“No Great Game: The Story of Post-Cold War Powers in Central Asia”

by Joshua Foust on 12/16/2011 · 24 comments

My contribution to the American Security Project/ Atlantic 20-year retrospective on U.S. foreign policy in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union is up, and it focuses on — what else? — Central Asia. An excerpt:

The terror attacks of September 11 and subsequent invasion of Afghanistan seemed at first to cement the rise of America in Central Asia. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld negotiated the use of military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, even while the State Department grew less and less comfortable with human rights abuses in those countries. By the time the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, American policy in the area seemed set on autopilot, dominant and victorious.

Then, something changed. In March of 2005, the “Tulip Revolution” in Kyrgyzstan unseated Askar Akayev, who had ruled the country since 1990, throwing the U.S. into panic that it might lose access to the airbase at Manas. Also that year, in May, Uzbek security forces massacred hundreds of protesters in the city of Andijon, and in the ensuing outcry the U.S. lost access to the Uzbek airbase it relied on to supply the troops in Afghanistan. While the Americans later managed to secure expanded access to Manas, it came at an increasingly high cost.

The mid-2000s also saw Russia emerge from its slumber. Under Presidents Vladimir Putin and then Dmitri Medvedev, Russia slowly revived its campaign for influence in the region, gaining concessions from the Central Asian rulers and sometimes challenging the U.S. for access and resources. As of 2011, Russia and the U.S. could best be called frenemies in Central Asia, with Russia chafing at the continued American presence even while its officials worry about the consequences of an American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

This is less policy analysis than history but I think it tells a pretty interesting story.

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


Xenophon December 16, 2011 at 9:10 pm

The last paragraph of the full article: “Viewing Central Asia as a competition for influence, however, misses the point; that is a contest that America could probably never win. Instead, what’s emerging is a tenuous collaboration: Russia and America working together to support and develop the region. Unthinkable 20 years ago, this new alignment of interests has the potential to be far more transformative than the fall of communism ever was.”

I don’t understand the logic of this. You title the article “No Great Game” and then confuse the existence of geo-strategic competition with the question of who is likely to win that competition. And why is the “collaboration”–cooperation would have been a better word–between Russian and the US so tentative? Because–obviously–it is set against the backdrop of competition. Why is acknowledging the existence of great power competition in Central Asia and globally so frightening for you?

You actually outline the basics of the Great Game in Central Asia rather well: “Both Turkey and China are spending increasing amounts of money and energy to gain social, economic, and political footholds in the region, and Russia is looking for new ways to extend its “security umbrella” southward. The U.S. is trying to cement its position with the New Silk Road, a concept for regional trade that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is mentioning in speeches, but that project’s success seems far from certain.”

But then you find yourself unable to face up to the obvious. This kind of thinking is the curse of the regional specialist: Damn it, my region is special, it’s not just a battleground for the great powers! My region is a lovely snowflake–unlike any other. I’ve spent my professional life studying this area, and I refuse to accept that it and its constituent countries might be the playthings–and/or the agents of destruction–of the world powers as they fight tooth and nail for dominance.

Well, OK. Live in the bubble if you must. In any event, your blog is a useful and interesting forum for discussing Central Asia in its particulars AND in its role in the intensifying Great Game.

Dilshod December 17, 2011 at 11:55 am

To make it short, he is saying win-win situation will make each player better-off. But again it’s really subjective, what US may consider a good “win” for Russia, may look to the latter as a nicely put “lose”. But I bet both want to see the region changing and changing to become a better partner capable of accommodating different interests.

Don Bacon December 17, 2011 at 11:04 am

The “competition for influence” is not a competition for state political influence in the historic sense, it has now become more a competition for corporate influence. Which country can best promote the advancement of its corporate (or state) commercial interests? That’s what embassies do.

The U.S. uses taxpayer money, funneled through USAID, to aid the American Chambers of Commerce, with their offices in these countries, to promote the sorts of development that will be responsive to U.S. corporate investment needs. (The American Chambers are affiliates of U.S. Chambers.)

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Telephone Conference Call With Journalists in Central Asia
Washington, DC — speaking in Kazakhstan:
“one of America’s goals is to try to expand our investment not only in the hydrocarbon sector but also in the non-hydrocarbon sector.
So we will continue to work with our Kazakhstan partners to encourage them to put in place the most transparent and attractive investment climate, including on the question of sanctity of contracts, to enable them to attract even more American investment there.”

That’s the essence of the U.S. “Silk Road Strategy,” with similar aims from other world economic powers — to make a profit through investing in Central Asia. (Forget about promoting domestic employment.)

“Russia and America working together to support and develop the region?”
Perhaps there will be some evidence of this in a subsequent article of this twelve (12) part series

Thomas Paine December 18, 2011 at 2:45 am

Just like some of the readers already pointed out I also have a problem with the statement that “Russia and America working together to support and develop the region”. IMHO, neither Russia nor America are working to DEVELOP the region, per se. They are both just being myopic and following their short-term and narrow interests in the region, nothing more. And I say this as a person who is born and raised in the region….

The “resource curse” has caught up with Russia and it has lost its industrial base and turned into a third-world style commodity based economy… much like Nigeria, if you will. So this makes modern Russia incapable of doing anything that could remotely be factored in as development work in Central Asia. What Russia does do in Central Asia though is to coerce Central Asian states to buy their oil and gas as cheaply as possible and reexport it to Europe using its extensive oil and gas pipelines. Central Asia doesn’t want to be always left with the short end of the stick which is why the efforts to build transcaspian pipeline to Turkey/Europe and the latest attempts to build direct pipelines to China.

The same goes for America. Its interests do not extend beyond the gates of its military bases in Central Asia. If Central Asia matters to anybody in America, it is just a couple of generals in Pentagon who are tasked to fight terrorism, that’s it. Outside that small circle of military professionals Central Asia is not a factor and nobody in Russia and America is loosing sleep thinking how to develop the region. As soon as the fight against terrorism is over, Central Asia will fall off even those generals’ maps.

Also, there is no self-sustaining, organically grown commerce going on between America and Central Asia. America and Central Asia are too far apart for business and trade to grow organically and for it to make a sound economic sense. The world biggest factory, China is right next door to Central Asia. China doesn’t tie its trade and business with Central Asia to politics. This is the exact thing the authoritarian regimes of the region prefer. So all business and trade and development that comes from that goes to China.

My another argument against the notion that America and Russia are working to develop Central Asia is this….if we follow the author’s logic both countries would be first and foremost interested in the regions stability at least, right? Well, they are not….In June 2010 when ethnic violence erupted in Kyrgyzstan and thousands died, neither country offered any help even after the Kyrgyz President directly appealed for help from Russia and the US. Russia didn’t help because it benefits from weaken Central Asia and this is why Russia stood on the sidelines and watched the violence to spread. America didn’t help because at the end of the day in the minds of average Americans Central Asia is thousands of miles away and what happens there is inconsequential to Americans. Forget about working to develop the region, as soon as the fight against terror is over Central Asia will be an afterthought for America…

Don Bacon December 18, 2011 at 7:51 pm

The same goes for America. Its interests do not extend beyond the gates of its military bases in Central Asia. If Central Asia matters to anybody in America, it is just a couple of generals in Pentagon who are tasked to fight terrorism, that’s it.

Not true, as I indicated above.

Thomas Paine December 19, 2011 at 10:39 am

The amount of American investment in Kazakhstan or elsewhere in Central Asia outside of oil and gas sector is negligible. No oil and gas means no American investment in the region basically.

Re: USAID. USAID spends roughly about $20M per country in Central Asia with spikes here and there. This is a drop in a bucket and does not make a dent in the regions development needs. I am not looking a gift horse in the mouth, I am just saying that neither Russia nor America are truly involved in development work in the region.

Don Bacon December 19, 2011 at 12:48 pm

I am just saying that neither Russia nor America are truly involved in development work in the region.

That’s not what you said. And your new statement is untrue also. The U.S. is truly involved in development work in the region as I indicated above.

Thomas Paine December 19, 2011 at 1:15 pm

I had seen your comment before commenting but sorry, I find it unconvincing. I also couldn’t find any facts that could back up your comments. Alternatively, if you said it was a theory, which makes it one of many possible scenarios automatically, then I would go with that. But you seem to be trying to pass it off as the reality, as the status quo of thing between Central Asia and US/Russia and that is not true.

Don Bacon December 19, 2011 at 4:14 pm

Investor’s Voice
The Official Voice of the American Chamber of Commerce in Kazakhstan
Ernst & Young in cooperation with AmCham, organized a Tax Workshop . . .the Almaty Human Resources Working Group featured speakers from Schlumberger and Ambition IBQ who presented on their training and development programs. . .PricewaterhouseCoopers gave a presentation . ..

AmCham Kazakhstan Annual Report 2009
“This past year has had many notable events, all well-attended by AmCham members and guests, but the major events of 2009 have been connected with the U.S.-Kazakhstan Public-Private Economic Partnership (PPEPI), launched in March”

The U.S. – Kazakhstan Public – Private Economic Partnership Initiative (PPEPI)
The U.S. – Kazakhstan Public – Private Economic Partnership Initiative (PPEPI) is a unique initiative aimed at improving the business environment for Kazakhstan’s investment and trade community, both foreign and local

Kazakhstan — U.S. Investment forum 2011
This year’s US-Kazakhstan Investment Forum is taking place at a highly auspicious time in the country’s history as Kazakhstan prepares to celebrate 20 years of sovereign independence.

Robert O. Blake, Jr., Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
one of America’s goals is to try to expand our investment not only in the hydrocarbon sector but also in the non-hydrocarbon sector. So we will continue to work with our Kazakhstan partners to encourage them to put in place the most transparent and attractive investment climate, including on the question of sanctity of contracts, to enable them to attract even more American investment there. Thank you.

On June 24, 2008, at the Rixos Hotel in Astana, the Governments of the United States and Kazakhstan announced the establishment of a Public-Private Economic Partnership to invest their public and private sectors in a shared vision of stability, prosperity, and reform in Kazakhstan.

Thomas Paine December 19, 2011 at 9:24 pm

Thanks for posting all these resources here. Now, let’s take all of this and compare to investment direct or otherwise, from China….I will change my name to Guy Fawkes if the numbers don’t pail compared to Chinese investment.

Don Bacon December 19, 2011 at 9:54 pm

Again, you’re changing your tune.
1) No U.S. interests beyond military.
2) The U.S. is not truly involved in development.
3) The U.S. is investing less than China.

If you’re Thomas Paine, what happened to The Age of Reason?

Thomas Paine December 20, 2011 at 9:37 am

Exactly Don, I would rather be guided by reason than by revelation. No US interest beyond military might have been a hyperbole but it doesn’t negate my central point that US investments in non-oil and gas industries in Central Asia is negligible.

Boris Sizemore December 19, 2011 at 4:46 am

I think Joshua saw this very well…just some comments.

This is not a Great Game. Who is calling the shots? The Great Game was always an illusion and a failed one at that. Central Asia in the last 150 years has only had one successful actor-Russia. All other powers were peripheral or incomplete or incapable.

The current situation is very different. Russia does not fear the US in the Region. This is not a competition. There is no comparison. The US effort has been a non entity. With the exception of some “quasi” US corporations in the Energy field, an “they ignore whatever we say,” Foreign Policy effort, and the transit facility in Manas, there is really not much going on from the US end.

Russia does not fear the US pullout from Afghanistan. It fears its Muslim population. It does not fear US relations with the weak dictatorships in Central Asia, it fears the day when these Governments fall.

Russia will be the main target of the coming Revolution on the Steppe. The main dynamic of struggle over Russian/Big Business/Resources extraction, will be the struggle between the non Russian populations and their former overlords. Both Russian influence and the Cliques of the Dictatorships will be challenged. Nationalist or Nationalist Islamic struggle is the future of the Region. The cycle is moving toward decentralization and federalization combined with the rise of a “national” and Islamic identity.

Foreign powers are not the central issue in any of this. Just like the Soviet Revolutionary period, Central Asia rather than more connected will disconnect to the outside world as the struggle for identity and independence and the increased role of Islam continues. After 400 years of imperialist and local tyranny, the Region will assert itself once again as a separate and distinct region. The breakup of the USSR was only the first page in what will be long struggle for identity and true independence.

Russia will be the main loser in this and Moscow is very aware. Putin and his successors see the struggle of population and race and religion as a very real threat to Russia. They fear a second “Mongol” invasion and see this as a near certainty. Demographics is frightening, not only to psyche but also to the Russian economy.

For all the glorified talk of US-Russian competition, the West Islam struggle is most important from Russian eyes. This is why they have played a non conflictive role in the Afghan war, and see it through purely local eyes.

This is hardly a Great Game at all. The US is fading in the Region and Russia is fully confused at what to do. Other powers are clear on their limits here, and each is waiting for the next mini explosion in a process that may take fifty years. The events in Kazahkstan this weekend, and Krygystan last year are the first of many explosions we can expect in the near future. The only power in the way will be Russia, and they already know it.

Xenophon December 19, 2011 at 10:00 am

“Who is calling the shots?”

I don’t understand. What does that mean?

Boris, there’s ALWAYS a great game. It’s more complex and global now than ever before. Central Asia is merely one theater, though an important one.

“Russia does not fear the US pullout from Afghanistan.”

Russia fears almost everything: It fears the US in Afghanistan; it fears the US out of Afghanistan; it fears US missile defense; it fears China’s proximity to underpopulated Siberia; it fears Islam; it fears threats to its dominance in European energy markets; it fears its own demographics. Russia has much to fear.

How can you make a serious argument for or against any notion of great power competition in Central Asia (or anywhere else) without one mention of China? You’ve essentially said that both US and Russian positions are weakening in Central Asia. Well, that may well be true. So, cui bono? Does China’s pipeline building across the region have no strategic implications?

“After 400 years of imperialist and local tyranny, the Region will assert itself once again as a separate and distinct region.”

Yes, we can see in the Ferghana Valley how “the region is asserting itself.”

Boris Sizemore December 19, 2011 at 10:08 pm


The whole “Great Game” fantasy is based on “dominating” powers competing to dominate the region or hold it under its influence. This is largely a now defunct imperial vision, and has only very very limited context for 2011 and here on out.

As I said, since the whole crazy concept came up, only Russia/Soviet Union has held any sort of control over the Region. The idea that Powers jostling is really not happening.

China is the economic force in the Region now, because it buys the resources that the Central Asians have to sell. They have very limited interest in “dominating.” Buying and Selling of raw materials does not count as dominating. anymore than any customer producer relationship does. Dominating refers to control and largely political control.

The real battle is now between the population itself, the Current Government cliques, and the rights and development of those resources for the benefit of the population. In the whole region, the trend will be for resistance to the current power structures, and resistance to the past domination of the Slavic Russians in the Region.

No power has a major stake in this more than Russia. Its very population rests on a sharp East/West dichotomy, and the Eastern Islamic share in that population is increasing each year, along with aspirations for greater influence and change.

There is no game going on. Russia is looking toward to the future, and demographics, restructuring of Governments and Culture vis a vis Islam is the only main issue in the future.

Buying and selling of resources will continue no matter the outcome of this struggle. There is really nothing else to trade at this time.

The Great Game is about as relevant as RISK the board game, at the moment. The era ended a long time ago. We are only just realizing this now.

Dilshod December 20, 2011 at 12:17 am

What you say makes sense to me, Boris. The peoples of the region has been denied meaningful engagement in public affairs as due to the transition hardships, governments opt for more restrictive and closed policies. Russia might be right to be concerned with possible outcomes when resentment will overflow and spill out. However, she is overlooking presence of positive dynamics in the regional development. The regional states (except KG) have shown commendable skills in having their transition process relatively stable, avoiding the shaking big boats.
On a more personal note: the problem with some Russian forecasts that they tend to focus exclusively on negative outcomes, instead of identifying possible solutions for the good of everyone involved. It makes one weary and distrustful of such analyses.

Xenophon December 20, 2011 at 9:26 am

I disagree with your focus on “domination”. It’s competition that is the basic human dynamic that is at work and drives all else. This may or may not take the form of trying to achieve domination–a vague term in any case–of any particular region or country.

Why is Russia working so feverishly to prevent Turkmen oil/gas flowing into non-Russian-controlled pipelines to Europe? Why did Russia build the Nordstream pipeline bypassing Eastern Europe? What does it mean that China is taking more and more Mekong River water, that Ethiopia is seeking more Nile river water, that China claims the South China Sea as its own? Why has the US worked so hard to sever South Sudan from the rest of the country? Why has the US cozied up to Uzbekistan again? Why does China feel the need to build weapons to destroy US aircraft carriers?

In a world of increasing resource scarcity, the “game” is on more than ever. For the US, of course, there certainly is an ideological dimension to this–a dogmatic self-justification based on the supposed transcendent moral goodness of US global hegemony. Central Asia is only a piece of all this. Will this ultimately subvert the US’s competitive capacity? Quite possibly.

Of course, the game does not preclude the internal struggles that you describe. It never has precluded such. Re-read Nostromo. It’s as relevant today as ever.

Yes, RISK, if this really needs to be said, is a crude child’s-game approximation of geo-politics–in other words, just a straw-man argument. There is no end to competition among human beings and the states, corporations, etc that they form. Sometimes it is more violent, sometimes less so. Don’t confuse the never-ending game with some static notion of 19th century imperialism. Of course, that has been transformed into other, more sophisticated modes of competition.

No, there is no new world as you seem to imagine. Whether the US succeeds or fails in its grandiose schemes–I suspect the latter–the game will go on. All else is wishful thinking.

prefabrik December 20, 2011 at 1:50 am

prefabrik hakkında tüm bilgiler burada.

Boris Sizemore December 20, 2011 at 1:58 am

Dishod…Good Point, Given the last 100 years of modern Russian and Central Asian history it is not surprising they worst case it. You could probably say, they only know how to worst case things. I cannot really blame them.

The problem of massive corruption by elites is really the obvious initial issue from Leningrad to Lake Baikal and throughout each and every region of the exSoviet Union. The immediate “instant” independence period benefited small groups in each country.The population to varying degrees is in the first throes of a long resistance struggle against the Mafia State that exists. Putin and the rest are all in the same boat.

The demographic nationalist religious issues form a backdrop to the immediate oppression issues, but exist nevertheless and in no small amount. Ask any Tartar what they really think…about Russians and you will be at the first stage of what is coming. No outside power in their right mind wants to get involved with this. It is going to be difficult to manage.

The traditional big powers in the Region could learn a lot from the “new” players. China, India, and Iran are really reapplying the old “non aligned” Bandung philosophy in dealing with most Asian issues. Turkey under Erdogan has echoed these real “third” options in its foreign policy. Washington could learn from them in most instances. Soft is the new Shock and Awe when resources are minimal, and was in the past the guiding rule for preWWII US foreign policy. Russian Afghan policy has also been very positive and practical for the most part. Experience counts sometimes.

Things usually get confused when you have an out of region power…ie. the US (before Britain) come into the picture and confuse things by trying to create new poles of influence in what is already a bad situation. This has not worked in the past ten years. US influence is worse for wear in both Iraq and Afghanistan after direct intervention. Aden 1967 Afghanistan 1912 repeated. Win the fighting, leave with nothing but enmity, and a sense of loss.

The post Imperial age is here, and some people need to get used to it, right away.

Dilshod December 20, 2011 at 6:54 am

Boris, we again are faced with “still no light at the end of tunnel” analysis. History may repeat itself – but may not too. Novelty is not necessarily bad thing. Russia and to a much lesser degree US are yet to recover from Cold War thinking. Russia has to start thinking as a victor, time to stop whining and to start with ecouraging positive dynamics. US to the contrary needs to re-adjust its “we know all about it” attitude to become open to new ideas\…\

Xenophon December 20, 2011 at 9:38 am

“US influence is worse for wear in both Iraq and Afghanistan after direct intervention. Aden 1967 Afghanistan 1912 repeated. Win the fighting, leave with nothing but enmity, and a sense of loss.

The post Imperial age is here, and some people need to get used to it, right away.”

Well, I agree with the first sentence above. But again, the fact that the US may have played its cards badly in no way changes the basic competitive dynamic of the Great Game.

And while you’re making lists, how about India’s conquest of Kashmir post-1947? How about China’s consolidation of it’s position on the Tibetan plateau in 1950? Are those materially different from Aden 1967 other than that those conquests seem to have succeeded up to this point? How about China and India fighting a rather traditional war for strategic territorial control a mere seven years after the vaunted Bandung Conference?

Let the Game continue…

Parejal December 20, 2011 at 7:08 am

I agree that the rol of international corporations are mixed with state policies, not only in the USA but also in the new relevant actors like China. I wonder what will be next with the anxiety and fear derived from the recent death of the North Korea president. Are we safe in this world?

Xenophon December 20, 2011 at 9:45 am

Here’s an interesting “Great Game” commentary from MK Bhadrakumar, a retired Indian diplomat, entitled “US Cultivates an Ally in Central Asia”:

The US’s Central Asia policy takes a dramatic turn with the probability that Pentagon may hand over to Uzbekistan weapons that it “deems redundant or outdated for use by the American military” fighting in Afghanistan. The Eurasianet quoted the US’s Third Army commander Lt. Gen. Vincent Brooks who visited Tashkent last month, as saying, “I think that there are ways that the excess equipment could benefit both countries, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, with the excess of equipment from the war.”

The US move signifies many things. Uzbekistan doesn’t face any threat from the al-Qaeda or the Haqqani Network. Obviously, it makes sense for Washington to make some political capital out of the weapons it proposes to discard during the drawdown in Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan is keeping one foot outside the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization [CSTO]. The US would encourage Tashkent to ditch the CSTO so that the regional body’s credibility suffers. The US would also like Tashkent to get used to the US weapons, which can lead to “inter-operability”, apart from weaning it away from the traditional source of Russian supplies. Of course, Uzbekistan doesn’t face military threats from its neighboring countries. But it could facilitate NATO’s expansion into Central Asia.

The US is annoyed with Kazakhstan because of the latter moving in tandem with Russia on regional security issues. Kazakhstan has joined the Customs Union and has voiced support for Vladimir Putin’s idea of Eurasian Union. Thus, a labour dispute in western Kazakhstan is being played up currently to pile pressure on President Nurusultan Nazarbayev.

On the other hand, Uzbekistan has a simmering rivalry with Kazakhstan for regional leadership. Also, there have been reports that if the US military gets evicted from the Manas airbase in 2014, as per the stated position of the newly-elected Kyrgyz leadership, Washington would be eyeing an alternate facility in Uzbekistan. The arms supplies would be just the right thing to do.

At any rate, Tashkent’s importance as a partner in regional security has increased in the US calculus against the backdrop of US-Pak tensions and the uncertainties over the transit routes via Pakistan.

Dilshod December 20, 2011 at 11:36 pm

It’s interesting story. But still unclear how Uzbekistan may benefit from a stock of expensive , hi-tech weaponry that US is willing to donate. Frankly, I don’t see a future, honestly. Good weapons cost good money.
It’s through pretty clear that Uzbekistan’s resistance to CSTO is more about the role Russia aspires to play.

Previous post:

Next post: