The New Great Game in Central Asia and Implications for Regional Politics

By: Saad Marwat

The Soviet Union was disintegrated in 1989, which resulted in the emergence of new energy-rich Central Asian States also known as Central Asian Republics or CARs. The proceeding decades were marked by US unilateralism and expansion of US Foreign Policy that resulted in US hegemony and expansion of US military bases across the globe, especially in the CARs. For many years, the disintegration forced Russia to go in the background of international and regional politics and work on sorting out its internal matters. Then came Vladimir Putin.

Russia under Putin first flexed its muscles in 2008, when Moscow sent forces to troubled region of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in order to counter Georgian forces. Georgia lost and withdrew its forces into original positions, ceasefire was signed between Moscow and Tbilisi in Paris. Furthermore, following the ceasefire, Abkhazia and South Ossetia were declared independent states. The Russian quest for increasing its influence didn’t end here. In March 2014, Russia initiated the annexation Crimea, which it claimed was historically Russian territory and not Ukrainian. Moreover, Russia, over the years has also worked on a policy of entering into lucrative military and economic deals with CARs, which ensures its influence over the ex-Soviet CARs.

Considering the geostrategic importance of Central Asia, the tacit war between USA and Russia is still being fought even though the Cold War officially ended after the Soviet disintegration. Washington has pursued actions such as intimidating countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and creating a presence for itself in form of military bases. Russia claims that such a strategy is creating a “ring of fire” around Russian borders in form of U.S. military bases. Also, the U.S. innovations and interventions don’t end here. Washington, in the recent years, has been accused by Russia of making biological weapons in Central Asia and Eurasia. Such claims by Russia might seem far-fetched given the limited media coverage, yet the presence of the Labs in itself might present a point for concern for Russia.  According to Georgian media, Lugar laboratory in Tbilisi is a slow acting lethal weapons.

According to Washington the lab’s objective is to eradicate different diseases. Moscow believes that Lugar laboratory is involved in spreading diseases and is making biological weapons. Furthermore, lab and its research direction continue to sour relations between Tbilisi and Moscow. Russian foreign ministry says that biological weapons convention treaty prohibits the development of biological weapons, and especially conducting experiments on human subjects. According to experts from Russian institute of strategic studies (RISS) Pentagon has also constructed lab on the old Soviet base in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Russian experts believe that construction of base will pave the way for the US to test biological weapons away from its homeland hence escaping the public sentiment.

In terms of military advances, besides Central Asia and Eurasia, Washington has also constructed Center for tactical operations (CTO’s) in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many analysts believe that a massive US presence in the region aims maintain its hegemony and to contain Beijing and Moscow. Washington has also intensified its military presence in South China Sea and is holding naval exercises with Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). On the contrary, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has called for complete withdrawal of US military from Central Asian nations (CARS).

The incumbent President of United States, Donald Trump wants to work with Moscow on many issues like, combating terrorism, reducing nuclear weapons and increasing trade and investment. But dealing with Iran and North Korea will still be a challenge for Washington because the ties between Moscow and Tehran have improved significantly and both share common objectives in Middle East, primarily in Syria.

Russia has deep reservations regarding United States build up in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) has intensified its military presence in Poland and Latvia. Analysts believe that military presence in the region is response to Russian annexation of Crimea and its support to separatists in Ukraine. While NATO says that build up is our commitment to peace in the continent.

On the other hand China, one of Russia’s stronger allies, is also rapidly increasing its naval presence in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims its own territory. The initiation of “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) project by Chinese President Xi Jinping will bring many changes to the region. China Pakistan Economic Corridor is a flagship project of OBOR; it will connect Gwadar to underdeveloped regions of Western China through road and hence bypassing the long and heavily militarized route of Indian Ocean. On the other hand, Russia is also moving Eastward by re-establishing its ties with countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan. Recently, the military ties between Islamabad and Moscow have improved considerably, and both nations have conducted joint military exercise. Pakistan has also signed a deal with Moscow to buy attack helicopters. These developments indicate that former cold war rivals are moving in the right direction.

The focus of the new great game is on the energy-rich Central Asia. All major actors, Russia, India, China, United States, Pakistan and Iran are working to achieve their interests by bolstering and shifting alliances. Both United States and Russia posses thousands of nuclear warheads, and misadventure by any side could lead to a catastrophic war which world cannot afford. Interesting times lie ahead, especially when it is yet to be seen how Trump would move forward in terms of US-Russia ties, and whether Putin would succeed in convincing Trump to abandon Central Asian military bases circling Russia’s border.

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