BACKGROUND: In his state-of-the-Federation address on April 18, Vladimir Putin made one thing perfectly clear: the Commonwealth of Independent States will remain the top priority of the Russian foreign policy. Putin’s speech contained altogether nine paragraphs dealing with foreign affairs, and seven of them were dedicated to the so-called “near abroad.” Putin put Russian interests in the context of Russian security, claiming that the problem of whether or not to support the anti-terrorist coalition “did not even exist” for Russia. But taking into account the two tense weeks between the September 11 attack and the clear statement by Putin that Russia will cooperate with the U.S. in full, it stands to reason that there was a debate behind the Kremlin walls over what the right course of action should be. Furthermore, Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov first stated that the NATO troops will not have basing rights in Central Asia, only to be overruled by Putin later, when resistance would in any case have been largely futile. In his speech, Putin took credit for the “liquidation of the most dangerous center of international terrorism in Afghanistan” by “common efforts.” He stated that on September 11 “many in the world realized the Cold War is over” and that the new war is going on – against international terrorism. Putin claims that Russian foreign policy will be entirely pragmatic. He called CIS, the post-Soviet half-house, a “real factor of stability on the vast territory…an influential association of states.” The key paragraph in the speech proclaimed that “work with the CIS states is the main foreign policy priority of Russia, a priority linked to achieving competitive advantages in global markets.” He stressed implementation of large infrastructure projects in transportation and energy to boost regional integration. He also mentioned integration through “humanitarian” and educational projects, calling to boost the number of students from the CIS countries in Russian colleges financed by the Russian government up to 1 percent of the total, recalling the USSR’s similar attempt to attract students from Third World countries to develop a cadre of sympathetic elites. Putin’s speech was, on the whole, peaceful. He stated that the only way Russia will challenge foreign countries was through economic competition. However, the Russian military put a different spin on recent developments in the region. Spokesmen for the Russian Defense Ministry have repeatedly warned against the long-term U.S. domination of Central Asia after September 11.
IMPLICATIONS: On April 15, The Russian military launched a large-scale anti-terrorism exercise called South Anti-terror, under the umbrella of the CIS Antiterrorist Center in Bishkek, and the Collective Rapid Reaction forces – a rather small structure built around a reinforced battalion from the 201st Infantry Division located in Tajikistan. Participants in the exercise included forces from Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. Repellling a mock terrorist attack, the allied states would provide support to border guards and army units of the Collective Rapid Reaction Force, augmented by heavy military hardware, and the air force. Unlike previous maneuvers, this exercise was supervised by Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), which until now had jurisdiction in the Russian Federation only. Part of the exercise was to share with the Central Asian allies what it ‘learned’ in the Chechen campaign. Other powers are also active in the region. The U.S. is trying to protect the Afghan interim administration of Hamid Karzai, and supports the upcoming Loya Jirga (a tribal conclave to decide the next Afghan government) in June. Li Peng, the former Prime Minister and the head of the National People's Congress of China, and Artur Chilingarov, a deputy speaker of the Russian Duma, have recently discussed concerns in Central Asia at the third annual session of the Association of Asian Parliaments for Peace; and Mohammad Khatami, the President of Iran, has begun a nine day visit to Central Asia on April 22, while analysts and experts attach special importance to the Caspian summit in Ashghabat, where the Caspian Sea and its legal regime are to be discussed. Challenges to Russian interests also come from inside the region. On the eve of the Caspian summit, Turkmenistan’s President Saparmurad Turkmenbashi Niyazov once again tried to revive the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan gas pipeline. Turkmenbashi suggested that the construction a 1,500 kilometer power line and a highway parallel to the pipeline will serve as guarantees of stability in Afghanistan. In view of this complicated regional picture, Putin’s speech reflects Russia’s recognition of the limits to its power – something the Russian military has a hard time coming to grips with. While Russia may plan to boost its military presence and conduct exercises in the near term, a multi-polar security environment is gradually emerging in the region. Russia will try to protect what it perceives as its vital interests, especially in the energy sector. Opposition to alternative pipeline routes from the region that would decrease local states’ dependence on Russia is likely to be a major cornerstone of this policy. For example, Gazprom, the Russia natural gas monopoly, is anxious to maintain control over the export of gas, and is likely to fight Turkmenbashi tooth and nail on the trans-Afghanistan gas pipeline. Russia is also likely to carefully prepare for power transitions in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and eventually in Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, and work behind the scenes for pro-Russian candidates to come out on top in the succession struggles.
CONCLUSIONS: In the long term, Russia will not be able to dominate a Central Asia that already witnesses deployment of U.S. military power. China-Russia cooperation along the horizontal axis, and an India-Russia coordination along the vertical axis are in the cards. With American presence and a new security environment in the region, Russia will take the CIS in general and Central Asia in particular more seriously than before. The weakness of the Russian bureaucracy and decision-making process, as well as the lack of reform in the military and security services, represent, however, serious impediments to Russia’s power projection in the region. Putin is focused on defending Russian economic, especially energy, interests first and foremost, and on promoting integration in the military, security, business, and cultural spheres. However, pursuing their own national agendas, the countries of Central Asia are likely to pursue “multi-vector” foreign policies and will attempt to maximize their benefits by playing regional powers - and the U.S. - against each other.AUTHOR'S BIO: Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation. He is the author of Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis (Greenwood/Praeger, 1998). Cohen often consults the executive and legislative branches and comments in the international media on issues pertaining to Russia and Eurasia.
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