Has the U.S. given up on Central Asia?

What do you do when large-scale ethnic violence breaks out in a country where you have a key military base, but the local government can do nothing to stop it? When that country is situated in a region on which you have spent untold hours of diplomatic effort and hundreds of millions of dollars over ...

VICTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images
VICTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images
VICTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images

What do you do when large-scale ethnic violence breaks out in a country where you have a key military base, but the local government can do nothing to stop it? When that country is situated in a region on which you have spent untold hours of diplomatic effort and hundreds of millions of dollars over an 18-year period, and staked a claim to a primary seat at the table of influence? Where matters like oil, the Taliban, narcotics and nuclear trafficking intersect? But all this happens while your military is stretched to the breaking point elsewhere, and, to be blunt, you have other fish to fry?

You phone the Russians.

That call -- as this blog reported yesterday, the Obama administration rejected an informal request for military assistance by Kyrgyzstan, and has been helping to coordinate an international response that, if it happens, will be led by Moscow -- is the latest example of a dramatic reversal of U.S. policy. Since 1991, U.S. policy in Central Asia and the Caucasus had centered on helping the eight-nation southern belt of the former Soviet Union achieve relative political independence from Russia. 

What do you do when large-scale ethnic violence breaks out in a country where you have a key military base, but the local government can do nothing to stop it? When that country is situated in a region on which you have spent untold hours of diplomatic effort and hundreds of millions of dollars over an 18-year period, and staked a claim to a primary seat at the table of influence? Where matters like oil, the Taliban, narcotics and nuclear trafficking intersect? But all this happens while your military is stretched to the breaking point elsewhere, and, to be blunt, you have other fish to fry?

You phone the Russians.

That call — as this blog reported yesterday, the Obama administration rejected an informal request for military assistance by Kyrgyzstan, and has been helping to coordinate an international response that, if it happens, will be led by Moscow — is the latest example of a dramatic reversal of U.S. policy. Since 1991, U.S. policy in Central Asia and the Caucasus had centered on helping the eight-nation southern belt of the former Soviet Union achieve relative political independence from Russia. 

Critics already have accused Washington of selling out Georgia by pulling back from the George W. Bush administration’s support of the country’s eventual membership in NATO (here is an old Facebook page devoted to the topic). In general, such critics, including my Foreign Policy colleagues at Shadow Government, heap an old bromide on the latest administration in Washington: President Obama, they say, is soft on Russia. The openness to an active Russian military deployment on Kyrgyz soil — Russia has a base in Kyrgyzstan, called Kant, but it doesn’t carry out local operations — is sure to invite a new round of table-pounding.

But is the administration soft on Russia, or is it following a realistic new course given the geopolitical landscape, and the result of previous policies toward Vladimir Putin’s entrenched government?

The question arises because of the deaths of more than 100 people in an ethnic uprising in southern Kyrgyzstan since last Friday. Fueled by long-held tension between local Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, Kyrgyz gangs attacked and burned the homes and businesses of Uzbeks.  Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva said government forces cannot control the violence, and appealed first for U.S., then Russian military assistance. Russia led a meeting today of a Moscow-dominated regional group called the Collective Security Treaty Organization, whose imprimatur Russia is seeking before agreeing to send troops.

There’s no doubting that deploying a Russian force in Kyrgyzstan is a gamble. As Joshua Kucera notes, Russia is renowned for going into countries, but not for leaving them. As I myself witnessed, when similar ethnic trouble erupted in Tajikistan in 1992, Russia’s local 201st Motorized division sided with a southern clan attached to the city of Kulyab, and ousted the democratically elected government in Dushanbe; the 201st has been deployed to Tajikistan since the Soviet era, and remains highly influential in the country. In 2008, Russia technically withdrew from Georgia after the two countries went to war, but Moscow embraced declarations of independence by the two breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and is building a considerable naval presence in the Abkhazian Black Sea port of Ochamchira. There are other examples.

Yet the region itself has reacted pathetically to a situation that easily could spiral out of control. For instance, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization happened to be holding its annual summit Friday just over the border in Tashkent. For years, this grouping has attracted much nervous jawboning by those concerned about China’s influence. Yet, handed one of its biggest chances in years to demonstrate a reason for its existence, SCO members punted. The group went home after basically suggesting that the Uzbeks and Kyrgyz undergo group therapy — "dialogue and consultations by political and diplomatic means."

Russia is guilty of mischief almost country by country in the former Soviet Union. And the longstanding U.S. policy was correct to help those countries carve out a measure of true independence. But the question is whether that policy does or ought to include the deployment of U.S. troops when matters get out of hand, as they predictably do in this part of the world. Should the U.S. have dispatched troops to Georgia in 2008, for instance?

In the current situation, the Obama administration could have sent the rubber bullets requested by the Kyrgyz without repercussion. But, as with Georgia, should it have sent soldiers?

Over at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Brian Whitmore reports out a level-headed piece in which Georgians say they don’t feel sold out by Washington. Whitmore concludes, "Obama’s reset with Moscow is a lot less frightening than all the alarmist punditry suggests."

After 11 years living in the region myself, I realize it’s a tough place. Yet I wonder: Why has Moscow bothered to consult with Washington about the topic if Kyrgyzstan is a decided Russian possession?

The reason is that what the region has become since the Soviet collapse is what it’s historically always been: one fought over, and shared, by numerous strong powers.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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