US troops, or a persistent threat to open sea lines of communication. Nor, for all its ugliness, is the state of human rights and well-being in Russia so much worse than those states (or indeed those of many of our client states). Russia also has common fears – it would not like to see Iran or Pakistan running rampant in Central Asia, nor would it like to see China gain an overwhelming advantage – and it has strong ties with India to boot.

When the US withdraws from Afghanistan – and eventually it will – the notion of a major military or security effort to stabilize Central Asia, or concerted attempts to marginalize Russia’s influence to do the same should wither away with the troop presence. Economic and political means are not going to produce the kind of results the US has seen in Europe and East Asia, but such an approach simply is not possible in the heart of the continent. Recognizing the important military role Russia will play is a vital step in this de-militarization of the US presence in Central Asia. While Russia may not exactly what we want, Americans should consider that what Russia wants the US could very well live with in comfort and safety.

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