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.