As Russia continues to pursue an aggressive diplomatic strategy (augmented by unacknowledged military support) towards former Soviet republic states Ukraine and Georgia, Western analysts, policymakers, and strategists have found themselves increasingly compelled to focus attention on the subtle but important changes in the security dynamic of Central Asia.

Central Asia: Contested

The eternal battle for resources and domination of Eurasia, immortalized in Halford Mackinder’s “Geographical Pivot of History,” entered a new phase with the dissolution of the Soviet empire. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and competing powers maneuvered for domination of key areas of the former empire, anxious to assert control over valuable sources of energy and terrain that would ensure a long-term dominance of what amounts to an essential piece of world geography: Central Asia.

As every agreement is codified by states such as the U.S., the European Union, Russia, and China, each player moves pieces along what Zbigniew Brzezinski called “The Grand Chessboard.” Each move inspires an effort by the others to balance or outmaneuver competing states. For Russian strategists, Central Asia is historically a buffer zone against invasion and a valuable source of energy. Accordingly, the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin has moved assertively in recent years to ensure Russian predominance over the former Soviet republics of the post-Soviet space. While Moscow pursued military solutions for conflicts in Chechnya and Ukraine, it has taken a different approach in Central Asia, preferring quiet diplomatic engagement of the autocratic and authoritarian regimes of states such as Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.

Perhaps signaling a willingness to work with Western governments and entice foreign investment or, alternatively, a possible game of brinkmanship with the Kremlin in order to elicit greater financial gain from Russia, Uzbekistan’s longtime President Islam Karimov announced in mid-January that Uzbekistan would not pursue membership in the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The EEU, which launched on January 1st, is comprised of Russia and former Soviet republics Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Armenia is also expected to accede to the organization later this year.

Increased United States and European Union interest in facilitating lasting trade relationships with the former Soviet republic states of Central Asia is likely to increase tension between the West and Russia. Over the course of my next few articles, I will examine how the changing security landscape in Eurasia (specifically in Central Asia) could impact the already high tensions between the West and Russia. I will also assess the likelihood that these changes could lead to war, how that war could materialize, and in what areas violent conflict is most likely to emerge. In this piece, I begin by exploring the changing relationship between the U.S. and Uzbekistan.

United States (public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

On February 14th, The Times of Central Asia reported statements by United States Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central Asia Daniel Rosenblum that signal a shift in U.S. policy toward the post-Soviet space of Central Asia. Tensions in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus continue to ratchet upward as interests of the U.S./European Union and Russia collide along unofficial lines of demarcation in the arc stretching from Ukraine and Moldova to the Caucasus. Even subtle hints at increased U.S. interest in developing relationships with former Soviet republics have consequential implications for the conflict between the West and Russia. While Rosenblum was careful to cloak his statement on U.S. policy shifts in the region in terms of the ongoing effort to combat the spread of Islamist terrorism into Central Asia, it was obvious that improved relations with the states of the post-Soviet space also contain economic and security issues unrelated to the so-called “war on terrorism”:

“We don’t want to see the Central Asian countries become safe havens for terrorist groups. So we want to expand our security cooperation to meet threats that we share, transnational threats, terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and we also talked about the emergence of ISIL, the organization of ISIL,” the Deputy Assistant Secretary said.