Streetwise Professor

February 25, 2009

Russia in Central Asia–Be Careful What You Ask For

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 5:48 pm

There has been a lot of effort spent trying to figure out what Russia’s goals are in Afghanistan in the aftermath of its bribing Kyrgyzstan to deny American access to the Manas airfield in that Central Asian country.   One commonly heard theme is that the Russians are of mixed minds; they don’t want a Taliban victory, but they don’t want a solid American presence in Central Asia.   Ariel Cohen presents a far gloomier scenario:

Medvedev has announced that the U.S. needs to come to Moscow – not to the capitals of Eurasian independent states – to ask for transit to Afghanistan. Thus, Russia can first create a problem, and then provide a solution – at a price.

This is only the best-case scenario. In the worst case, Russia would benefit from a U.S. defeat in Afghanistan. First, it would be payback for the Soviet fiasco in the 1980s; second, and more importantly, such a defeat would highlight the collapse of NATO power, and with it, America’s global dominance.

Russia may mistakenly believe that, together with China and Iran, it can pick up the pieces in Afghanistan and prevent the Taliban from extending its influence over allies in Central Asia and the Caucasus. However, radical Islamists – not America – are the long-term systemic threat toward the “soft underbelly” of Russia’s south – a threat for which Moscow lacks answers.

To me, it is all about priorities, and what choices reveal about priorities.   Yes, from the Russian perspective a Talibanized Afghanistan is hardly desirable.   But it survived a decade of that before, and it is likely that the Russian military and policy establishments view that as a nuisance that can be survived again.   They realize that Afghanistan’s ability to project power is nil, and likely calculate that an Islamist threat can be contained.

For Russia, the big issue is the US.   Part of the reason is psychological.   Part of the reason is payback.   Part of the reason is hardwired imperial ambition.   A big part of the reason is energy, and keeping the United States away from Central Asian energy resources–resources that Russia (and Gazprom) desperately need to meet export commitments and domestic needs, especially in light of decling production and financial-crisis-constrained investment in new fields.

In brief, given a choice between a resurgent Taliban, and a deep American presence in Central Asia, for Russia the choice is clear.   Moreover, Russia is probably figuring it can have its cake and eat it too, by allowing the US to resupply via Russian territory.   This is a three-fer: it puts pressure on the Taliban, ties up the US in a difficult commitment thereby limiting its freedom of action elsewhere, and gives Russia the option to cause the US major pain down the road by cutting off this route, or raising dramatically the price of using it.   (There might even be an economic payoff from collecting transit fees from the US, but that is less certain given that it will cost Russia dearly to buy off the Central Asians.   But even here there may be an attraction to those making the decisions, because the cost of buying off may come out of the budget, but a good portion of the fees collected from the US might well flow into well connected pockets rather than the Russian state budget.)

The interesting thing to ponder is: What happens if Russia succeeds in keeping the US out of Central Asia?   As always, one should be careful what one asks for.   It will not be so easy to keep China out of Central Asia–because it’s already there.

China’s geographic position, unlike that of the US, is pretty symmetric to that of Russia.   China also has a great appetite for the region’s resources.   China also has substantial demographic advantages over Russia.   It also has economic leverage over Russia, and can put great pressure on Russia in other areas (e.g., Siberia). China is also not as constrained by diplomatic and civil niceties as the Americans (or the Europeans.)   Is Russia ready to go head-to-head with China if it succeeds in getting the US out of the way?   Methinks not.   But, in its myopia, its fixation on keeping the US out of its sandbox, Russia is (a) committing vast sums of money it doesn’t have, and (b) setting itself up for a confrontation in which the correlation of forces is not in its favor.

Good luck with that.

I should also note that there are reports that China is also attempting to pressure/cajole Central Asian states to give the US the cold shoulder.   Do you think that the Chinese are doing this, only to concede the region to the Russian orbit?   Methinks not again.

So, if China and Russia succeed in shutting out the US from the region–not a foregone conclusion–that merely sets up the final between these two countries.   I know who’d I put my money on.

So, contra Cohen, Islamism is not the main threat to Russia’s “soft underbelly.”   China is.   And China’s contact with Russia’s soft underbelly runs not just through Central Asia, but along the entire length of the Amur River to the Pacific.   And China is a full spectrum threat, whereas Islamists are not.   And, like Russia, China has a long memory, and an acute sensitivity to historical humiliations, many suffered at Russian hands.   Perhaps that is what should make Russia most nervous.

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