No Great Game: The Story of Post-Cold War Powers in Central Asia

The U.S. has been increasingly active in these former Soviet satellites, but Russian influence is still a major force

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A 2006 photo shows Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev posing in front a Russian-built Proton booster, one of which was used to launch KazSat, Kazakhstan's first foray into space / AP

This post is part of a 12-part series exploring how the U.S.-Russia relationship has shaped the world since the December 1991 end of the Soviet Union. Read the full series here.

On December 16, 2011, Kazakhstan will celebrate the 20th anniversary of its independence from the Soviet Union. It was the last country to politically separate itself from Russia in 1991, the final nail in the coffin of the seven-decade Soviet experiment. The year saw a wave of Soviet states pulling away from the Soviet Union, like the skins of an onion, until only Russia was left in the center.

Central Asia, a part of the world that has long been the subject of speculation, romantic adventure fantasies, and misinformation, suddenly found itself in the global spotlight. Kazakhstan possessed the world's largest nuclear testing site in Semipalatinsk, dozens of nuclear weapons, a biological weapons research facility on Vozrozhdeniye Island in the dried-up Aral Sea, and huge reserves of oil and natural gas in the Caspian Sea. Turkmenistan, too, had some of the world's largest reserves of natural gas.

But despite a small gold rush of sorts to capture the region's energy resources, Central Asia mostly remained an underdeveloped backwater. Uzbekistan struggled with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a terror group that continues to plague parts of Afghanistan. Tajikistan endured a brutal civil war that, in many ways, defines the West's perception of it. After a brief paroxysm of ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, both countries settled into a sort of comfortable anonymity. There was a brief interest in exporting Turkmenistan's natural gas through a pipeline crossing Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the Taliban's war in Afghanistan prevented the plan from moving off the drawing table.

Toward the end of the 1990s, interest in the region picked up: Chevron signed a major deal to develop one of Kazakhstan's Caspian oil fields and construction began on the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the first non-Russian export route out of the region. The U.S. deepened its military ties with the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, sending small numbers of U.S. military trainers and bringing local officers to U.S. service academies. It seemed Russia was not only diminished but soundly defeated, and America was ascendant.

The terror attacks of September 11 and subsequent invasion of Afghanistan seemed at first to cement the rise of America in Central Asia. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld negotiated the use of military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, even while the State Department grew less and less comfortable with human rights abuses in those countries. By the time the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, American policy in the area seemed set on autopilot, dominant and victorious.

Then, something changed. In March of 2005, the "Tulip Revolution" in Kyrgyzstan unseated Askar Akayev, who had ruled the country since 1990, throwing the U.S. into panic that it might lose access to the airbase at Manas. Also that year, in May, Uzbek security forces massacred hundreds of protesters in the city of Andijon, and in the ensuing outcry the U.S. lost access to the Uzbek airbase it relied on to supply the troops in Afghanistan. While the Americans later managed to secure expanded access to Manas, it came at an increasingly high cost.

The mid-2000s also saw Russia emerge from its slumber. Under Presidents Vladimir Putin and then Dmitri Medvedev, Russia slowly revived its campaign for influence in the region, gaining concessions from the Central Asian rulers and sometimes challenging the U.S. for access and resources. As of 2011, Russia and the U.S. could best be called frenemies in Central Asia, with Russia chafing at the continued American presence even while its officials worry about the consequences of an American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The U.S., though, seems destined to diminish in the region, even as Central Asia finally flirts with economic viability. Kazakhstan's economy is thriving, Kyrgyzstan joined the WTO well before Russia, and Turkmenistan's gas pipeline to China has brought it much-needed cash. Both Turkey and China are spending increasing amounts of money and energy to gain social, economic, and political footholds in the region, and Russia is looking for new ways to extend its "security umbrella" southward. The U.S. is trying to cement its position with the New Silk Road, a concept for regional trade that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is mentioning in speeches, but that project's success seems far from certain.

Politically, however, Central Asia remains painfully close to what it was in 1991, with the exception of Kyrgyzstan (which still struggles for stable political leadership). The tyrant of Turkmenistan may have died in 2007, but his replacement has continued to rule in much the same way. Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan are now entering their second decade with the same autocrats in charge. In many ways the region exists in a sort of time warp, with a dismaying lack of political or social progress on many fronts.

Viewing Central Asia as a competition for influence, however, misses the point; that is a contest that America could probably never win. Instead, what's emerging is a tenuous collaboration: Russia and America working together to support and develop the region. Unthinkable 20 years ago, this new alignment of interests has the potential to be far more transformative than the fall of communism ever was.