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    Central Asia
     Feb 24, 2006
Why Russia must be strong
By Federico Bordonaro

Russia's new assertiveness in the Central Asian geopolitical theater has been frequently noticed and analyzed in the past few years. Moscow's national-security strategy, summed up by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov in an article in the Wall Street Journal in January ("Russia must be strong"), can be directly correlated with Russian strategic and economic interests in the broad area encompassing the South Caucasus, the Caspian Sea and the Central Asian republics.

Ivanov's guidelines
Ivanov's article effectively highlights Russia's strategic priorities and appears marked by a pragmatic, history-based assessment

of Moscow's security needs. "Russia must be strong" is a title and a program at the same time.

"National security is a crucial task for Russia, a country so greatly endowed with territory and natural resources," the text reads. "Our military strategy is, therefore, focused on creating the ability to respond to the external, internal and cross-border challenges of the 21st century." In other words: history and geography force Russia to project its power beyond its national borders in order to be a stable and relevant global power, whereby the area from the Black Sea to Kyrgyzstan assumes a vital strategic and economic-security role.

What is particularly interesting is Ivanov's (and the Kremlin's) focus on being "prepared for the possibility of a violent assault on the constitutional order of some post-Soviet states and the border instability that might ensue from that". Hence Moscow is obliged to "consider the implications of the so-called 'uncertainty factor' as well as of the high level of existing threats".

This concept is very clearly explained by Ivanov himself: "By uncertainty we mean a political or military-political conflict or process that has a potential to pose a direct threat to Russia's security, or to change the geopolitical reality in a region of Russia's strategic interest. Our top concern is the internal situation in some members of the Commonwealth of Independent States [CIS], the club of former Soviet republics, and the regions around them."

This is a classic example of how great powers perceive potential threats to their "sphere of influence". Possible interference in smaller states' internal situations gets justified by security goals. The enhancing of regional military-strategic dominance also has political ends - possibly even reshaping the domestic political environments of minor powers to suit the great powers' interests.

Moreover, Ivanov's argument is totally consistent with previous Russian strategic concepts. On October 9, 2003, during a press conference in Yekaterinburg, Ivanov stated that "Russia reserves the right to intervene militarily in the CIS states".

Some observers noted at the time how closely reminiscent such a statement was of those made by Leonid Brezhnev during the 1968 Czechoslovakia crisis.

Moscow's doctrine as expounded by Ivanov (thus encompassing a "political process") suggests that further pro-Western, liberal-inspired social and political changes in CIS countries, such as those experienced by Georgia or Kyrgyzstan in the past two years, may well be considered unacceptable for Russian regional-security interests.

Geopolitical structures
To put it briefly, present-day geopolitical structures explain why Central Asia and the Caspian Sea will be affected by this Russian doctrine. These regions are crucial to Moscow's military security and control over fossil resources, and at the same time they are increasingly marked by four fundamental drivers. The first two are the basic geopolitical orientations of the former Soviet republics, which could be visualized as mutually opposing forces.

One force links the republics to the "heartlandic", Russian-led geostrategic realm because of historic and geographical reasons; the other, originating from US strategic goals and national fears of Russian hegemony, connects them to the US-led, maritime, Euro-Atlantic realm. [1] This opposition makes political influence and military might in the broader region the geopolitical prize in a renewed Russo-US competition.

The other two drivers are definitely newer. One is the CIS countries' aspiration to self-determine their foreign policy and energy management, and the other is the increasingly influential role of Beijing.

More than one observer has labeled this context a "new great game". From the Russian point of view, political instability in the region can thus constitute either a threat - as it can be instrumentalized by Russia's adversaries - or a window of opportunity, as in the case of Abkhazi separatism in Georgia, which might be encouraged by Moscow to weaken a pro-US nation.

Relations with China in the region are also complex. Moscow and Beijing seem to cooperate when it comes to making sure that US military presence will not be permanent (as was the case with Uzbekistan last year). Likewise, the two powers have increased their collaboration within the context of the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization). Creating a more integrated economic and security framework in Central Asia could ensure the rise of a Sino-Russian strategic partnership in Eurasia.

However, China and Russia appear to be competing for influence in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan - and especially in the former, energy-rich nation. Russian hegemony in Central Asia is vital for President Vladimir Putin's political strategy of using energy resources to pressure Eastern European and South Caucasian neighbors.

On this political and strategic stage, the role of the Caspian Sea is crucial. Russia's efforts to enhance its own influence over the "big lake" are easily understood: energy security and geostrategy appear once more tightly linked to one another.

Last month, Russian oil major LUKoil announced its discovery of rich new oil deposits on the Russian Caspian shores, after having taken over 51% of Primoryeneftegaz, a company licensed to operate in the oil and gas fields of Astrakhan oblast.

From the strategic standpoint, the Caspian context is extremely complicated. Moscow has been building up its Caspian flotilla since the 1990s, partly because of fears that Iran might threaten Azerbaijani oil platforms.

However, the Kremlin has failed to create a Russia-led collective security structure, notwithstanding its offers to Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Washington financed Azerbaijan's and Kazakhstan's efforts to build their own independent defense structures in the Caspian Sea (Operation Caspian Guard) - a move that was very negatively perceived by Moscow.

Consequently, Moscow has repeatedly stated its determination to enhance the role of the "Collective Security Treaty Organization" (CSTO). For instance, capitalizing on shared objectives such as anti-terrorism, Russia engaged Kazakhstan in joint naval exercises last year. If Moscow successfully expands the scope and influence of the CSTO, it will be able to project its power in Central Asia more consistently and, at the same time, it will send a clear message to Washington and Beijing.

As Georgia and Azerbaijan - and perhaps Kazakhstan too - are candidates to join the Euro-Atlantic community (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and, at a later stage, possibly the European Union itself), Moscow's doctrine as illustrated by Ivanov tells us that confrontation between Russia and the United States in Eurasia is set to get sharper - unless a grand bargain is reached.

1. The concept of geostrategic realms is developed by Saul Bernard Cohen, Geopolitics of the World System, 2002.

Federico Bordonaro is senior analyst with the Power and Interest News Report. He can be contacted at fbordonaro@NOSPAMpinr.com.

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