Central Asia: The Tripartite’s Big Barter In The “Eurasian Balkans”
State Of Play
Russia is by far the most influential actor in Central Asia, with its foundations of regional support being Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, both of which are dual CSTO and Eurasian Union members. Moscow also has a military base in Tajikistan, another CSTO-allied country striving for Eurasian Union membership in the future. Russia’s ties with Uzbekistan are amicable, but there’s no real closeness between both sides, despite the occasional headline-grabbing rhetoric that sometimes pops up during bilateral meetings. The problem is that Uzbekistan envisions itself as the regional leader, and it feels that Russia’s strategic partnerships with its Kazakh economic rival and its territorial-ethnic Kyrgyz and Tajik ones in the Fergana Valley are part of a balancing strategy aimed at preempting its rise. When it comes to Turkmenistan, Russian diplomacy is much more reserved than it is anywhere else in the region, and this is out of respect for Ashgabat’s constitutional neutrality. At the same time though, this said policy is also a severe handicap and strategic vulnerability when it comes to multilateral anti-terrorist cooperation, but nevertheless, the Russian Defense Minister paid a visit to the country in June for the first time since Turkmenistan’s independence, signaling that there might be more than meets the eye to the real state of their military relationship vis-à-vis Afghanistan.
Iran is on exceptionally good terms with Turkmenistan by virtue of its geography, which dually endows it to serve as a commercial corridor to the Persian Gulf and a potential transit state for EU-destined gas exports sometime in the future. Naturally, both countries are party to the Ashgabat Agreement to streamline an efficient trade network between Central Asia and the rest of the world at large, which is most immediately taking its most tangible shape as being with South Asia by means of the Indian-financed port of Chabahar. For all intents and purposes, Iran sees itself functioning as Central Asia’s most direct route to the sea, which would thus give it tremendous power over the region if it can develop the infrastructure necessary for optimally taking full advantage of this geographic endowment. Granted, Iran’s future potential in this regard is limited by the success of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, since Beijing’s route also aspires to satisfy this function through Xinjiang and Pakistan instead. On a more concrete and presently relatable level, Iran’s closest multidimensional relationship with any of the Central Asian states is with its ethno-cultural relatives in Tajikistan, which conveniently speak a language very close to Farsi. Even though Tajikistan is regarded as the poorest state in the region, it can still serve a valuable role to Tehran in anchoring itself in Central Asia and potentially one day working hand-in-hand with the ethnic Tajiks in northern Afghanistan to hopefully maintain a viable security buffer for containing the terrorism that emanates from that country.
Ankara’s outreaches to Central Asia are influenced by the ideology of “pan-Turanism”, which preaches the need for all Turkic countries to deepen their cooperation with one another and work towards deeper integration on all levels (and is incidentally a grand strategic objective for the US). As an example, they want Turkey’s ties with all of the “-stans” be as close as they are with Azerbaijan, including with non-Turkic Tajikistan which they plan to win over with economic influence. In pursuing this ambitious agenda, Turkey resorted to non-state networks of influence such as NGOs and its businessmen, both of which made an impact on the region after 1991 but failed to convince the target audience of the urgency for implementing this supposedly shared goal. This might be somewhat attributable to the sense of separateness that the people of Central Asia have to their distant Turkish kinfolk, having been distanced from their Anatolian ancestors for centuries with scarcely any significant and sustainable relations between them. Even so, Turkey’s economic ties with the region have continued to grow, and they represent the most likely platform for revitalizing Turkey’s Central Asia policy in the changing world.
The US has actively tried to engage each of the Central Asian republics ever since their 1991 independence, having the most success in Kyrgyzstan through the creation of a robust NGO culture and the procurement of the Manas airbase. Neither of these presently exists in their prior form, with Bishkek trying to crack down on foreign-financed non-state networks and the US having vacated its former outpost as agreed to with the authorities back in 2014. As per the former, the government wasn’t successful in getting parliament to approve of its Russian-styled legislation in this matter, but despite this setback, the authorities’ intent is clear and it can be safely assumed that the security services will continue to investigate these groups whether they do so publicly (which is no longer ‘legally’ allowed) or covertly under whatever national security pretenses they can find. In the face of this strategic reversal, the US has been moving closer to Uzbekistan, though relations between the two are very opaque and not much is officially released about them in the public domain.
What is known, however, is that the US donated 300 surplus mine-resistant vehicles from its Afghan adventure to the country, in what can be read as a startling icebreaker in resetting their ties one decade after Tashkent kicked the US out of its airbase in the country following the 2005 Andijan Color Revolution provocation. The geostrategic motivation behind this policy shift is simple – the US wants to make Uzbekistan its “Lead From Behind” partner in the region, hoping that this will give it maximum flexibility in managing the inevitable leadership transitions that will happen in Central Asia. Washington also wants to use the country’s centrally positioned location to influence each of its four other neighbors, with the added benefit being that China’s Turkmenistan-originating pipelines pass through its territory. In any way that one looks at it, Uzbekistan is truly the ‘heartland of the Heartland’, and a strategic partnership with it would be vital for the US in its quest to disrupt, influence, or control the multipolar transnational connective infrastructure projects in the region and apply its unipolar policies to the neighborhood by proxy.
The most important thing that the Tripartite must do is create a mechanism for mutual trust and understanding which would work to set the foundation for mutually beneficial cooperation and preclude the possibility of one side ‘backstabbing’ the other. This could take the form of some sort of formalization of the Russian-Iranian-Turkish dialogue that has been coming together over the past month. It’s urgent to implement this in some workable form because each of the three sides has somewhat contradictory visions that they want to achieve, and it’s necessary to directly work out their differences in the trilateral framework instead of further broadening/internationalizing it to include other actors. While the SCO could conceptually be a beneficial tool for proactive conflict resolution between all parties, it’s too big and not concentrated enough for efficiently dealing with the task at hand, plus neither Iran nor definitely not Turkey are formal members of it (yet), meaning that it can’t possibly function in the manner that’s needed at the moment.
With respect to the issues that need to be worked out, Moscow wants to remain the region’s indispensable partner in all fields, while Ankara is committed to reinvigorating its soft power potential and (re)asserting its civilizational influence. Tehran, on the other hand, seeks to step back into the footsteps of its imperial predecessors by also exercising its civilizational influence, albeit one with more historical sway than Turkey’s ethno-cultural approach (and limited mostly to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan). It’s easy to see how all three actors could inadvertently find themselves on a collision course if they’re not careful and respectful of the other’s sensitivities, which is the main reason why the trilateral mechanism must be founded and regularly activated in order to prevent such a disruptive scenario. An initial proposal for starting discussions off on a positive note is to suggest a division of integrational spheres between the three sides in Central Asia, with Russia focusing on the political-institutional, Turkey on the socio-cultural, and Iran on the historical. All three parties would jointly work towards the multilateral economic integration of the region, though of course respecting some its members preexisting Eurasian Union and Ashgabat Agreement commitments (which overlap in the case of Kazakhstan).
Another major focus of the Tripartite’s shared interests should be in multilaterally engaging Uzbekistan, which appears to be ever more moving in the direction of a strategic partnership with the US. This is a dire threat to each of the three sides as it would obstruct Russia’s institutional integration measures and create a separate pole of competitive influence that would push back against Turkey and Iran’s soft power measures. While on the one hand a strong and assertive Uzbekistan could work out to the benefit of everyone if it responsibly behaved according to multipolar principles, it’s not projected that this would be the case at all, since Tashkent seems to be more powerfully swayed towards the unipolar fold out of its own subjectively defined self-interests. Even though China has a heavy presence in the country, Beijing has traditionally never imposed ultimatums on its partners and forced them to choose between it and the US, which is actually one of the reasons why cooperation with it is so attractive to many countries. It’s not predicted that China’s stance would change even if the US started gaining additional influence in the country, though Beijing might understandably become concerned seeing as how its pipelines traverse Uzbek territory and could indirectly come under Washington’s blackmailing control.
Thus, it’s in the grand strategic interests of the Tripartite to work together and stop Uzbekistan from becoming the US’ “Lead From Behind” proxy in Central Asia, and if they play their cards right by emphasizing the regional risks inherent in this eventuality, they might even be able to count on China’s subtle assistance in this regard.
The most negative development that could obviously break out in Central Asia other than a Hobbesian Hybrid War would be if Uzbekistan goes rogue by fully ‘defecting’ to the US. This would totally upend the balance of power in the region and represent a pivotal moment in its history, giving Washington a unipolar outpost from which to indirectly project destabilizing influence all throughout Central Asia. It would also allow the Pentagon the opportunity to build up its new ally’s forces and encourage them to provoke skirmishes with the Kyrgyz and Tajiks in Fergana Valley or one of the several enclaves between them. Ever since Uzbekistan left the CSTO in 2012, it’s sought to provoke tension with its former military allies, probing how far it can go before Moscow decides to diplomatically intervene in their bilateral disputes. This is very dangerous because an Uzbek-US alliance would mean that Washington could use Tashkent to take this as far as possible, even up to the point of manufacturing a regional conflict at a strategic moment in order to suck Russia into a ‘Reverse Brzezinski’ quagmire. All in all, there’s nothing positive to be gained from any actor besides the US and a segment of the Uzbek elite in the event that those two sides team up in a unipolar strategic partnership to take on multipolarity in the ‘heartland of the Heartland’.
Less dramatically disruptive but similarly unconstructive would be if Iran allows its territory to be used for the transit of Turkmen gas to either the EU or the planned LNG terminal in Oman. The TAPI pipeline that’s finally under construction after about two decades of discussion doesn’t present much of a threat to multipolarity since it actually strengthens it by securing Pakistan and India’s energy security and hopefully creating a common platform for bettering relations between them. If ‘neutral’ Turkmenistan ever ‘goes rogue’ like neighboring Uzbekistan seems ready to do and dedicates itself to a policy of regional obstructionism, then it would be able to use its resources for political blackmail purposes just as Ukraine has previously, which would then give the country of five million people totally disproportionate strategic influence over the more than one billion potential consumers downstream. This state of affairs could also be exploited if Afghan terrorists somehow find a way to interfere with this project, whether through a conventional Daesh-like invasion of southeastern Turkmenistan’s gas fields or sabotaging it within their own borders. It also can’t be discounted that the US might try to co-opt anti-CPEC Balochi insurgents in attacking this line within Pakistan in order to provoke a premeditated crisis with India. Anyhow, neither of these TAPI scenarios is within the realm of the Tripartite to deal with, so even though it’s important to raise awareness about them, it’s much more pertinent to return back to the Turkmen-Iranian gas one and extrapolate on it further.
The “deep state” division in Iran between Western-friendly “moderates” and multipolar “conservatives” is a fact, no matter how strongly it’s publicly denied in the media by official representatives and civilian supporters. Even though it seems that the “moderates” are on the decline ever since the news emerged that Russia would be allowed to use the Hamadan airbase for anti-terrorist strikes in Syria, this can’t be naively assumed without an in-house ‘cleaning’ to make sure that they’re permanently neutralized. It doesn’t seem likely that Tehran would resort to as large-scale, public, and dramatic of one like Erdogan has done in Turkey, but without such moves being initiated no matter their scope, Iran won’t ever be totally free from the pernicious influence of embedded elements. Should a decision be made to allow Turkmenistan to use Iran as a transit territory for exporting the world’s fourth-largest natural gas reserves on the global market, this would end up being more destructive for Russian-Iranian relations than the previously discussed scenario of Tehran’s potential LNG exports to the Balkans. Additionally, it could also work to collapse the global price of this resource and thereby undermine Russia’s budgetary forecasts and the profitability of its existing projects. In a similar context, if Iran ends up being the gateway for an uncontrollable Indian commercial influx into Central Asia via the Ashgabat Agreement and the regional offshoot of the North-South Corridor, then this could rapidly dislodge Russia as a serious economic player in the region and initiate a strategic dilemma of mistrust with Tehran.
Finally, it should be assumed that if Turkey’s promotion of “pan-Turanism” ever makes the leap from the socio-cultural to the militant, then it could be expected that networks of Grey Wolf terrorist cells could sprout up in Central Asia and be used to attack the countries that are most pragmatically engaged with Russia and Iran, though only if Turkey has another falling out with either of them in the future. This is why it’s so important for all three sides to work on creating and regularly utilizing the Tripartite format for resolving disputes between themselves before they ever materialize and end up getting out of control or exploited by the US.