Who Can Master Central Asia?

Tasked by Voice of America with looking into newly independent Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I wanted to get an idea of the civil war roiling the small but spectacularly beautiful nation of Kyrgyzstan, called by its admirers the “Switzerland of Central Asia.”

My driver for the occasion said he had a master’s degree in political science, but that did not improve his driving skills. Unaware, he sped from the government side across the battlefield into the Islamist opposition camp whose defenders, rifles at the ready, didn’t seem happy to see us. “This is interesting,” said my unflappable ex-KGB guide with no escape in mind. Then, providentially, a tank appeared – Russia to the rescue. The Islamists switched their attention to the appraching enemy, and we were spared from whatever they had in store for us.

Central Asia

This is the irony: a decade earlier, we – the U.S. – had been championing the Islamists in neighboring Afghanistan against the Russian occupiers. Now it was the reverse. We counted on Russia to help contain the Islamist threat. Such a turnabout, to be sure, is familiar to Central Asia, where contending forces, internal and external, are always disturbing the peace and seeking control. But who can master an area that accepts no master?

The five off-beat nations are sometimes hard to keep straight: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan along with Kyrgyzstan, a series of “stans” with makeshift borders designed by Stalin to sow confusion. They are are often considered a global backwater but nonetheless prized for their prime location, major resources and vigorous people.

The “Stans”

After gaining independence from Communist Russia, they were expected to take a democratic turn. They didn’t and continued autocratic rule, though Kygyzstan has some democratic trimmings – elections, a robust parliament, a press that is less fettered than that of the other stans. Still politics is rough and tumble – three revolutions and assorted uprisings. A year and a half ago, a president was forced into hiding by rock-throwing protestors over a questionable election. A convicted kidnapper was let out of jail to take his place. This was not unusual since each successive government is in the habit of jailing members of the previous one.

Russian President Putin would like the stans to be calm as he goes about trying to reconstitute a Soviet Union whose collapse he considers a “catastrophe.” He doesn’t employ lethal Stalinist measures but more subtle pressures as in the case of the U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan. First, he constructed a competing Russian base, then made his desires clear to the Krygyz who depend in many ways on Moscow’s generosity and forbearance. The U.S base is gone.

Not quite as entrenched in Central Asia, China is investing heavily in the region, including high tech apparatus to monitor the activities of the suppressed Uighur population on the border with the stans. More dramatically and long term, it is engaged with Russia on an ambitious modernized land route that will cross the stans and unite east and west in a Greater Eurasia with geopolitical as well as economic implications. It is current U.S. policy to denounce and sanction both of the powers in contrast to the successful Cold War policy of dividing them. Time to think again.

The Putin Problem

In an interview President Biden called Russian leader Vladimir Putin a “killer.” What does that mean exactly? Does Putin randomly kill people the way, say, the Mexican cartels do south of the U.S. border? Has he killed more people abroad than the U.S. has in its numerous wars since 9/11? Or is Biden speaking in a more metaphorical way about killing hopes amd dreams? In that case the President is rather imprecise, a risky behavior among heads of state with control of nuclear weapons that can end the world.

Putin laughed it off by challenging Biden to a debate. The American media was more serious and seemed to back the President. This contrasts with the media of the Stalinist years which tended to lavish praise on one of the world’s worst mass murderers during the 1930’s and wartime ’40’s. Acclaimed leftwing writer Max Eastman couldn’t get published anywhere because he supported Communist leader Leon Trotsky over Stalin – the cancel culture of the time.

In comparison to Stalin Putin is a minor impediment to U.S. and indeed global interests. Shorn of Stalin’s acquisitions in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, he seems intent on preserving what’s left in a reinvigorated Russia. That means he is a familiar figure, a nationalist leader both autocratic and skillful. U. S. policy can be tailored to that situation. Unlike Stalin, and some would say the U.S. today, he has not embarked on expansion, just holding his own.

He has some grounds for complaint. As the Soviet Union dissolved in 1989, then U.S. Secretary of State James Baker made a trade with Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev: Russia would surrender control of East Gernany to a reunited Germany in exchange for a U.S pledge not to extend the NATO alliance eastward toward Russia. That was violated during the Clinton Presidency, and ever since NATO has been expanding and contemplates adding still more small countries on Russia’s border.

At the height of the Cold War the fervently anticommunist Reagan Administration made sure economic sanctions affecting the Soviet Uinion were limited and carefully targeted because of international opposition. In today’s more permissive environment, the U.S. has freely resorted to their routine use. President Trump, in particular, made them a substitute for an outright war he pledged not to start. In fact, by crippling an economy, they are injurious to the people, not to the leadership who rarely change their policies. It’s really a feel-good effort on the part of the sanctioners.

There’s no doubt the other two great nuclear powers – China and Russia – will continue to compete with the U.S. and look for advantages where they can. For this the U.S. must stay geopolitically alert with minds up to the job, but military action should be a last resort and threats issued with care. There has been one helpful change. Today the U.S rivals are rational exercisers of power with their own interests clearly in view, not the feverish unpredictable ideologues that wrecked the world in the last century.

The Mystery of Russia

For a century the U.S. has been transfixed by Russia, myth clashing with reality, admiration alternating with hostility, submissiveness with pugnacity. Take your pick. The U.S. can’t seem to get Russia straight or is it Russia that can’t seem to get straight?

For a century the U.S. has been transfixed by Russia, myth clashing with reality, admiration alternating with hostility, submissiveness with pugnacity. Take your pick. The U.S. can’t seem to get Russia straight or is it Russia that can’t seem to get straight?

Continue reading “The Mystery of Russia”