The U.S - Russia Rapprochement and consequences for Central Asia – Part 1.

Russia and the United States have recently taken important visible steps to resolve many of their long-standing differences in a fundamental realignment of the relationship.

28th Jan 2011

Russia and the United States have recently taken important visible steps to resolve many of their long-standing differences in a fundamental realignment of the relationship. The Obama administration has signed a new arms limitation agreement with Russia, and it is reported that Washington has scaled down its support for the Georgian military. In turn, Moscow has made several symbolic moves to underscore the Kremlin’s willingness to engage in a more friendly relationship with the U.S., and in a historic gesture of good will invited NATO forces to participate in the May 9 Victory Day celebration, and, most important, took tangible, practical steps in the U.S.’s direction. In August 2010, the U.S. and Russian air forces engaged in a military exercise together for the first time in both countries’ histories.

Another important development is Russia’s joining anti-Iranian sanctions – a move that has changed their approach to Tehran in a most drastic way. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS) For example, Russia has finally scrapped previous agreements to send Iran sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles—one of the clearest signs of a most tangible turn to the U.S. One might add here that the recent sacking of Yuri Luzhkov, the powerful Moscow boss, will increase the power of President Dmitry Medvedev, who - much more than Vladimir Putin - regards Russia as a part of the West and is looking for a better relationship with the U.S. in particular. Two major factors lay behind these signs of goodwill. First, Washington senses a risk of serious overstretch of the U.S. global imperial presence. Second, not just Washington but also Moscow understands that both the U.S. and Russia face a common threat, which makes cooperation essential.

Both sides have taken some concrete steps toward each other, and members of both the American and Russian political elite have made many statements about the importance of cooperation. Still, the actions of both countries are sometimes contradictory; and suspicions of each other’s interests are deeply engrained in the minds of many. Not only is there not much trust between Russia and the United States, but there are also serious problems with the Central Asian countries. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS) Many of these states have no trust in either the U.S. or Russia; in addition, they also are in conflict with each other. All of this makes an efficient attempt to stabilize Central Asia – including Afghanistan - and the regions beyond questionable regardless of the fact that chaos and the spread of Islamism would creat serious problems for all the countries engaged in the area.

Background: Throughout late Soviet and post-Soviet history—spanning over almost a generation—the Soviet/Russian-American relationship has in most cases been shaped by the White House, whose occupants, regardless of their political affiliation, believed that the U.S. had won the Cold War and that the U.S.- as the only existing superpower - could expand geopolitically, paying little attention to the other, former, superpower. Already during the Clinton era, NATO had expanded to the East despite objections on Russia’s part, and in 1999 struck Serbia despite vehement Russian protests. George W. Bush followed in Bill Clinton’s footsteps. The U.S. fought wars in Iraq and, later, in Afghanistan, despite strong Russian protests; and Russian pundits asserted that the U.S. invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction but was prompted by a U.S. desire to hold on to the strategically important and oil-rich Middle East.

U.S. global expansion was conducted with the assumption that the American economy could sustain several regional wars and also prepare for a possible wider conflict. It was also assumed that the wars would be over quickly. This assumption was illusionary and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan became not only protracted but extremely expensive conflicts. At the same time, the economic downturn in the U.S., reinforced by an increasing budget deficit, makes the two wars and, in fact, the entire panoply of global military expansion, increasingly unsupportable. Retreat, masked as pragmatism, has become unavoidable.

Indeed, despite the possibility of Iraq returning to chaos, the rise of Islamic extremism and the increasing influence of Iran, which possibly would share the domination of Iraq with increasingly Islam-oriented Turkey (and which could well be engaged in controlling the Kurdish North) - the U.S. withdrew most of its combat forces from that country. It is quite unlikely that any occupant of the White House would reverse the process and redeploy the troops even if the situation in Iraq would deteriorate precipitously. Most likely Washington would remain passive, as was the case in 1973-1975 during the last stages of the Vietnam War, when North Vietnam and the Viet Cong started to push their way to Saigon after the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

While the chaos in Central Asia and adjacent Afghanistan is a problem for many countries, Russia is in much more danger of being exposed to the rise of Islamism and general chaos than the more distant Europeans.

Consequently, Russia has more reasons to cooperate closely with the U.S. than the NATO allies. For some U.S. NATO allies the engagement in Afghanistan has become less tolerable, and for various reasons. To start with, public opinion in many European countries regards the U.S. war in Iraq and even in Afghanistan as having nothing to do with the fight against terrorism but is just an excuse to maintain its global influence. Europeans also remember that the U.S. had launched the Iraq war without any UN/NATO authorization. Even further, the U.S. had been engaged in bitter difference of opinion with its NATO allies – with the exception of Britain and Spain - before launching the attack against Iraq.

Europeans increasingly see themselves as not only being dragged into the wars against their own will but also see their engagement in the wars as being quite costly. Not only should Europe send their soldiers and spend money but the countries engaged in the wars have been in danger of retaliatory Islamist terrorist attacks, as occurred in Spain and Britain. One might note here that complete disengagement with the U.S. efforts would further erode the trans-Atlantic solidarity and question the very existence of NATO. Even so, increasing numbers of Europeans no longer regard NATO as the key element of their security. The USSR - the “evil empire” whose very existence had justified the birth of NATO - is dead and NATO itself has shown an inability to solve new problems. It is true that the Russian elite and general public have shared many of the Europeans view of the U.S. and its military engagements, including the war in Afghanistan. The visible part of the Russian elite believe that Moscow should cooperate with the U.S., mostly due to the fact that much of the Muslim world is seen as part of Russia geopolitical space.

The assumption that Russia and the U.S. should work together in dealing with the increasing threat from radical Islamists, mostly from Afghanistan, is related, at least in some ways, to changes in Russia, which, in turn, are related to what one could call the rise of “orange to brown” feelings. The term is associated with what usually was known - especially during the Yeltsin era - as “red to brown,” a loose coalition of communists and out-and-out nationalists. The two groups were unified mostly because of their nostalgia for the USSR as the great empire, which explains their fascination with Stalin, seen primarily as the creator of the Soviet empire. The new breed of Russian nationalists, paradoxically enough, has more in common with Russian liberals (“orange”) than with the “reds.” Some of these nationalists—at least those who are either incorporated in officialdom or those who want to be part of officialdom—do not mind seeing Russia as a strong state.

For them the most important thing is not the restoration of a great empire but economic prosperity and improvement of the life of the people and for Russian law enforcement to behave as in the civilized world. Despite some suspicions, by assuming that Russia’s major enemy is Islamic fundamentalism, Moscow should turn to the Washington as an ally. This idea was encapsulated in an article published in The New York Times a few months ago by Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s representative in Brussels and one of the leading representatives of this group of nationalists, and General Boris Gromov, ex-commander of Russian troops in Afghanistan. The rise of these groups, or, rather, their attitude toward Islam and the U.S. engagement does not mean that the Russia is fully on the side of the United States military effort. It is clear that some segments of the Russian elite and general population could well be pleased by the U.S. imperial structure collapsing in a way structurally similar to the collapse of the USSR empire 20 years ago. For many others, the U.S. retreat and emerging chaos - which at best could only partially filled by Muslim powers - evokes no joy. For them, it must mean increasing the chance of anarchy in Central Asia and beyond.

Consequently the recent instability in Kyrgyzstan is a particular source of concern.This turmoil, which potentially could effect all of Central Asia, has also become related in the minds of the Russian elite with the instability of Afghanistan. It is clear that considerable numbers of the Russian elite regard the American withdrawal as an invitation for Islamic extremists to spread themselves throughout Central Asia. As a matter of fact, Afghanistan and the broader Central Asia started increasingly to become a trouble spot not just to Washington but also to Moscow.

Even after the end of the wholesale ethnic violence of the spring-summer of 2010, the situation in Kyrgyzstan has continued to be extremely unstable; and a new wave of violence is quite plausible, especially in the south. According to reports, there is a sharp division/tensions between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbeks in Osh. The tension between the two ethnic groups has been reinforced by the fact that Kyrgyzstan law enforcement is biased toward Uzbeks; they are arrested without much evidence of wrongdoing and often disappear without a trace.

While some observers assumed that the Central government is able to control the situation, albeit by tough measures, others are skeptical. For them, the South continues to be engulfed in anarchy, actually regardless of anything. General Major Omurbek Suvanaliev, ex Director (Glava) of the Kyrgyzstan MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs), stated that authorities in Bishkek could not control the situation in the south of the republic, which is overwhelmed by criminals. Moreover, Islamic extremists from UDU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) could take advantage of the situation. Other observers support these views. For them, the south is the place where power belongs to the “local warlords.” The recent election also does not please Russian observers who believe that instability in Kyrgyzstan would proceed in the foreseeable future.

Tadjikistan: emerging problems

While Kyrgyzia continues to be unstable, the chaos could well spread to Tadjikistan. Tadjikistan had experienced a bloody civil war, 1992-1997; it was the bloodiest, yet underreported, conflict in the former USSR, in which around 150,000 people were killed. It was not a social/class conflict, as it is usually understood. Neither was it an ethnic conflict as in most other parts of the former USSR. It was a regional/group conflict, mostly between Islamists and non-Islamists, mostly Tadjik nationalists.

After the long war, a compromise was reached supposedly to end the conflict. It led to the inclusion of Islamists––at least those who were ready to stop fighting––in the government. As a matter of fact, the Tadjik nationalists who had prevailed in the conflict tried to do with the Islamists what Karzai and the U.S. tried to do in Afghanistan with the Taliban. The president, Emomali Rakhmonov (Rakhmon), who had finally consolidated his position, had been able to do so mostly because of Russia’s support. Tadjikistan would hardly be able to stand alone against the radical Islamists. Russian troops deployed along Tadjikistan and Afghanistan were the major protector against the Taliban. Russia had also become very important for this quite poor republic for economic reasons. Thousands of Tadjiks had come to Russia as guest workers; their presence could be easily visible, especially a few years ago, when the author of the article saw big groups of Tadjiks in Moscow airport, the women in their traditional dress. The guest workers had sent back home considerable sums. Still, Tadjikistan’s stability started to erode.

There were many reasons; one of the major was the worsening of the relationship with Russia. As time progressed, Rakhmonov’s trust in Russia as the guarantor of stability declined. The tension in Russia intensified also because of Russia’s choice in Central Asia. In the conflict between Tadjikistan and Uzbekistan—mostly because of the conflict over scarce water resources—Russia chose to support Uzbekistan. The economic crisis and the rise of Russian nationalism, whose representatives often harass and even kill Tadjiks, had created the problems with the Tadjiks in Russia and led to the decline in the number of workers and the money they sent to Tadjikistan. Severe weather conditions also worsened the situation in the country. All of this apparently led to the resurrection of the Islamic opposition.

In addition, Tadjik Islamists started to receive help from Afghanistan, which tried to resume the penetration into Tadjikistan. The reason for these attempts could be mutually exclusive. Some observers believed that they were caused by the pressure over the Taliban in Afghanistan, and they are presently searching for new bases in Tadjikistan. Still, the explanation could be quite different. The point is that the Taliban is actually prevailing and trying to spread their influence in Central Asia. While attempting Afghan jihadists to engage in Central Asia has a long history, there are new elements in the story. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS) Jihadists have started to arrive in Tadjikistan from other places from where they had never come before.

There is, for example, evidence about the presence in Tadjikistan of jihadists from the Northern Caucasus. It is likely that they brought to Tadjikistan the practice of suicide bombing, which had not existed before their arrival. For whatever reason, the situation in Tadjikistan has become quite tense. In September 2010, there was a suicide terrorist attack and an escape of groups of jihadists from Tajikistan’s top security prison. The attempt to apprehend them had ended in disaster. The government column was attacked by Islamists armed with heavy machine guns and rocket launchers. At least 40 government soldiers were killed. This indicates that the rebels were well organized and armed and that Tadjikistan could well lapse into civil war.

It also indicates the possibility of other dangers. Tadjikistan has been the corridor for the Islamists, including the UDU, who took responsibility for the attack and who move from Afghanistan and other places to Kyrgyzstan and, especially, Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is seen as, apparently, being quite ready for an Islamist revolt. Thus, the instability in Tadjikistan could well be blended with the instability in Kyrgyzstan, and this could very well lead to the explosion of the all of Central Asia, Afghanistan and beyond. And the situation continues to be quite tense. The continuous instability in Kyrgyzstan––the possibility of a Tadjikistan explosion––is also implicitly connected in the views of Central Asian observers, and, of course, Russians and Americans, with the recent departure of American combat troops from Iraq.

Part II will appear in the next edition of DRA.


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