In the Middle East, the end of war in Iraq and new momentum toward Israeli-Palestinian peace may have ushered in an expanded agenda for cooperation between the United States and Europe. But in Central Asia, where a resurgent Russia has once again set its sights on the region's fragile republics, the Bush administration and its European allies are rapidly losing ground.
On April 28th, officials from Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan met in Dushanbe to formally inaugurate the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The summit marked the birth of a Moscow-dominated regional alliance that has existed largely on paper for more than a decade. The CSTO is just the beginning. For years, the Kremlin has pursued an ambitious strategic agenda in Central Asia, one designed to make it the preeminent power in the "post-Soviet space." And its plans, put on hold by September 11th and the resulting war on terrorism, are back with a vengeance.
In recent months, Russian officials have publicly articulated their commitment to an expanded strategic presence in the region. And now, even as it tackles legitimate security concerns like terrorism and drug trafficking, the Kremlin is hard at work making this vision a reality.
Moscow is thus beefing up its military muscle among its southern neighbors. With Kazakhstan, Russia has just hammered out a major deal on joint military planning, laying the groundwork for greater force coordination and training between Moscow and Astana. The Kremlin has also raised its military profile in Kyrgyzstan, where the CSTO's rapid reaction force is headquartered, through the establishment of a new air base. And in a move indicative of its plans for the new alliance, Russia has even announced that the CSTO will hold major regional war-games, dubbed "Commonwealth Southern Shield," this fall.
Russia's efforts don't stop there. Through savvy diplomatic maneuvering, Moscow has also done much to shore up the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. First formed in June 2001, the six-member security grouping (which also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and China) could now become a permanent international fixture through the creation of a permanent secretariat and counterterrorism response center as early as next year, courtesy of the Kremlin. And once operational, the emerging alliance -- envisioned by Russia and China as a potential counterweight to the U.S. -- will bring a significant portion of the region's political, economic and security policies under the control of its two senior members.
At the same time, the Kremlin is tightening its hold on Caspian energy. This April, Mr. Putin inked a 25-year energy deal with Turkmenistan's president, Sapurmurat Niyazov. The sweeping arrangement provides Moscow with controlling interest in Ashkabad's energy sector, substantially dampening Western prospects for a trans-Afghan pipeline to carry Turkmen gas to world markets. The same month, a meeting in the Siberian city of Omsk between the Russian president and his Kazakh counterpart, Nursultan Nazerbayev, yielded a political commitment for a common economic space in Central Asia. The Kremlin's courtship, coupled with its sympathetic stance toward Kazakhstan's rampant corruption, has yielded significant results. Over the objections of multinationals engaged in the region, a newfound consensus on Caspian energy appears to be emerging between Moscow and Astana, much to the detriment of Western investors.
Amid growing international concern, Russia has even tightened ties to Iran, a pivotal potential conduit for Caspian energy, through a slew of diplomatic and commercial overtures, chief among them a renewed commitment to atomic cooperation.
Meanwhile, through Gazprom, its sprawling, state-controlled natural gas monopoly, Russia is making additional energy gains. On May 15th, Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller finalized a lucrative 25-year agreement with the government of Kyrgyzstan, creating a de facto Russian-Kyrgyz energy partnership -- and giving Moscow oversight over the country's energy infrastructure and preferential treatment in oil and gas development. The Russian energy giant is even forging ahead with plans for extensive natural gas exploration in neighboring Tajikistan, following a May 18th meeting between Mr. Miller and Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov.
The results have been dramatic. Already, the Kremlin's successes have begun to roll back U.S. influence in the region. America's post-9-11 regional foothold, including a major military presence in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, was made possible by unprecedented backing from regional governments, much of it given at the expense of their relationship with Russia.
Since the ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan, however, Washington's apparent political disengagement on critical issues of regional security, economic development and international aid has nudged previously-supportive Central Asian allies away from the Western camp. And Russia's subsequent advances have adversely impacted Europe, lessening NATO's regional appeal to fledgling Partnership for Peace members like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan and further dimming hopes for Caspian development.
Moscow's moves may mark the revival of an old strategy, but they could leave both Washington and European capitals much the worse for wear. For the U.S., now grappling with democracy building in the Middle East, prosecuting the larger war on terrorism remains a top priority -- and with it, the need for an active presence in the turbulent post-Soviet space. Meanwhile, Europe, increasingly dependent on Russia for its domestic energy needs, has a vested interest in promoting an independent, westward-looking energy policy in Central Asia.
Regional re-engagement, however, requires a renewed European and American commitment to Central Asia. Greater military and political assistance to allies still struggling with the threat of Islamic extremism might lessen Russia's appeal as a guarantor of regional security. And a robust, guided platform of investment could move the Central Asian republics forward on the critical issue of domestic political liberalization, as well as reviving the Caspian's potential as an energy alternative to the Persian Gulf.
Otherwise, one day soon, leaders on both sides of the Atlantic could wake up to find that their long-term interests in Central Asia have become a casualty of the Kremlin's success.