Russia, China reinvent their moorings in Central Asia

Soldiers from US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division line up in a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III to parachute into a drop zone in Central Asia in a spectacular display of the longest distance airborne operation in military history, Chimkent, Kazakhstan, Sept. 15, 1997.

The United States, which was de facto assuming the historical role of Great Britain in the 19th century Great Game in Central Asia, was inclined to take a relaxed view of China’s return to the region in the first decade of the post-Soviet period. China’s rise had not yet become a compelling geopolitical reality in the Central Asian region or in world politics and the US’ global strategies.

The US analysts even fancied that China could be a potential geopolitical partner for the West to roll back the predominant Russian influence in the Central Asian region. 

The US had no history of engagement with the Central Asian region prior to the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the USSR. But that didn’t mean that the remote, landlocked Muslim republics at the periphery of the Soviet Union didn’t draw the attention of the American strategists. The Fergana Valley, heaving heavily with the tumult of radical islam was a talking point all through the Soviet era ever since Joesph Stalin addressed the nationality question in Central Asia from the Marxist-Leninist perspective.  

Arguably, the US strategists should have had a convergence of interests with Boris Yeltsin’s Russia to work together in a cooperative and coordinated spirit to facilitate an orderly transition of the Central Asian region and in bringing about a democratic transformation in the region from a long term perspective.

All indications are that Russia was very much open to such cooperation. In fact, the US and Russia collaborated successfully for the removal of nuclear weapons from the Soviet inventory deployed in Kazakhstan. However, the strategic thinking was lacking in Washington over a scenario where Russia could be a useful ally to counter rising China.

On the contrary, by the middle of the 1990s, the Bill Clinton administration began sensing, rightly so, that it was a matter of time before Yeltsin and his circle of pro-western Russian elite would get disillusioned with the US’ singular disinterest in visualising the Kremlin leadership as an equal partner in regional politics in the former Soviet republics.

Yeltsin’s circle had a preponderance of “westernists” in the early part of the 1990s. Nonetheless, why the US missed such a golden opportunity still remains a mystery. In retrospect, a democratic Russia and a democratised Central Asia would have meant a near-total isolation of China in the Eurasian landmass.

The only plausible explanation could be that the US regarded it as inevitable that the Sino-Russian normalisation which was already getting under way in the late 1980s would inexorably lead to a strategic realignment in Eurasia and a dual containment strategy toward the two big powers would become necessary. 

Thus, the US concentrated on strengthening the “independence” of the Central Asian states and developing access routes for them to the world market bypassing Russian territory, which meant, plainly put, getting them to move out of Moscow’s orbit. In sum, by the second half of the 1990s, the first stirrings of the great game had begun to appear. 

When I took up the diplomatic assignment in Tashkent in 1995, Uzbekistan was well on the way to become the principal theatre where a Russian-American struggle for influence was playing out. The US pampered the vanities of the mercurial Uzbek leader President Islam Karimov who staunchly believed in his country’s destiny as a regional power, and played on his calibrated distancing from interdependency with Russia. The US also could tap into the tensions between Moscow and Tashkent over the Tajik civil war (1992-1997), which ended finally with the joint Russian-Iranian initiative, much to the discomfiture of Washington.

Russia was hard-pressed to push back at the US, given the lack of resources and the overall political disarray in Moscow at that time. But Moscow could count on the Soviet-trained elite who were largely running the Central Asian states, who empathised with Russia. For the Central Asian elites, Moscow still remained the metropolis. Besides, the Soviet era supply chain, energy ties, Russian media, Central Asian migrant workers in Russia, etc. also worked to Moscow’s advantage. Under the trying circumstances, the Russian diplomats did rather well in Tashkent and other Central Asian capitals to shore up Moscow’s influence in the steppes. 

Toward the second half of the 1990s, however, the international environment began changing dramatically which impacted the regional security situation in Central Asia. The debate in Washington and the NATO allies in Europe over the alliance’s eastward expansion into the territories of the former Soviet Union had commenced by the mid-1990s — incredibly enough, within four to five years of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in a cynical abandonment of of the western assurances held out to Mikhail Gorbachev that the alliance would never expand eastward toward Russian borders after th disbandment of the Warsaw Pact in a post-cold war setting in Eurasia.  

By 1999, in the face of furious Russian opposition, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were admitted as NATO members. This was followed by another NATO expansion with the accession of seven Central and Eastern European countries — Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. These nations were first invited to start talks of membership during the 2002 Prague summit and joined NATO shortly before the alliance’s 2004 Istanbul summit.

By the second half of the 1990s, the US had already begun co-opting the Central Asian states to enter into partnership agreements with the NATO under the high-sounding rubric Partnership for Peace. The US agenda was to  weaken and undermine the Russia-led collective security system in Central Asia. 

Meanwhile, the Central Asian security situation also began to get complicated with the capture of power in Kabul by the Taliban in 1996. The Taliban’s push toward the northern border regions of Afghanistan in 1997 turned extremely violent resulting in the massacre of thousands of people in the Amu Darya region. The horrific events traumatised the Central Asian elites. 

Incidents like the ghastly murder of former Afghan president Najibullah in Kabul in September 1996 and the killing of 8 Iranian diplomats and the IRNA correspondent by the Taliban militia attacking the consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif in August 1998 shocked the Central Asian elites (although the Taliban spokesmen typically put the blame on renegade forces who had acted without orders.)

Karimov even ordered that huge concrete boulders be put across the railroad bridge spanning Amu Darya, which connected the city of Termez with Mazar-i-Sharif to blockade it from any predatory moves by the Taliban.  

The Central Asian elites read the tea leaves correctly that the Taliban was a creation of Pakistan, the US and the wealthy Arab Sheikhs with a certain geopolitical agenda directed against the regional states. In the bargain, the US image suffered in the Central Asian region.

Curiously, the then US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs Robin Raphel undertook a regional tour of the Central Asian capitals in 1997 with a brief to try to persuade the Central Asian elites (in vain) that the Taliban was an indigenous Afghan movement and it did not really pose any security threats to their countries. 

The Central Asian countries were well aware that the Taliban representatives were feted by the Big Oil in Texas. Indeed, the US was hard-pressed to identify or lend support to the anti-Taliban resistance known as the Northern Alliance, which took shape in 1997-1998. All in all, the contradictions in the US’ Central Asian strategy began surging in the backdrop of the ascendance of the Taliban.  

The Pentagon’s response was to stage a spectacular display of sheer military capability in September 1997, when the US Army’s 82nd airborne division conducted an exercise with a Kazakh-Kyrgyz-Uzbek joint battalion (known as CentrasBat) with the longest-distance airborne operation in military history. 

Six US C-17 transport planes flew 12,500 kilometres, 19 hours non-stop, with two mid-air refuellings, from the 82nd division’s base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to Sairam airport near the city of Chimkent in Kazakhstan. The planes carried 800 US soldiers, who parachuted to secure the Kazakh airport close to the Uzbek border against a hypothetical adversary. The commander of US Atlantic forces, four-star Gen. John Sheehan, was the first to jump at Sairam airport. 

The impressive exercise was intended to showcase the US military capability to be the region’s provider of security and it seemingly presupposed a peacekeeping operation in Central Asia under the NATO operational command. (Token units from three NATO countries were also involved in the exercise — Turkey, Denmark and Germany.) Gen. Sheehan stated that the exercise highlighted “the US interest that the Central Asian states lived in stability” and the fact that “there is no nation on the face of the earth where we (US) can’t go.” 

The goals of the military exercise were defined, amongst other things, as: improving interoperability between the NATO countries and their Central Asian partners; asserting the US support for the independence of Central Asian states; and, demonstrating that support to “neighbouring countries.” 

The US was also working at that time on a parallel diplomatic track to create a regional forum under its leadership to harmonise and integrate commercial, diplomatic and democratic relations between the former Soviet republics. Known as GUAM (Organization for Democracy and Economic Development) — much like today’s QUAD in the Asia-Pacific — this four-member grouping was conceived in 1997 and it comprised Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova. (Ironically, the GUAM was established in Strasbourg.) 

The US intention was to ultimately use GUAM to establish a military peacekeeping force and organise joint military exercises. In 1999, GUAM was renamed as GUUAM when Uzbekistan was admitted as a member. (Uzbekistan later withdrew from GUUAM following the US-instigated uprising in Andijan in Fergana Valley in 2005.) Of course, these geopolitical manoeuvrings by the US to hijack Central Asia to the western orbit were closely watched in Moscow and Beijing.

Unsurprisingly, by the second half of the 1990s, Moscow began reaching out to Beijing. The incipient signs of a Sino-Russian rapprochement first appeared during Russian president Boris Yeltsin’s visit to China in December 1992. They proliferated rapidly in the increased synergy in the relations between the two countries and by the end of the decade, Moscow and Beijing had reached a mature phase in their bilateral relations with broad economic, political, cultural, and security dimensions and stable, institutionalised mechanisms binding the two powers together.

The Central Asian region’s ancient history had reached a defining moment. Curiously, the term “strategic partnership” was first used to characterise the Sino-Russian relations during the April 1996 bilateral summit held in Beijing between Chinese leader Jiang Zemin and Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

The Jiang-Yeltsin summit was quickly followed up in the next several days when the two leaders flew to Shanghai to meet with the leaders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan where they signed an agreement on “confidence building in the military field of border areas.” This led to the formation of the so-called “Shanghai-5”, a loose coalition that would eventually evolve by 2001 into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. 

READ ALSO: Return of Great Game in Post-Soviet Central Asia, November 22, 2020