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The End of the Great Game

Obama pulls the plug on America's empire in Central Asia.

Has the United States stopped playing the Great Game in Central Asia? In the wake of the destabilizing violence that occurred in Kyrgyzstan this summer, that seems to be the case. The Obama administration reacted slowly when at least 300 people were killed in inter-ethnic fighting in June and Kyrgyzstan seemed on the verge of spiraling out of control. American officials declined an informal request from the fragile Kyrgyz government for military assistance, deferred to Russia's lead in the crisis, and followed Moscow's example when the Kremlin proceeded to offer up little apart from humanitarian aid. Belatedly, the United States nudged the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to deploy 52 unarmed police advisers, but the tardy action allowed local politics to intervene, and now even this skeletal force appears unlikely actually to be sent. All of this was a sharp contrast to Washington’s activism during the prior two presidential administrations. In 2005, for instance, when a massacre occurred in Uzbekistan, America organized an airlift of victims out of the country and relocated some in the United States. On paper, the Obama administration continues to reject the idea of a Russian sphere of influence in Central Asia, but the events in Kyrgyzstan appear to mark a softening of this red line in practice. Central Asia is no longer a reason to put up one’s fists.

If this trend continues, Washington’s willingness to defer to Russia in the land of Kipling may mark the beginning of something larger: a new era in which the Great Powers attempt to tread more gingerly in each other's backyards. The implications of this shift are great, and potentially risky.

To understand what's happening, it's useful to look back at the way U.S. policy has evolved since 1991. At first, after the Soviet collapse, Washington had only the vaguest idea how to interact with the eight new republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus. What the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations did know, however, was their attitude toward Moscow: Both pledged to help to smooth the way for the country's natural evolution from a communist dictatorship to a free-market democracy. As far as the former Soviet Caucasus and Central Asia were concerned, they could be attended to with humanitarian and bureaucratic assistance, such as food aid and judicial training, but no policies that would interfere with the liberation of Russia from its autocratic past.

Then, the Russian Federation began to look less benign. Crushing civil wars erupted or worsened in now-forgotten places like Kulyab, Stepanakert, and Sukhumi, and officials in the struggling republics of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan began complaining to Washington about their inability to export their oil and natural gas for hard currency. Successive governments fell in Azerbaijan, threatening the country with disintegration, and oilmen from companies like Amoco, Pennzoil, and Unocal fretted that the daily tumult jeopardized their deals. When evidence accumulated of Russian connivance in the trouble, some in the Clinton foreign policy apparatus said the U.S. ought to be less conciliatory toward Moscow.

One of the leading voices advocating such a policy reorientation was Sheila Heslin, a deceptively librarian-like National Security Council staffer in her early thirties. Drawing on work she did previously for the World Bank, the tough-minded, bureaucratically wise Heslin argued that Washington’s blanket accommodation of Moscow encouraged just the policies that the United States sought to eradicate—Russia, Heslin argued, would start to shed its authoritarian edge when it was forced to respect its neighbors’ sovereignty, and one way to accomplish that was to strengthen the republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus. After several months, the Heslin view won the internal policy debate, causing Washington to throw itself behind the construction of huge oil and natural gas pipelines that would provide the Caucasus and Central Asia an independent link to Western markets, unimpeded by Russia. This was a major shift, though at first it went under the radar in the United States. Instead, it was best understood by Turkey, whose paternalistic politicians—many of the region’s states are ethnically Turkic—embraced the Washington initiative in the spirit of comrades-in-arms on a mission to link those states to the NATO bloc. The Clinton Pentagon also opened up military-to-military relations with the region, which became even more important after September 11, as U.S. forces established a presence in three of the five Central Asian republics, including the Transit Center at Manas in Kyrgyzstan. These deployments, designed to counter Al Qaeda but which in practice further encroached on Russian influence, angered President Vladimir Putin, who objected bitterly to the continued U.S. military presence along with the sale of U.S. weapons to Georgia. In 2008, Russia went to war with Georgia, shoring up its authority in the near-abroad and sending a message about how strongly the Kremlin rejected the American presence. Yet the Bush administration insisted that the United States was in the region to stay.

The Obama administration, by contrast, has been dialing back on the Great Game. During the Clinton era, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott tried to soothe Russian sensibilities by declaring a “Farewell to Flashman”—Flashman was the scurrilous adventurer who played the Great Game in George MacDonald Fraser's novels—but the Obama administration genuinely means it. There is cooler rhetoric and a return to high-profile cooperation with Russia. Kyrgyzstan is only the latest example of this shift—Obama has also pulled back from a planned deployment of missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, and rejected further talk of re-arming Georgia. “We are not in a competition with any country over influence in Central Asia,” Robert O. Blake Jr., assistant secretary of state for the region, told the Helsinki Commission in Washington this July. “We seek to maintain mature bilateral relations with each country based on our foreign policy goals and each country’s specific characteristics and dynamics.” Russia has taken Blake at his word. In August, Moscow deployed a new missile system in Abkhazia, and earlier it made permanent its military base in South Ossetia, two breakaway Georgian republics that now—though they would strenuously deny it—are effectively Russian vassals.

President Obama's public rationale for this shift is clear. He wants arms control agreements, victory in Afghanistan, and the denuclearization of Iran—and Russia has a role to play in all three. Reset has lubricated new agreements with Russia that enable, for example, the speedy overflight of U.S. military planes across the North Pole and on to Kyrgyzstan, in support of the war in Afghanistan; the sale of Russian military helicopters, to be paid for by the Pentagon, to the Afghan government; and a tighter financial squeeze on Iran. Meanwhile, on the domestic front, absent any other fulfillment of Obama’s campaign vow to win hearts and minds abroad through civility, the "reset" is Exhibit Number One that good manners work.

In addition, Obama officials believe that, while the great-power-rivalry strain of geopolitics in the region may have been necessary in the 1990s, it is now obsolete. When Heslin's policy was initially drawn up, its concrete objective was to provide the Caucasian and Central Asian states with a financial channel independent of Moscow's grip. That meant the construction of energy pipelines to alternative markets, especially the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline from the Caucasus to Turkey. But that policy has largely succeeded: The full flow of oil Baku-Ceyhan began in 2006. The Central Asian states of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are not linked in—and given their cautious nature, they are unlikely to risk Russia’s ire by agreeing to be connected by pipeline with the West—but they have also developed alternate export routes through China, which has constructed its own pipelines that serve precisely the same function.

Crucially, the change in American policy has been more dramatic in Central Asia than it has in Eastern Europe or the Caucasus. Sensitive to criticism that the administration's policy of “reset” with Russia means selling out fragile countries that have developed close ties with the West, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was volubly supportive on a July swing through Ukraine, Poland, and the Caucasus states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. At times, she seemed to err on the side of trying too hard, as when she said Ukraine is still welcome in NATO (Kiev itself seems to have lost interest in the idea), and when she accused Russia of invading and occupying Georgian territory. Though Clinton's trip also made some progress in assuaging local fears about waning American fidelity, the assertive deployment of Russian weaponry on what most of the world still regards as Georgian territory demonstrates the irrelevance of her assurances.

President Obama must realize that his new policy ultimately represents a trade-off. While the geopolitical gains from deemphasizing the Great Game have been substantial, the local costs of America's hands-off approach have been quite high. In Kyrgyzstan, which is still embroiled in ethnic strife, deferring to Russia has meant leaving a largely powerless government to its own devices. Azerbaijan has nervously struck up negotiations over natural-gas with Russia’s Gazprom in order to forestall any possible trouble of its own with Moscow. And the United States has adopted a far different approach toward local leaders, swallowing Kazakhstan's backsliding on what they believed was the country's private commitment to release imprisoned opposition political activist Yevgeny Zhovtis, and deepening relations with Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, probably the most brutal leader in the former Soviet Union. In other words, the reset has a serious downside: By deciding that the politics of Central Asia are what they are, Washington risks losing its justly earned reputation as the region's protector of political and economic independence.

Steve LeVine, a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, is the author of The Oil and the Glory.

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