The US is not as helpless in Central Asia as thought of, nor is Russia as powerful and liked as is generally believed. Each views the other as a threat to its interests.
Careful analysis of the post-USSR political, economic and social realities in Central Asia and the Caucasus shows that the US has not been able to make the gains it had dreamed of in the region. Washington assumed that by proclaiming itself the “victor” of the Cold War it would gain dominance over its adversary’s domains. This is clearly not the case today. The Kyrgyzstan government shut down in 2009, after limited Russian pressure, the only military base Washington had secured in the region. The ruling elites in all the Central Asian and South Caucasus regions (except Georgia) were at some point in their former careers allowed to occupy key positions by the direct vetting process overseen by the KGB. This was based on the criterion that put their loyalty to Russia as the main prerequisite. This and many other facts clearly indicate that the US is not perceived to be a superpower in the countries formerly belonging to the USSR orbit. Nevertheless, it is necessary for Muslims to clearly understand Washington’s ambitions, capabilities and limitations in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
It would not be an understatement to say that the vision outlined in The Grand Chessboard by the former US national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski constitutes a general framework of what the US ruling elite want to achieve in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Naturally, the implementation process of Brzezinski’s vision is constantly evolving as the situation regularly changes and priorities shift accordingly.
Without qualifying Washington’s strategic imperialist ambitions in numerical order, our assessment shows that today the US wants to achieve the following strategic objectives:
In February when the newly appointed US Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Central Asia, he not only exposed the legendary ignorance of American politicians by referring to a non-existent country “Kyrzakhstan,” he also symbolically highlighted the fact that the US political establishment is an amateur in the region.
According to the US Congressional Research Service 2013 statistics, “cumulative foreign aid budgeted to Central Asia for FY1992 through FY2010 amounted to $5.7 billion.” The same Congressional Research Service report also pointed out that Barak Obama’s regime had stated that in 2010 and 2011, Washington was prioritising “aid” to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. This is not surprising, as in Tajikistan, Russia has its strongest presence in comparison to other Central Asian states and Tajikistan is home to the oldest and most competent regional Islamic movement in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand, is gripped by political uncertainty and the regime there is much weaker than any of its neighbours. Washington, therefore, aims to prevent the rise of the Islamic movement there and distance the Kyrgyz regime from Moscow.
On the military front Washington is trying to become the main support base for local autocratic regimes in terms of their security infrastructure. The US knows that all regimes in Central Asia and the Caucasus remain in power by relying on their brutal security apparatuses. According to the US Congressional Research Service report data, the US government trained close to 1,000 personnel of Central Asia’s notorious security services and monetary aid in the security sphere barely exceeds $100 million over the past 5 years. These are, however, only official figures. Washington definitely provides more covert aid to these regimes in order to maintain a cleaner public record. It is after all the “champion of freedom and democracy” in the world. In terms of official figures, US “aid” to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia does not differ drastically from the data made public about Central Asia. Assistance to the regime of Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan, however, is conducted in other unofficial forms such as oil contracts and political pressure on his opponents through EU’s socio-political and financial institutions.
With all the US interference throughout the past two decades, apart from Georgia, where its position has significantly weakened over the past year, the US has failed to establish a strong presence in Central Asia and the Caucasus. When push comes to shove, as for example during the Georgia-Russia war in 2008 or an uprising in the Uzbek city of Adijan in 2005, it is Russia that makes the real difference in terms of the situation on the ground. This, however, does not mean that the US has no leverage in the region.
Washington’s main advantage over Russia consists of its soft-power appeal due to the fact that it was Russia that occupied and oppressed the nations of the Caucasus and Central Asia over the past 200 years. With large numbers of migrant workers from the Caucasus and Central Asia going to Russia to earn a living, Russia is gradually designing its own soft-power appeal that may soon supersede Washington’s fake charm.
Using neo-colonial Turkey as a regional role model, the US has also managed to create a significantly influential westoxicated caste in the Caucasus and Central Asia that attempts to position itself as a force of change and integrity. These forces have gained some support but they have not been tested in real life situations. Thus, their quality remains questionable and the general population remains distrustful of them. Overall, the Caucasus and Central Asian societies feel more at ease in dealing with Moscow as they understand Russia’s non-Western mentality far better than that of the Americans, Europeans or the Chinese. The language barrier is another major obstacle that limits US influence as English is not so widely spoken, compared to Russian, which was the language of state during the Soviet era.
As the Islamic Awakening gains momentum in the Muslim East and forces US distraction from its other atrocious policies, Russia will continue to make bold moves to increase its influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. On March 7, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that from 2015, Russia would significantly limit working opportunities for citizens of the former Soviet states that do not join the Russian proposed Customs Union. This means that armies of unemployed, impoverished and frustrated citizens of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan would be deported from Russia back to their countries. Such a move would immediately weaken or even destroy the ruling regimes in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Unless the US and the EU take in hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from Russia, which is not going to happen given the economic and financial crises gripping Europe, it is highly questionable that regimes in the Caucasus and Central Asia will be able to refuse Moscow’s demands. They will be forced to limit Western presence in their countries.
How exactly the situation will unfold is hard to predict but observing the brewing political situation in Azerbaijan and Georgia signals that both Russia and the US will use domestic political tensions there and try to initiate changes in the region. Russia will try to do so using the distraction the US is facing in the Muslim East to make a comeback, and Washington will try to keep its weak but partial influence in the region. Russia and the US might choose to substitute the current unpopular ruling castes to refurbish their tarnished images. This however might lead to unintended consequences that Moscow and Washington may not be able to predict, much less control.
The trick in this evolving scenario for Islamic movements is to avoid being used as pawns in the regional competition between Russia, the US and China. Fifth columnist regimes in Turkey and the Arabian Peninsula will complicate this endeavour. Both Turkey and the Saudi regime will be used to pacify, distract and sabotage Muslim resistance to imperialist projects. Leaders and decision-makers in the Islamic movements will have to show great wisdom in overcoming such challenges.