Policy-makers in Moscow are engaged in a strenuous debate on the limits of Russian power in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Some analysts believe that neither the United States nor Russia will be able to establish itself as the dominant geopolitical player in the two regions. With hopes for a decisive geopolitical victory slim, an increasing number of Russian experts say Moscow would be better off increasing its cooperation with Washington.
Developments throughout the summer have helped to sharpen the Russian debate in particular, the threat of renewed conflict in the Georgia's separatist-minded region of South Ossetia [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive], and Islamic radical violence in Uzbekistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Also helping to stoke the security dialogue in Russia was the Bush administration's August 16 announcement that up to 70,000 US troops now stationed in Europe and Asia will be redeployed.
During the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist tragedy, the United States and Russia acted for a time as de facto allies in the anti-terror campaign. More recently, the United States and Russia have behaved more like rivals, competing vigorously to influence regional leaders, including Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive], as well as Nursultan Nazarbayev and Imomali Rahmonov, the presidents of Kazakhstan and Tajikistan respectively. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Though no definitive US redeployment plans have been finalized, there has been speculation that some US forces may be shifted to countries on Russia's southern flank including Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In the past, Moscow reacted sharply to what it deemed actions that encroached on its traditional sphere of influence. Yet, the reaction in Moscow to the possibility of US rapid reaction forces in the Caucasus and Central Asia has so far been restrained.
Russia's Defense Ministry officials profess not to be alarmed by possible US troop shifts. Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry chose not to comment, and many of the country's mass media outlets didn't give the story much play. "We are aware of US plans to reconfigure its [armed] forces and we understand them. These plans are of no concern to us," Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told journalists in Moscow on August 17.
Some Russian analysts view the redeployment as an election-year maneuver designed to bolster President George W. Bush's hopes for a second term. In addition, the ongoing policy debate may help explain the muted Russian reaction. A significant number of Russian analysts are opposed to confrontation with the United States. Some freely admit that, in any event, Russia does not have the ability to prevent the potential redeployment of US troops to the Caucasus and Central Asia. "To be sure, we cannot undertake any countermoves [to stall US troop movements," Viktor Kremenyuk, the deputy director of the USA-Canada Institute in Moscow, said in an interview posted by the Strana.ru website.
Kremenyuk is among those policy makers who readily admit "the Soviet times have ended for good," adding that Moscow urgently needs to develop a new foreign policy calculus to replace outdated Cold War formulas. Some Russian defense experts even speak in envious terms in suggesting that the United States is adapting more rapidly to the new global security order than is Russia. While the United States is taking steps to make its armed forces more mobile, "Russia and its rusting military are left to sulk on the sidelines," widely respected defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer wrote in the Moscow Times.
Some experts say events in the Caucasus, especially the brewing conflict in South Ossetia, offer a clear example of the shortcomings in Russia's geopolitical thinking. "The situation in South Ossetia merely attests once again to the fact that the country [Russia] lacks any kind of proactive plan," said an August 11 commentary posted by the Russian web site Gazeta.ru. The analysis went on to register concern that "Moscow has doomed itself to getting squeezed out of that region [the Caucasus]."
Russia can best defend its interests by setting aside its competitive impulses and fully embracing a policy based on cooperation with Washington, some analysts contend. They emphasize that Russia and the United States now share a common strategic objective the containment of Islamic radicalism. One defense observer, retired Maj. Gen. Pavel Zolotarev, who heads the Foundation for Military Reform, argued that "neither the United States nor Russia is in a position to cope with present-day [Islamic radical] threats on its own." In a detailed analysis published by the defense journal Nezavisimoye Voyennoe Obozreniye, Zolotarev suggested that joint US-Russian bases, operating under the auspices of a NATO-Russia council, would be the most efficient way of combating the Islamic radical threat in Central Asia.
The notion of jointly staffed bases is gaining adherents in Russia. It is also an idea that has been endorsed by Askar Akayev, the president of Kyrgyzstan, which is home to both a US and Russian military base. According to an August 18 report in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily, Moscow's USA-Canada Institute, along with the US think tank, the Rand Corporation, indicated that the feasibility of joint bases should be explored.
Although those favoring cooperation are gaining prominence, policy analysts who advocate competition with the United States are still numerous. An August 11 analysis by Dmitri Bagiro, posted on the Politkom.ru web site, underscores that a sizable number of policy makers continue to believe that Russia can roll back US influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Bagiro argued the tide in the geopolitical competition in the two regions was turning in Moscow's favor, noting that Russia's growing economic influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia can play a key role in helping the Kremlin achieve its geopolitical objectives in the regions. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"The prolonged crisis in Iraq is not allowing the [Bush] administration to devote much attention to the Central Asian region," Bagiro asserted. "At the same time, Russia has started working more regularly and more intensively with the leaders of Central Asian states."
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 1988-1997; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC, 1995, and a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York, 2000. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.