“Advocating for enhanced US involvement in Central Asia”

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  • Navigating Central Asia’s complex geopolitical landscape: A unique opening for US involvement
  • Central Asia primarily served as a strategic launchpad for US engagement in Afghanistan

Central Asia has often found itself on the periphery of US foreign policy priorities. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States was among the first nations to extend recognition to the newly independent states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Nonetheless, throughout much of the 21st century, Central Asia primarily served as a strategic launchpad for US engagement in Afghanistan, and little more.

In the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Central Asia’s prevailing perception of the United States has been that of a transient and opportunistic foreign power. Public opinion surveys conducted between 2017 and 2019 in the region indicated a less than favorable view of the United States. On a scale ranging from 0 to 100, with 100 signifying “very favorable,” the average opinion of the US in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan hovered in the 50s, while it reached 76 in Turkmenistan. Across all these nations, public sentiment towards the US lagged behind that towards Russia and China. It is noteworthy that this data was collected before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. However, a decline in support for Russia does not necessarily into increased support for the United States.

Central Asia’s strained relations with Russia and growing apprehensions regarding Chinese influence have now presented the United States with an opportune moment to enhance its standing through sustained, long-term investment in the region. Recognizing that it is unlikely to outspend China or even Russia, the US must adopt a meticulous and targeted approach, concentrating its efforts in areas where it can achieve the highest return on investment.

“Russia’s influence in Central Asia diminishes in wake of Ukraine conflict”

Over the past few decades, Central Asian nations have experienced several instances of Russia’s incursions into former Soviet Republics and its backing of separatist movements. However, the conflict in Ukraine has marked a turning point, leading to a noticeable decline in Russia’s sway over its former Soviet territories.

Kazakhstan appears to be the most willing to diverge from Russia. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, despite calling for CSTO assistance in the face of violent protests in January 2022, has openly defied Russian President Vladimir Putin multiple times since Russia invaded Ukraine. Tokayev has insisted that the two countries still maintain a good relationship, but has made it clear that his country will not circumvent Western sanctions to assist Russia.

At the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June 2022, Tokayev stated that Kazakhstan does not recognize “quasi-state” formations such as the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Ukraine as well as Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, for the same reasons it doesn’t recognize Taiwan or Kosovo. At the  same forum, Tokayev also declined to accept the Russian Order of Alexander Nevsky, claiming that he would not accept such honors while in office. A year later, in June 2023, Tokayev told Putin that the short-lived Wagner Group mutiny was an “internal affair of Russia.”

Despite what might be viewed by Western analysts as Tokayev’s apparent defiance of Putin and Russia, Kazakhstan is nuanced in its foreign policy approach, and any comments or actions that do not toe the Russian line should not necessarily be seen as pro-U.S. or pro-China – they’re pro-Kazakhstan. Wanting to maintain his country’s agency and choice in its political affairs, Tokayev – like other Central Asian leaders – has made it clear that his country will not be subjected exclusively to any great power’s influence.

Russia maintains influence among the Central Asian heads of state and political elite, many of whom are relics of the Soviet era. But these aging politicians and their connections to Russia are slowly fading. More than half of the region’s population is under 30; born after the dissolution of the USSR, they have much looser political and cultural ties to Russia. Public polling also indicates that Russia is losing its influence. Many respondents expressed concern over the war in Ukraine’s effects on their countries, especially in their respective economic sectors. A proactive American economic and cultural investment in Central Asia’s next generations could yield positive results for the United States for decades to come.

Russia has previously backed separatist movements in the former Soviet Republics of Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine, so the possibility of Russia involving itself in Central Asian separatist movements is never out of the question. While not always the case, this has been a tool Moscow uses to punish former Soviet Republics for drifting from Moscow’s orbit. If Central Asian states were to move closer to China or the U.S., or simply distance themselves from Russia, fanning the flames of preexisting separatist movements is a possible recourse from Moscow.

Over the past 30 years, Tajikistan has often crushed what it deemed as rebellious activity in the Gorno-Badakhshan region, with government forces killing dozens of protestors last year and arresting many more. In neighboring Uzbekistan, the largest political violence since the 2005 Andijan massacre occurred last year in the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan, where government officials reported 21 dead and nearly 250 injured. Although Kazakhstan hasn’t experienced any notable separatist movements in the 21st century, ethnic Russians make up roughly 15 percent of Kazakhstan’s total population. Tensions in these countries’ autonomous regions and among their ethnic minorities could be stoked by Russia; however, deeper U.S. investment in Central Asia could deter any potential for encouraging disruptive separatist movements.

Growing Popular Sino-Skepticism: Wariness and Necessity 

Russia isn’t the only great power in the neighborhood. Over the past decade, China has invested a significant amount of time and resources into Central Asia. The region’s governments have largely welcomed increased Chinese investment through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but public opinion tells a different story. Skepticism of China has been prevalent in Central Asian countries for centuries, most recently owing in part to Soviet-era propaganda that reinforced Sinophobia after the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s. In recent years, a biannual survey conducted by the Central Asia Barometer in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan has pointed to a downward trend in public sentiment toward China.

But even if Central Asian countries are hesitant about doing business with China, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have left them with limited other options. Deals with China are not without their flaws, though. Low levels of regulation and oversight have allowed the BRI to spread what can be described as “crony capitalism” across Central Asia. These building projects have enabled local and regional elites to grow their power. One former Kyrgyz employee of a gold mining company said that “you can only get a job through corruption or relatives.” It appears that Chinese government investment, particularly through the BRI, has only reinforced existing localized corruption across Central Asia.

In addition to economic interests, China’s interest in Central Asia stems from security concerns associated with its Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan all border the Xinjiang region, and ethnic Central Asians living in Xinjiang have been subjected to intense scrutiny from Chinese security. In 2017, hundreds of ethnic Kyrgyz living in Xinjiang reportedly were sent to the so-called re-education centers. As of last year, additional reports have suggested at least 10,000 ethnic Kyrgyz have been detained and placed in these re-education centers. The story is the same with ethnic Kazakhs, including residents of Kazakhstan, who have been detained in these camps. Former detainees have spoken of months of incarceration, which they said included torture and receiving unknown injections. These events have contributed to growing Chinese resentment amongst Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, especially along the border.

“To rebuild reputation in Central Asia, US must adopt tailored approach”

In order to restore its standing in Central Asia, the United States must adopt a nuanced strategy tailored both to the region as a whole and to the specific needs of individual countries within it. A range of options presents themselves for consideration, encompassing economic investment, private sector engagement, language immersion initiatives, and support for counter terrorism efforts.

The imperative for renewed US economic investment in Central Asia has become evident. Earlier this year, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken embarked on a historic visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, marking the first in-person visit by a sitting US secretary of state in over three years. During this visit, Secretary Blinken reaffirmed the US commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Central Asian nations and announced an additional $20 million in funding for the Economic Resilience Initiative in Central Asia (ERICEN), bringing the total funding since its September 2022 launch to $50 million. ERICEN’s key pillars encompass expanding trade routes, supporting the private sector, and investing in human capital through training and education.

While ERICEN’s efforts have received a mixed reception, with some praising its focused approach and emphasis on international standards, others have expressed reservations, citing the comparatively modest scale of US funding when compared to other global powers, particularly China. Indeed, China recently unveiled a $4 billion investment in Central Asia, signaling its growing commitment to the region.

Expanding US investment need not rely solely on government funding; the private sector has been actively investing in Central Asia. The US State Department reports that private sector investment has exceeded $31 billion in commercial ventures across the region. US private sector involvement could contribute to the expansion of Central Asian energy exports, particularly as Europe seeks to diversify its energy sources away from Russia. This could yield economic benefits and foster deeper trilateral relations between the United States, the European Union, and Central Asia. Moreover, US private sector investment could play a pivotal role in enhancing Central Asian energy security, especially by promoting the development of renewable energy infrastructure.

Promoting English-language immersion programs represents another avenue through which the United States can bolster its standing in Central Asia. Initiatives such as the “C5+ONE” program, led by organizations like the American Councils for International Education, aim to enhance English proficiency among government, civil society, and private sector employees in all five Central Asian countries. Such programs serve as gateways to the global economy for Central Asian residents while strengthening ties with the United States.

Another area where the US can provide substantial support is in the realm of counter terrorism. The deployment of large numbers of US forces could potentially provoke reactions from Russia or China. In such a scenario, it would be prudent for the United States to minimize its military footprint while maximizing the benefits of its presence by leveraging existing relationships. The State Partnership Program, which has fostered connections between National Guard units and Central Asian countries, offers a foundation for cooperation. Furthermore, the United States has a history of conducting multinational training exercises, like Steppe Eagle, which have brought together troops from the United States, the United Kingdom, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

Building upon these established connections, the United States could consider rotating units through the region to support counter terrorism efforts and contribute to “over the horizon” capabilities, enabling targeted actions against terrorist groups without the need for a large troop presence. The 3rd Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) within the US Army is well-positioned for this role, with CENTCOM as its designated area of responsibility. The SFAB’s mission emphasizes advising, supporting, liaising, and assessing operations with allied and partner nations, indicating a less conspicuous role for US troops. Employing the 3rd SFAB to bolster counter terrorism operations in Central Asia could offer a lower-risk approach, allowing the United States to maintain military ties in the region without raising concerns from China or Russia about permanent basing.

These recommendations represent only a selection of the numerous strategies available to the United States for strengthening its relationships in Central Asia. Russian and Chinese influence in the region remains enduring due to geographic proximity and established trade links, making it unlikely for these dynamics to be entirely overturned. Nonetheless, opportunities like the current one are rare, and the United States must seize them. As Sir Halford Mackinder asserted over a century ago in “The Geographical Pivot of History,” control over the “Heartland,” where modern-day Central Asia resides, would lead to paramount global influence. In contemporary times, this influence may not manifest as control, but it is essential for the United States to wield significant influence rather than remain on the periphery of this critical region.