Not willing to cede influence in Central Asia to either Russia or China, the United States is quietly ramping up efforts to build direct relations with the five Central Asian states, all of them former Soviet republics.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry makes a statement to the press after a meeting with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon in Dushanbe, November 3, 2015. Photo: Pool Photo via AP

Central Asia once again could become the focus of growing attention from the United States and its European allies. At the July NATO Summit in Warsaw, the Alliance reaffirmed its support for the current government in Afghanistan, a nation that continues to be a potential source of instability in the region, a magnet for radical Islamists and a crucial link to Central Asia.

It’s clear that both the U.S. and NATO are paying attention to the potential security risks and reacting accordingly. For example, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared that the Alliance’s mission in Afghanistan would be extended until the end of 2017 and its size would remain unchanged (around 12,000 people).

At the same time, Moscow is also keeping its eye on developments in Central Asia, given that the former Soviet republics have rather long and porous borders with Afghanistan. For Russia, it means that the chances of terrorists infiltrating into its territory through these former Soviet republics are greatly increasing. According to Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, Russia doesn’t yet fully understand what is going on in Central Asia and that makes it vulnerable.

“Keep in mind that Afghanistan borders former Soviet republics, which are going through a very difficult period of time: We don’t actually know what is happening there beneath the surface [in Central Asia],” Trenin said in an interview with Russia Direct.

The recent shooting in the city of Aktobe in Kazakhstan in June is a warning sign, given it is very close to the Russian border," he clarified. "What will happen there in the future we don’t really know, because we are living in another reality, we are thinking in the categories of the Soviet past in our perception of what is going on in Central Asia. In fact, we don’t know well this region.”

According to Trenin, security problems could emerge very soon, taking into account the fact that Russia doesn’t have a well-protected border with Central Asian countries. Meanwhile, the U.S. is trying to keep a close eye on the events that are taking place in Central Asia beneath the surface. But will the U.S. succeed amidst confrontation with the key regional stakeholder – Russia?

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U.S. policy in Central Asia

U.S. foreign policy in the post-Soviet space has changed considerably in just the short period that strategic limited confrontation emerged between Moscow and Washington. The policy towards Central Asia stands out particularly against this backdrop. A new dialogue platform, the C5+1 Ministerial Meeting, which includes the five countries of the region (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) and was established during the visit of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in November 2015, demonstrates the shift in Washington’s stance on Central Asia.

Some experts are concerned that the new U.S. policy is aimed at decreasing Russian influence in the region. They view any calls upon the Central Asian countries to “choose its pole, either siding with Russia or the West” as potentially destabilizing.

Some even voice the opinion that the Americans are planning to stay in Central Asia for a long period of time and have a definitive long-term strategy in the region. Yet the reality shows that revitalization of the U.S. foreign policy in Central Asia was contextual and strictly limited in time, meaning the U.S. presence in the region would decrease thereafter.

For a long time Washington attempted to combine two approaches: promoting democratic values and attempting to establish cooperation in the field of security with the key countries in the region. Nevertheless, the U.S. focus on human rights and its desire to impose a democratic agenda hindered the implementation of security initiatives. Washington encountered a serious lack of understanding on the part of the Central Asian states - they made it clear to the United States that they would not have difficulties finding another strong partner in the region, probably hinting at Russia.

That is precisely why today it is in the interest of the United States to change its approaches to Central Asia, since a greater priority should be given to security matters as opposed to human rights. If, over a medium- and long-term perspective, the United States and the five countries of the region are not able to develop their relations according to the new format and human rights remain a major stumbling block, Washington will cede its place to other regional actors – Russia or China.

The inability to develop a viable cooperation framework remains the main challenge to Washington and other states in the region. The new platform that was announced – the C5+1 - is neither an alliance institution nor a collective security structure. The new platform rather resembles a dialogue platform on certain issues of regional security where mutual trust should be essential.

U.S. Central Asian policy: Preliminary results

According to Richard Hoagland, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, Americans do not consider Central Asia to be a unified and monolithic region, despite the establishment of a common dialogue platform with Central Asian countries. However, the C5+1 platform for the U.S.-Central Asia dialogue demonstrates the extent to which Washington is ready to adapt its ideology to the realities of the region and new security challenges.

The existence of a new platform is an important step establishing a new form of cooperation. Now it’s time for this platform to prove viable. Its success will depend on the readiness of the countries to build pragmatic cooperation in the framework of regional security.

The most important thing for the United States to remember is not to compete with Russia in Central Asia, as this region should not turn into an arena for competition, but rather, become a ground for cooperation. It would be virtually impossible to build an alliance of Central Asian countries based on opposition to Russia. Countries of the region themselves would hardly be willing to do so.

The Organization for Democracy and Economic Development (GUAM), a regional organization of four post-Soviet states – Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova – is a good example. Despite the fact that this structure included post-Soviet states that were more critical of Russia, GUAM has retained a shapeless structure. Moreover, the stance of such larger countries as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan that are not willing to be either anti- or pro-Russian, will play an important role, and it is unlikely that it would be possible to change this position rapidly.

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Washington essentially accepted this new configuration, where parties are skilled at bargaining, trying to draw the maximum benefit from the proposals of non-regional states. The states of the region are more interested in an efficient cooperation platform. The problem is that Washington often gives its approach in the region different names while in reality many of those do not go beyond mere initiatives of good intentions that are never implemented.

How U.S. confrontation with Russia affects its policy in Central Asia

Current strained relations between Washington and Moscow affect the revitalization of U.S. policy in Central Asia. In the beginning of the 1990s, the administration of former U.S. President Bill Clinton saw Russia as a locomotive of the democratic transformation of post-Soviet countries, which meant that the newly democratic Russia was supposed to be actively contributing to the establishment of civil institutions in the former Soviet republics.

Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in 2001, Russia-U.S. cooperation in Central Asia once again grew stronger. Washington actively coordinated its efforts in the region with Russia. For instance, with the support of Moscow the United States obtained the permission of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to use their military bases and airfields for military operations in Afghanistan.

Today, the United States is rethinking its entire policy in the post-Soviet space: from now on Washington is going to engage directly with the regional states. This approach is fostered by the confrontation between Russia and the United States as well as the deterioration of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, which led the White House to postpone the withdrawal of its troops from the country.

The United States is essentially reducing the number of issues in the region that require coordination with its Russian counterparts. The new C5+1 platform on Central Asia serves as yet another proof of it. Its success depends, first and foremost, on the states of the region themselves. Are they indeed committed to what is declared as a multi-vector foreign policy? For the United States, the “return” to Central Asia requires even greater flexibility, especially on such sensitive issues as human rights and the freedom of speech.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.