The relationship between the U.S. and Russia has been increasingly tense over the last ten years. Still, the fear of instability in Afghanistan and Central Asia has brought them together. Articles have appeared in the Russian press, which have emphasized the importance of cooperation between the U.S. and Russia. Some concrete actions also point to a recognized need for cooperation. For example, Russia provided 20 helicopters to Afghanistan and an open corridor for U.S. cargo. Still, both sides remain suspicious of each other’s intentions and full-fledged cooperation is unlikely to develop.
BACKGROUND: The U.S.-Russian relationship continued to worsen through the late Yeltsin and Putin eras despite occasional meetings between the U.S. and Russian presidents and the apparent personal rapport between them. The crisis in the relationship was exacerbated by the U.S./NATO bombings of Serbia/Yugoslavia as a result of the Kosovo crisis in 1999; the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003; and, finally, the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia. The U.S., as the only superpower, expressed little desire to take Russia’s concerns into consideration. Still, the Russia-Georgia war demonstrated that the U.S. had few resources to prop up Georgia, its staunch ally. The signs of what historian Paul Kennedy defined as “imperial overstretch” almost a generation ago became increasingly visible in Iraq and Afghanistan, from which the U.S. wishes to disentangle itself. Still, this should be done with minimal drawbacks for U.S. prestige and, even more important, without inviting chaos to the entire region.
The fear of chaos was also increased by the outbreak of violence in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and the risk of its spreading throughout Central Asia. The change in mood could be recorded not only in Washington but also in Moscow. Still, suspicion runs high, and the practical implications of this rapprochement are quite limited.
The Russian press, including that representing official or semi-official views, continues to publish articles that emphasize the danger of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and its implications for stability in Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan. It has been suggested that Russia and the regional states should work together with the U.S. and the West in general to deal with the situation.
More important than words are concrete actions. Russia provided a corridor for the transportation of NATO goods to Afghanistan and recently sold 20 helicopters to Afghanistan. Moscow has also engaged in broad cooperation with the Kabul government. While these actions are undoubtedly important, one should not overestimate them. To start with, one should remember that by opening a corridor for NATO supplies to Afghanistan, Russia earned a considerable amount of money; while weapons were not donated. The NATO base in Manas is still seen as a base of the Western allies, a stronghold of Russia’s geopolitical rival, and the decision of the new Kyrgyz government not to close it immediately clearly displeased Moscow.
The deep distrust of the U.S. that still dominates the minds of the Russian elite is exemplified by the comments of General Vladimir Shamanov, one of Russia’s hardliners. He discussed the implications of the U.S. withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan with a correspondent of one Russian newspaper. The correspondent noted that this could well aggravate the situation in Tajikistan, implying that the Taliban could move from Afghanistan to Tajikistan and create problems for Russia. Shamanov rejected this notion and stated that the major threat for Russia could well come from Georgia. The implications here are clear – the U.S. would take advantage of Russia’s problems in Central Asia and would once again use Georgia to create problems for Russia in the most sensitive areas of the Northern Caucasus.
IMPLICATIONS: The continuous deep suspicion of U.S. intentions in Central Asia can also be seen as a response to the U.S. support for the forces in Russia that sought to send troops to Kyrgyzstan during the height of the anarchy in the summer of 2010. Bishkek also supported this idea, but Russia eventually reneged. Of course, there are several reasons for Russia’s reluctance to deploy troops (See CACI Analyst archives ). Still, at least judging by comments in the Russian press, these proposals actually alarmed some of the members of the Russian elite. Shamil Sultanov, an Islamic Russian intellectual, noted that the plan to send Russian troops to Central Asia was part of an American plot. In his view, the U.S. elite understand that it could not pacify Afghanistan and the Muslim world in general. Thus, it sought to divert Islamist attention from the U.S. to Russia; and a full-fledged involvement in Afghanistan and Central Asia on Russia’s part would mean that the U.S. would indeed have induced Russia to swallow the bait.
Even those Russian pundits who do not regard the U.S. as deeply hostile to Russia still complain that the U.S. does not want to cooperate with Russia on an equal footing, and plainly ignores Russia’s interests. For example, they claim that the U.S. does nothing to prevent the flow of drugs from Afghanistan and Central Asia to Russia. Finally, those skeptical of Russian/U.S. cooperation voice yet another argument. While for some Russian observers the U.S. elite is made up of cunning, skillful Machiavellians who calculate each of their steps and have long-range plans for the future, others have diametrically opposite views. They assume that the U.S. elite is driven either by wishful thinking or by utopian plans for dealing with the outside world. According to this theory, the Americans invaded Iraq and Afghanistan without understanding the cultures of these countries. Chaos is the result of these actions, and the U.S. will depart leaving everybody else to deal with the problems.
While a considerable share of the Russian elite views the U.S. and the West in general with suspicion, there are also problems within the Central Asian states themselves, including Kyrgyzstan. Some residents of South Kyrgyzstan, for example, protested the appearance of even a limited number of law enforcement officers from Europe. Local representatives of South Kyrgyzstan said they protested the Westerners because they were afraid of a repetition of the Kosovo scenario. In their view, the foreign troops had arrived to protect Albanians from the Serbs in Kosovo, but the Albanians took advantage of this arrangement and purged the Serbs from Kosovo. This could well happen in Kyrgyzstan, they suggested, where local Uzbeks could use the presence of foreign troops or police to purge ethnic Kyrgyz from the South.
While there is suspicion about Western motives, the Central Asian elites are also quite skeptical regarding Russia’s intentions and, of course, those of each other. As a result, the recent meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which includes Russia and the Central Asian states, produced no visible results. It seems that the more effective regional organization is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes the Central Asian states, Russia and China and which plans to conduct military exercises in Kyrgyzstan. Still, it remains to be seen whether these exercises will have any practical implications. Even more important, they will provide China with an important justification for a closer engagement in Central Asia in the future.
CONCLUSIONS: The continuous instability in Afghanistan, along with the revolution and outbreak of anarchy in Kyrgyzstan led the U.S. and Russia to move closer together. On Russia’s part, this rapprochement was at least partially due to the emergence of those members of the Russian elite who could be defined as “orange to brown,” i.e. nationalists who share at least some premises with liberals. Both these groups assume that Russia, all problems with the West notwithstanding, should cooperate with the U.S. in dealing with the Islamic threat. Some concrete steps have been taken. Still, suspicion of the U.S. runs high, while the discord between Russia and the Central Asian states, as well as their suspicion of the U.S. and of each other, complicates the situation even more. All of this creates additional problems for effective coordination in dealing with the threat of chaos in Central Asia. In any case, Russia and some of the Central Asian states appear to prefer to cooperate with China rather than with the West.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dmitry Shlapentokh is Associate Professor of History, Indiana University at South Bend.