“We Didn’t Start the Fire” is a column in collaboration with Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen network, a premier group of next generation foreign policy leaders committed to principled American engagement in the world. This column elevates the voices of diverse young leaders as they establish themselves as authorities in their areas of expertise and expose readers to new ideas and priorities. Here you can read about emergent perspectives, policies, risks, and opportunities that will shape the future of US foreign policy.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine clearly demonstrates post-Soviet spaces are not safe from Russian aggression, especially Central Asia. It is a region that gained its independence from the Soviet Union nearly 30 years ago but remains dependent on Russia in economic, diplomatic, and security realms.
Central Asian countries — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan — export most of their oil supplies through Russia and also rely on remittances from their citizens who work there. Russia has been the region’s main mediator when conflicts like the Fergana Valley resource disputes erupted. Some Central Asian countries are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which serves as a military alliance with Russia and other former Soviet states. Through its support of Central Asian militaries and assistance to authoritarian leaders who nurture deep institutional corruption, Russia remains a guarantor of stability for the region.
Central Asian countries fear they could face the same threats from Russia as Ukraine as they have struggled to break away from Russia’s hold since independence, and have struggled to practice sovereignty and self-governance. This apprehension is not unwarranted as Russia’s potential failure to recreate itself as a great power with its invasion of Ukraine could lead it to set its sights on Central Asia as another area to expand its influence. As such, Central Asian countries will have to reassess Russian military-political influence on their own governments and seek alternative relationships to break the region away from Russia’s influence.
The rise in pluralism and a large young demographic in Central Asia has contributed to movements seeking to end corruption and advance democratic governance and economic prosperity. For example, the Kazakh government relied on Russian-led forces to stop its 2022 anti-government protests. Nonetheless, Kazakh President Tokayev has not stepped up to aid Russia in its attack on Ukraine. Aware that new waves of anti-government protests could arise in response to support for Russia’s invasion, all Central Asian countries either abstained (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan) or did not vote at all (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) for the UN General Assembly’s resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This could be the beginning of a major transformation in the region as citizens pressure their governments for reforms. The US can leverage this ripe moment of Central Asian civilian criticism and dissatisfaction with Russia’s influence on its governments to increase its impact in the region.
A DOOR OPENING FOR THE US
The US policy toward Central Asian countries since their independence from Soviet Russia has been a blanket-term policy of supporting sovereignty and capacity for self-governance while completely ignoring each countries’ respective interests and how they may align with US interests. At the onset of the Global War on Terror, Central Asia became a hub of counterterrorism efforts, where the US emphasized security over everything else in its interactions with the region. The Biden administration can amend the US’s strategy in Central Asia and formulate adaptive and future-forward economic, diplomatic, and security foreign policies for Central Asia in two ways.
The US treating the region as one large cookie-cutter country obscures important differences and hinders an effective approach to the region.
First, the US needs to assure Central Asian states that they are not limited to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) loans and Russia’s threats of building dams to pressure countries to work together. China’s BRI has been especially problematic. China hopes to connect with the world via building a transportation network through the contested Fergana Valley. Yet, these transportation projects will bring in Chinese workers rather than using the local labor force, which is something that all Central Asian countries have protested. Furthermore, China’s ambitions have increased tensions amongst the countries that border the Fergana Valley regarding resources. Finally, Central Asian states and their publics are acutely aware of the BRI debt trap, but seem to be unable to avoid it. Through bilateral and regional cooperation, the US can help the region become less reliant on Russia and China’s soft power influence and preeminent position in regional dynamics to form their own strategies for the future.
Second, the US can assist Central Asia in strengthening its role as a connector for the East and West. Rich in oil, gas, and energy, the US can focus on globalizing these markets by increasing foreign investments and diversifying the region’s private sectors. Socio-economic improvement depends on the region’s ability to strengthen its transparency measures to weed out the region’s prevalent corruption. Citizens in Central Asia care about transparent and accountable governments, with one of their main concerns being corruption. With the US’ interest in rooting out global corruption — especially Russian-driven corruption — the US can help Central Asian countries accomplish these priorities. Anti-corruption measures will further globalize the region’s economy and attract foreign investment to the region while opening the region to non-Russian avenues for economic prosperity.
VIEWING CENTRAL ASIA AS A STRATEGIC ALLY
A sustainable reform process and the strengthening of a US relationship in the region requires the understanding of each country’s values. The US treating the region as one large cookie-cutter country obscures important differences and hinders an effective approach to the region. For example, US policymakers must recognize that while Turkmenistan is a closed and authoritarian country, Uzbekistan is a regional power in the making, and Kazakhstan is becoming more open and liberal. This is where the power of diplomacy comes to play. Today, US ambassadors are stationed in three (with one pending) of the five countries. Diplomatically, the US must have representation in all five countries to ensure all unique positions are heard and represented to ensure democracy promotion occurs in all Central Asian countries.
The US, however, needs to start viewing Central Asia as a strategic ally in all areas that matter to its interests in the region, such as environmental issues. Conflict in the Fergana Valley has put a strain on resources for the entire region, leading to ethnic violence and a breeding ground for Russian and Chinese exploitation. There is a shared interest amongst Central Asian countries to contain further environmental destruction and negotiate control over natural gas, oil, minerals, and water as the countries in the region rely on one another for different resources of the Fergana Valley. A future resource-sharing agreement can help the US leverage this common ground and assist with negotiations and trust-building measures amongst the governments of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan regarding access to resources in the Fergana Valley. After all, Central Asian states are not new to resource-sharing agreements, which existed while they were part of the Soviet Union. There has been some movement toward an agreement; the first time the countries met to discuss one was in 2021, but no formal agreement has been signed.
Education is another strategic area where the US and Central Asia states can cooperate. One of Russia and China’s soft power tactics is creating opportunities for Central Asian students to study at their universities. Increasing education opportunities in the US and prioritizing an increase in student visas specifically for Central Asians pursuing studies in energy, water, and environmental science can help solve a lot of infrastructure difficulties in Central Asia. Education exchanges are a tried method of cultural connectedness and understanding between the US and other countries, but can also help alleviate Central Asia’s infrastructure development dependency from China’s BRI.
SEIZING THE OPPORTUNITY
When asked about Central Asia, most Americans sum up the region as one big country name + “stan.” While this partly has to do with a sense of mysticism behind the vast cultures, history, and diversity in the region, the US’s lackluster relationship and foreign policy with Central Asian countries can take the blame for the misunderstanding of this geopolitical and economically important region in the world.
Central Asian countries fear a similar annexation that is currently ongoing in Ukraine within their borders as they struggle to break away from Russia’s hold since independence. It’s the beginning of a major transformation in the region as citizens pressure their governments for reforms. Central Asian governments do not want to become an area of contention for Russia, China, the US, or any other countries, and want to avoid getting dragged down by great power politics. What happens in Central Asia 10 years down the line depends on the decisions we make now, and we need to ensure long-term prosperity for the region’s next generation of leaders. We can prevent another Ukraine-like crisis in Central Asia if the Biden administration starts to see Central Asia as a real strategic ally.
Maya Allaf is a Senior Consultant at Capgemini Government Solutions in the Defense & National Security space. A recent graduate in Conflict Management and International Economics from Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, her research focuses primarily on US, Russian, and Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East and the Balkans.