It’s a New Great Game. Again.

The fringes of Russia’s former empire appear to be fraying as Central Asia looks to a future in which it can choose its own friends and play them off against one another. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine has sullied his standing across the steppe while diverting his attention from countries he regarded as inviolate pieces of the post-Soviet jigsaw—and which are now chafing for domestic and geopolitical change.

Once the heart of a “great game” played out by the Russian and British empires in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Central Asia is again a strategic jewel being fought over by the Big Three, and some smaller players, as the tectonic plates of global influence shift. Russia’s hold over Central Asian publics is slipping, China is still struggling to overcome its own missteps, and the United States is trying to charge for the umpteenth time unto the breach.

The countries, collectively known as the Stans—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—offer plenty of potential rewards in this renewed global tussle. The whole region—especially Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—is rich in reserves of oil, natural gas, uranium, and other critical minerals. That alone attracted China’s clumsy courtship over the last few decades. But since the fall of the U.S.-backed republic in neighboring Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban in 2021, the satellite states of the former Soviet Union have become the West’s bulwark against a resurgence in terrorism and jihad. Add in China’s ambitions for new transshipment routes to Europe for its manufactured output—Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative is literally called the new Silk Road—and Turkey’s plans to renew historic cultural and linguistic ties for security and trade deals, and it’s easy to see why all side roads are leading to Central Asia.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has soured many Central Asian publics—if not their governments—on Moscow. And many of those restive populations are clamoring for freedoms that are not respected in Russia nor China but which the United States is holding out for as a byproduct of economic and security cooperation. They are also looking inward for their linguistic and ethnic identities, branding the Russian language and Russian names increasingly unfashionable in a region that for centuries had looked to Moscow as its security and financial guarantor. 

Russia’s longtime value to the Central Asian states was as an enforcer, Russia expert Mark Galeotti recently wrote, but that role has been eroded. “Whether supplying relatively cheap weapons, or holding the line against potential jihadist incursions from Afghanistan … the Russians were quite well regarded in this role. Now, though, there is a general sense that Moscow no longer can or will provide those kind of guarantees, so the Central Asians are looking elsewhere,” he wrote.

That’s led to a delicate balancing act where some Central Asian states have been critical of Russia’s war in Ukraine and supportive of Western sanctions but have also continued to promote close economic ties with Russia.

It is clear that publicly they are going to try to show a bit of space, but behind the scenes, they continue to recognize the importance of the Moscow relationship,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “They all have a big problem in that at home, large chunks of their populations are against the war in Ukraine, and it has clearly soured the mood to Moscow. But at the same time, Russia is an important partner.”

Kazakhstan—arguably the most powerful of the five republics, with oil, gas, and strategically important minerals like uranium—held snap legislative elections over the weekend, the culmination of a year of political turmoil that began with fuel price protests in January 2022. Russia sent in a militia to quell the riots and support President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, successor in 2019 to Nursultan Nazarbayev, who held office for more than 30 years. Tokayev, who appeared to secure a comfortable majority in the vote, has since shown himself to be anything but a Putin puppet, criticizing the war in Ukraine even as higher energy prices due to the war have benefited the country.

Uzbekistan is struggling with a desire to lift limits on freedoms while quelling criticism of Russia, Ukraine, and Putin. In a speech less than a month after Putin’s invasion, Uzbekistan’s foreign minister, Abdulaziz Kamilov, stressed the “independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” according to local media reports. But the country has also sought to avoid an outright rupture with Moscow. Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev recently bemoaned that “major countries” keep pressing him: “‘Uzbekistan, what side are you on? Enough of being neutral. You need to join one side or the other,’” he said while on a domestic trip. “This is a very complicated time.”

If Russia faces headwinds in maintaining its former degree of influence, then China’s challenge may be in its own success. For a decade, its investment through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), especially in energy and infrastructure, made China Central Asia’s biggest investor, leading to concerns that Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan are becoming overly dependent on Beijing. 

Sherzod Shamiev, a researcher at the Center for Sociological Research in Tajikistan, said conditions for BRI infrastructure loans included adopting a “one China” policy aimed at repudiating Taiwanese independence and refusing to support any contention that China’s Muslim Uyghurs are being abused, collaborating in the deportation of dissidents to China, and possibly supporting China in the United Nations Security Council. Shamiev warned that a failure to diversify investment sources could lead to a “lock-in” situation in which vulnerable states were so reliant on China that they couldn’t diversify if they wanted to.

Turkmenistan might already be heading for that “lock-in” with China, the biggest customer for its natural gas. Turkmenistan has the world’s fourth-largest natural gas reserves but relies on China for technology. Russia has been trying to get in on local demand for gas as a replacement of European demands for Russian exports, which evaporated with the war sanctions—but so far, no luck. 

As the Central Asian states make it increasingly clear that they favor diversification, especially toward the West, leaders are avoiding get-togethers where they may run into Putin. Kyrgyzstan canceled military exercises of the Collective Security Treaty Organization due to be held on its own territory last October, and more attention is being paid to blocs like the Istanbul-based Organisation of Turkic States, which groups Turkic-speaking nations.

The coincidence of Putin’s unpopularity and suspicion of China’s motives could give American overtures another chance at wooing Central Asia. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kazakhstan last month for a meeting with regional counterparts. He reminded them that their economic challenges—high food and energy prices, soaring inflation, and unemployment—stem from the war in Ukraine. The solution, he said, was to cut the apron strings with Moscow, diversify trade and investment links, and introduce political and civic reforms. 

“The bottom line is this: A more connected, a more cooperative Central Asia will be better able to determine its own future and deliver for its people’s needs,” Blinken said. “A big part of the work that we’re doing here is to help the region diversify trade relationships, to build new partnerships and relationships with other countries, including with the United States, so they’re not dependent on any one country or any one source for trade and investment.” 

The sweetener of Blinken’s trip was cash. Speaking ahead of the trip, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu said the United States would provide $41.5 million this year “to support food security and economies that we see are struggling. This money will help them explore new export routes, retrain their workforce, reduce unemployment, and spur private sector growth.” Blinken also announced the $50 million Economic Resilience Initiative in Central Asia “to build up the regional economy.” 

The Biden administration sees Kazakhstan as the economic and political hub of the region. It borders both China and Russia; has a population of 19.4 million people; and contains substantial deposits of oil, gas, and minerals that have attracted more than $50 billion in investment from U.S. businesses since the end of the Soviet Union. U.S.-Kazakhstan bilateral trade in 2022 was worth more than $3 billion, up 37.2 percent on the previous year, domestic media reported. 

Lu said before the trip that while the United States didn’t necessarily want to push Central Asian states to “choose between us and Russia, or us and China,” America offered a perspective on economic and political input that was different from the engagement of Moscow and Beijing.” That includes advancing human rights and protecting vulnerable groups, including “refugees, asylum-seekers, LGBTQI+ persons, women and girls.” That added dimension of civic protections appeals to many Central Asians who have strained against enduring Soviet-style restrictions as strongmen stepped up to presidential posts, pledged fealty to Moscow, and stayed in power for decades. 

Pantucci, who recently returned from Central Asia, said the United States should continue to push for more engagement but “should temper its expectations” as the retreat from Afghanistan in 2021 had confirmed the view that America “can be a fickle partner.” 

“A unified Central Asia, which is able to make its own calls and decisions, is going to be the answer rather than a region which chooses sides against Moscow or Beijing. Both of those powers are geographical realities they are never going to be able to escape,” he added.

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