New US Eurasian Strategy and Central Asia
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Dmitry V. Suslov

Deputy Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics.

Valdai Discussion Club

Despite the political and administrative chaos in Washington, the US is crystallizing its foreign policy strategy for the next few years. This strategy is being formed on the common denominator principle rather than as a comprehensive idea handed down from on-high and takes in several impulses from various sides. As of late spring 2018, this strategy includes three main guidelines: Reducing the liberal component of the US global leadership policy; preserving and intensifying the global preeminence policy, primarily military preeminence, as well as global military engagement; and magnifying dramatically simultaneous containment of Russia and China.

The strategy’s Eurasian dimension consists in the fact that the policy of weakening the role of Russia and China in Europe, Asia and the Middle East is gradually taking pride of place among the US objectives in Eurasia. Containing the two is seen by Washington as even more important than its other priorities in the Eurasian continent, including the fight against terrorism and other new threats, economic development, and so on. This can already be seen from how it conducts its policies in Afghanistan and Syria.

What is new in this strategy is that in trying to contain Russia and China simultaneously the US promotes their rapprochement and consolidation of Central Eurasia without its own participation. Traditionally, America sought to fragment the Eurasian space and have closer relations with China and Russia separately while discouraging the two from having the same close relationship with each other. Today, however, we are seeing the US becoming ever more antagonistic towards not only Russia but China as well. Its rhetoric is aimed at opposing Russian-Chinese Eurasia to the US-led “liberal international order,” which includes the Atlantic community, the Indo-Pacific Region, and generally all countries oriented to the US and the West rather than to China and/or Russia.

So what is the reason for this change?

First of all, this is the primary and quite natural reaction to the failure of its previous strategy designed to gradually integrate Russia and China into the US-centric world order as harmonious, Westernized and junior partners. Recognition of this failure, given that the US is not ready to treat Russia and China as legitimate non-Western great powers having the right to regional international arrangements of their own and to an involvement in giving shape to global international arrangements, automatically brings it back to containment attempts. The involvement plan is a shambles and equal partnership is impossible. What remains is containment.

Secondly, this is an attempt to give a measure of integrity and a backbone to US policies in a situation where the country and world politics is a mess and there are no strategic guidelines. It’s quite convenient and easy to find these guidelines in claims about the return of global confrontation between freedom and non-freedom, good and evil, or a kind of new global Cold War. Following the appointment of neoconservative ideologist John Bolton as National Security Advisor, this kind of ideological influence on US politics will only increase.

Thirdly, this is a method to prevent a rollback to new isolationism and curtailment of US global presence, the demand for which among the US public has been growing. For this, it is necessary to hypertrophy Russian and Chinese threats and present them as a systemic challenge to the liberal world order, US security, as well as even the survival of the US political system.      

Fourthly, this is a method to rally allies and partners apprehensive of China and Russia behind the United States and to bolster up the US leadership and influence despite the egoistic, lopsided and mercantilist trend in the US foreign and foreign economic policies.

Fifthly, this is an upshot of Russiagate, which in turn is a consequence of attempts by the traditional elite to exonerate itself for the 2016 defeat and retain its positions. Initially, the Trump team intended to somewhat improve relations with Russia in order to tear it away from China and indulge in containing the latter. But Russiagate made this impossible. Since it is unrealistic to befriend China against Russia (after all, China is regarded as the main strategic rival), the US had to contain both. Russiagate’s likely abatement, particularly if the Republicans retain their edge in Congress after the midway elections in November, will not make the US revert to its former strategy and renounce the tough containment stance vis-à-vis Russia. Time was lost and now Trump himself perceives Moscow as an adversary.

Can the US afford to contain Russia and China at once and why is no one in America (with few exceptions) airing fears that Eurasia will consolidate on the anti-American basis, thus making a reality of “Henry Kissinger’s nightmare?” Most of the US mainstream believe they can afford it. Underpinning this belief are four myths that will be dispelled one by one within the next few years but are still strong for the time being.

Firstly, Russia is weak and a qualitative increase in pressure (by comparison with the Obama period) should force the Russian elite to make concessions and launch a chain reaction that will eventually lead to Russia’s new pivot to the West. Increased pressure is understood as new instalments of sanctions, moreover those unrelated to Russia’s current foreign policy, an unprecedented demonization and information campaign, casting Russia into the image of a rogue country, foreign policy containment (for example, attempts to represent Russia’s military victory in Syria as its political defeat and prevent the implementation of the Minsk Agreements in Ukraine), an arms race and military pressure, and so on. In other words, the United States is not going to simultaneously contain Russia and China for long. More likely than not, it intends to knock Russia out as the weak link within the next few years and then sort it out with China.

Secondly, Russia and China are doomed to rivalry both in Central Asia and elsewhere as increasingly asymmetrical players. The US is confident that China is easing Russia out in Central Asia and generally turning it into a junior partner, both economically and politically. Those mentioning a likely Russian-Chinese alliance emphasize that Russia will hold a subordinate position and therefore will sooner or later leave the alliance because the Russian elite feel more pleased to do the West’s bidding.

Thirdly, India will join military-political and economic containment of China to become a harmonious part of the US-centric system in the Indo-Pacific region along with Japan and Australia. The US Indo-Pacific strategy is an attempt to integrate New Delhi into the Asia Pacific affairs on the US side and to create an integrated system to contain China from the east and south. Quad is the military and political basis of this strategy, while its economic basis is a mythical alternative to Belt and Road.

Fourthly, the China fear in the middle and small Asian countries, the Russia fear in Europe, and the Iran fear in the Middle East is so great that they will again side with the United States, rally behind it (even despite the lopsidedness and mercantilism of US policies), and gradually weaken their ties with Moscow and Beijing. In a measure, this is what is unfortunately happening in Europe and, in relation to Iran, in the Middle East too. The US withdrawal from the nuclear deal is in part intended as a provocation to make Iran respond and thereby induce consolidation in a US-led anti-Iran coalition.

These myths, as long as they stand, look fine: Russia is forced to withdraw from the game, China is left to its own devices and all other states band together against it, the rising giant, India, is siding with America, and a Quad-based system of pro-American alliances and partnerships is growing and strengthening around China as is a US-oriented economic order (it is not by accident that Washington has announced that it may yet return to the TPP).

The problem is that each of these myths will be inevitably dispelled. Russia is very strong and will not collapse. It will have neither a traditional military alliance, nor a confrontation with China. Moscow and Beijing will continue to organize the community of Greater Eurasia. They have much more common interests in this space than differences, let alone antagonisms. The growth of Russian-Chinese asymmetry is solved through an intensification of cooperation with Russia, with India and Japan, through their involvement in the Eurasian processes and the creation of Greater Eurasia as a new international political community dissolving the PRC’s growing power in a multilateral system of rules and institutions. India will not sacrifice its independence and will not become part of any US-led anti-China system in the IPR. Finally, the small and medium states are quite reluctant to choose between the US and its allies, on the one hand, and China and Russia, on the other. Rather, they seek to diversify their economic ties and relations in the sphere of security. Even in Europe, where the consolidation around the US is at its strongest, it requires provocations like the Skripal case.

The US will react painfully to the collapse of these myths. Provocations are possible and even highly likely, including in Central, East and Southeast Asia. In Europe and in the Middle East, these provocations are being staged and will recur. However, a few years from now, the collapse of these myths and the entire American Eurasian strategy, as well as the rotation of US political elites will lead to its inevitable adjustment. Specifically, the US is likely to display greater flexibility in relations with Russia and China, renounce any attempts to contain them simultaneously, and start a more active game in Central Asia.      

For the time being, the US is not attempting to revert to a big geopolitical game in Central Asia so as to be able reduce Russian and Chinese influence there. Ideally, it would like, of course, to put into practice its South and Central Asia concept so as to render the Central Asian countries maximally oriented to India and itself. But so far this is impossible. The United States is unable to restrict China’s role in these countries’ economic development, nor Russia’s role in economic integration or in the institutional and security field. Building up ties with India abuts the problem of Afghanistan. Moreover, a more active US role in Central Asia will automatically intensify Russia-China cooperation in reducing this role to the minimum.

Therefore, the Central Asian countries’ practical role in US policies is so far linked mostly to Afghanistan: they help to transit supplies for the US contingent via the Northern Distribution Network that had to be modified to meet the challenge of the US-Russian confrontation. Today the network includes Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The only cooperation format, C5+1, which Washington established with all five Central Asian countries in the summer of 2016 and which was preserved by the Trump administration, has been developing quite sluggishly. Moreover, Washington is seeking to include Afghanistan even in this format – to the clear displeasure of its Central Asian partners.

But the geopolitical agenda of US policies in Central Asia will be gradually strengthened. Even Afghanistan, formerly an antiterrorist issue, has acquired a geopolitical dimension. The purpose of US presence in Afghanistan, contrary to their official statements, is not to win. Their 14,000 troops cannot make Taliban accept a political settlement on US terms, if this failed when the US contingent was 100,000-strong. Their real aim apparently is to stop Russia and China from taking the Afghan settlement into their own hands, to retain US prevailing influence on the Kabul Government, and to prevent its military defeat.

It is this aspect of the recently ratified US-Kazakhstani Afghan transit agreement that is causing anxiety. Of course, there is no question of US military bases in Kazakhstan. It is also certain that Kazakhstan has a vital stake in stabilizing Afghanistan and maintaining partner relations with the US as part of its multi-vector foreign policy. What raises questions is the ability of the US mission in Afghanistan to achieve a settlement, while its cooperation with Kazakhstan gives it an extra trump card.

It is another matter that as the US and NATO, so Russia and China will hardly cope with the Afghan problem independently. So far, they have followed parallel routes, working more against each other rather than trying to improve the situation in that country. As a result, things get only worse. It is necessary to pool efforts, and, in this regard, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan as countries cooperating with both sides could build valuable bridges.

Thus, paradoxical though it may seem, the fact that Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries retain partner relations with the US may benefit Russia, both on Afghanistan and in a wider context as well.

First of all, this relationship reduces the already slim likelihood of Russian-Chinese rivalry in Central Asia and makes it hard for the PRC to conduct a hegemonic policy in the region. Secondly, it is strategically disadvantageous for Russia to allow the consolidation of Greater Eurasia (made up of Russia, China, the EAEU and SCO countries, and Iran) on an anti-American basis. This kind of consolidation would sooner promote the current US strategy provoking a global split between the troika of Russia-China-Iran, on the one hand, and the Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic communities, on the other. For Russia, this split is pernicious rather than beneficial. On the contrary, it has a stake in the connectivity and mutual complementarity of Greater Eurasia, Euro-Atlantic, and Indo-Pacific.

In this context, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries that maintain partner relations with Washington and strengthen, with its assistance, their ties with India, while being EAEU, CSTO and SCO members as well as allies to Russia and close economic partners to China, could play the role of a connecting bridge.

Valdai Discussion Club