THE 'GREAT GAME' REVIDIVUS? RUSSO-AMERICAN INTERACTION IN 21ST CENTURY CENTRAL ASIA REAPPRAISED.
"'The Great Game', a term usually attributed to Arthur Conolly, was used to describe the rivalry and strategic conflict between the British Empire and the Tsarist Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia. The term was later popularized by British novelist Rudyard Kipling in his work, Kim. The classic Great Game period is generally regarded as running from approximately 1813 to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. Following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 a second, less intensive phase followed". www.wikipedia.org
"Curzon [Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, 1899-1905] wants me to talk to the Russians as if I had a half a million men at my back, and I have not".
Lord Salisbury, British Prime Minister, 1885-1886, 1886-1892, 1895-1902.
Since the breakup of Sovietskaya Vlast in 1991, it has been common, among a certain type of western, especially American commentator to refer to the diplomatic rivalry and interaction between the USA and the Russian Federation, as being a revival of, the 'Great Game' as defined above. Unfortunately, this premise rests upon a totally mistaken assumptions and historical analogies. For one thing, notwithstanding the romantic and much hyped aura of the 'great game', with its resonance of Kipling's Kim, the Youngblood expedition to Tibet and, what not. In point of fact, for much of European diplomatic history in the 19th century, Central Asia had all of the impact of a damp squib. Despite recent attempts such as Kark Meyer's and Peter Hopkirk to breath some life into the concept historically speaking, actually, Anglo-Russian rivalry in Central Asia did not have much importance in the diplomatic record of the time. Anyone who has had an opportunity to peruse such contemporary diplomatic records as Die Grosse Politik, the Holstein Papers, and such not, can readily see, how truly unimportant, the 'great game', truly was to European Great Power diplomacy of the period. Especially as compared to say, Turkey, Egypt (1820's-1890's) or the Far East (1894-1912). Indeed the careful reseacher will soon note, that with the exception of the Panjdeh Incident of 1885, Central Asia, for all its importance does not leave much of a trace on the files of diplomats of this period of time.
Which of course raises the question of 'why'? Partly because due to the nature of the vast territories that we are talking of, especially within the limitation of transport in the one hundred years or so after Waterloo, the likelihood that either antagonistic could have realistically brought forth large armies of men to say, Amu Darya river to engage in battle is nonsensical. This was especially true of course for the British, who notwithstanding the military brillance of Lord Robert's campaigns in Afghanistan during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1877-1881), choose deliberately to withdraw back to the Northwest Frontier, and, to treat Afghanistan as something of a half-way house between a vassal and buffer state. The reasoning behind it, a reasoning that was reflected in much of the 'official mind' of Whitehall in this period, was that there was nothing, in Central Asia, no interests or assets which made war, much less war with Tsarist Russia a worthwhile exercise. Consequently, regardless of the occasional, emotional 'on the spot' voices heard such as Lord Curzon's it was the cooler and more sane voices such as the Great Lord Salisbury, which in internal Whitehall deliberation prevailed. Hence, despite all the alarms bells which, people seem to think happened in this period, over the 'great game', not one military incident involving the two powers ever occurred. And, of course with the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, the Great War and then the Bolshevik Revolution, the great game, soon went the way of the hoop skirt or plus fours.
Which brings us to the contemporary relevance of the above history, as now, hopefully properly understood realistically, without any romantic shadings or distortions. First, regardless of the (allegedly) great oil and natural gas deposits in the Cental Asian region, much of the area is poor and economically helpless. All are steeped in economic, cultural and political backwardness. As perhaps best exemplified by the state of affairs highlighted by the recent passing away of Turkmenbashi....(on recent developments in Turkmenistan, see: "Moscow moves to consolidate control in Belarus and Turkmenistan," 5 January 2007 in www.pinr.com). Insofar as any outside power has any real interest or intersts in the region, and by interests, I mean something which is worth investing time, money and potentially men, then that country is most likely Russia. Although, there are voices within the American military, diplomatic and humanitarian establishments, who argue for active American involvement in the region, either for dubious (negative) purpose of 'shutting Russia out', or the equally dubious (positive) purpose of attempting to advance the laudable goals, as most recently expressed by the American organization, 'International League of Human Rights', of Democracy, human rights and liberty, id est, in their verbage: "galvanizing demands for reforms by raising civil society concerns" (see their 'Turkmenistan Project' in www.ilhr.org). I use the word 'dubious', not because I oppose per se, any 'democratic' or civil society 'aspirations' that the Turkmen or other Central Asia peoples may have (although what in fact the Turkmen, Uzbek or Kazak, et cetera, peoples really want, is of course unknowable at this time. But of course, our modern-day, American, Vera Pavlovna's still feel that they know, and, that they must give it to them...). Indeed, their already exists various international agencies on the government to government level which attempt to assist Central Asia governments with raising living standards, educational levels, assisting the nascent civil society of these countries, et cetera. What I object to, is using such legitimate concerns as a wedge, a diplomatic, military and other wedge to interfer with, and, subvert the organic nature of development of these societies. Let us not mince words: any, I repeat any American diplomatic and other intervention, at this time, or any time in the near future, will be seen rightly or wrongly as aimed at overthrowing the current regimes of the regions, and, also aimed at overturning their pro-Russian policies and ties. This would be true not only in Russia proper, but, also in the areas concerned as well, and, indeed as far away as Peking. And, given the nature of the current priorities of American foreign policy, with its (admittedly mindless) investment in Iraq, in a possible (but not likely) looming confrontation with Persia and North Korea, the very last thing that the United States needs to do is to waste both diplomatic options, resources, prestige and, needessly alienating other powers such as Russia and China, by engaging in a hopeless campaign to change the nature of things in Central Asia. If indeed, Central Asia will change, as it most likely will, it will not change as a result of American intervention. In point of fact, any such intervention will complicate and, not ease the ongoing transition that the region must undergo.
It with the above in mind, that I would like to present to the readership of this journal, the following article by Professor Stephen Blank of the United States Army War College. This article is of interest for two reasons, one, is that it does provide a detailed look at ongoing developments in Central Asia, and specifically Uzbekistan; two, is that it provides an interesting insight into the mentality (the 'official mind' as it were) of how certain elements within the US governing circles view both Moskva's policies in the region, and, how they see that policy affecting perceived American 'interests' in the region. Such as they are, or are said to be. Perhaps nothing better fits this frame of mind better, than the Professor's cri de coeur, near the end of the article in which he states that:
"Access to the Navoi is a major though not decisive Russian step, towards realizing several diverse objective simultaneously. It is also indicative of a reversion to more overt forms of Russian imperialism as well as an expression of the apprehension of Liberalism in Central Asia".
Insofar as the base agreement can be said to constitute 'Russian Imperialism', why is it in the interest of either the United States, the European Union, or any other outside power to care? Indeed the legitimacy of the Russian agreement is not altogether similar to selfsame type of agreements that the United States currently has with countries as 'democratic' in nature as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Oman, the UAE, Pakistan, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. One would rather doubt that the good professor would characterize such agreements as evidence of 'American Imperialism' or that the United States was opposed to say, 'democratic openings' in the same countries (although insofar as such 'openings' would be Islamic in nature it may very well be...). Others would argue that the rich oil and gas deposits of the area, are a tremendous asset, and, that only 'pro-American', 'pro-western' regimes, and not any regimes tied to Moskva will ensure that enough oil and gas are explored, and then supplied for transport to Western Europe. This thesis, seems to me to be a highly dubious one. There does not appear to be any concrete evidence that Moskva directly or indirectly has attempted or will attempt to strangle the development of natural resources in this area. Indeed, insofar as Moskva currently serves as a transit point for such resources to go west, it is in fact, very much in Moskva interests to promote, and, not stifle the development of such resources. Which is not to gainsay the fact that by serving as a transport hub for moving natural resources, Moskva has gained a valuable economic and diplomatic asset. An asset which all the world has witnessed it using at times in Anno Domini 2005, 2006, and 2007. But, that fact, does not I would conclude either necessitate, or justify American and or other intervention in the region of Central Asia. If there is any power which should and hopefully will intervene and attempt to harmonize in an organic and fruitful fashion the ongoing developments in the area, that should be the Russian Federation. With that said, please enjoy for the many reasons cited above, Professor's Blank's article:
EURASIA INSIGHT AN UZBEK AIR BASE: RUSSIA’S NEWEST ACHIEVEMENT IN CENTRAL ASIA By Stephen Blank
Lost in all the international attention given to Turkmen President Sapamurat Niyazov’s death in late December was an announcement that Russia and Uzbekistan had agreed on a deal giving Moscow access to the Uzbek airfield at Navoi. This development marks an important step forward in the Russian effort to lock up Uzbekistan as a loyal client state.
Policy analysts had long believed Russia was seeking a base in Uzbekistan, in particular the facility at Karshi-Khanabad, which was vacated in 2005 by US forces after the Uzbek government issued an eviction order. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A November 2005 treaty between Russia and Uzbekistan contained language enabling Moscow, if it so desired, to come with military means to the aid of Uzbekistan’s government, language that only fueled the speculation that Moscow wanted permanent access to Karshi-Khanabad. But Russia, not wanting to be seen as an imperialistic power, denied that there were discussions about any base deal.
It’s now clear that Moscow was indeed covetous of a military facility in Uzbekistan. But it’s equally clear that there must have been hard bargaining, and the Russians did not get all they wanted. Certainly they did not get the more modern Karshi-Khanabad base, which has greater operational capacity than the facility at Navoi. Neither did they get full and unrestricted access to Navoi.
According to press reports, Russia will only be able to gain access to Navoi in case of emergencies, or what some reports called "force majeure" contingencies. In return Russia will provide Uzbekistan with modern navigation systems and air-defense weapons.
Russia mostly likely sought broader access to the base, given that Uzbekistan will probably emerge as the regional headquarters for a unified air defense command for Russia and several other Central Asian governments. This regional system will become a component of the CIS Unified Air Defense system, based upon pre-existing Soviet facilities and structures. Thus, to some degree, this deal represents what Russian military analyst Vladimir Mukhin called a "reanimation" of the Soviet defense structure. Meanwhile, Uzbek SU-27 and MiG-29s will be posted there as a regular peacetime deployment.
Mukhin also opined that Moscow wanted the Navoi base because one of its primary interests in Uzbekistan is uranium production and enrichment, which is now being done at the Navoi Mining and Smelting plant. Allegedly this new capability will help protect those works from security threats, such as a potential terrorist attack.
Access to an air base in Uzbekistan enhances Russia’s ability to respond to a potential crisis in Central Asia, such as the type of civil unrest and clashes that occurred in Andijan in 2005, or upheaval triggered by a political succession crisis.
Both Moscow and Beijing showed considerable anxiety over the fact that they could not intervene in Kyrgyzstan in 2005’s Tulip Revolution, and, since then, have both made conscious efforts to bolster their respective ability to project power in the region. Gaining access to the Navoi base offers another example of Russia’s efforts to encompass all of Central Asia in a single defense organization that is, in essence, counterrevolutionary and/or anti-democratic.
The second objective is clearly tied to Russian concerns about American strategic intentions and capabilities in Central and South Asia. It would seem that the Russian military still regards US and NATO forces as its primary enemy. After the Soviet collapse in 1991, much of Russia’s air defenses and early warning systems were disrupted to the point where Moscow was actually "blind" to potential attacks. The Kremlin is eager to close existing gaps in its defenses. A "reanimation" of the old Soviet air defense system is crucial to this end, as is exclusion of US forces from Central Asia to the greatest possible degree. Furthermore, Russia apparently is building an integrated land, sea and air force throughout the Caspian Basin. A unified air-defense is critical to the protection of all those forces.
Access to Navoi is a major, though not completely decisive, Russian step towards realizing several diverse objectives simultaneously. It is also indicative of a reversion to more overt forms of Russian imperialism, as well as an expression of apprehension of liberalization in Central Asia.
Perhaps Uzbekistan has begun to fully appreciate Moscow’s aims, as Tashkent has made several recent small gestures to improve its ties to the European Union and the West in general. While Russia may have gained limited access to Navoi, it may turn out to have also overreached, stimulating Uzbek President Islam Karimov to reach out again to the West. Whatever the case, the Navoi basing agreement constitutes a significant development in Central Asia’s geopolitical contest – one that deserves ongoing scrutiny.
Editor’s Note: Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.