US withdrawal may push Central Asia toward Russia. Drawing by Dan Pototsky

Drawing by Dan Pototsky. Click to enlarge the image.

At a recent seminar in Washington, the latest report of the Center for Strategic and International Studies was delivered, entitled "The United States and Central Asia after 2014." The CSIS report outlines two opposing views as to the strategic objectives, prospects and role of the United States in the region.

One view is that Central Asia is of intrinsic interest to the United States. Even after the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan, the region will continue to play a major part in American foreign policy.

The other point of view, supported by most analysts (myself included), is that the region is of peripheral importance to U.S. foreign policy.

Today, the U.S. faces innumerable internal challenges of a socio-economic nature, along with no fewer external ones emanating from more important regions (from a U.S. perspective) such as North Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East.

Given the country's shrinking resources and reduced capacity to shape the world as it once did, it is clear that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan will be accompanied by a sharp downturn in Washington's oversight of the region.

Nevertheless, it was noted that the U.S. will still try, despite its reduced capacity, to achieve two objectives in the region: first, to continue to consolidate the sovereignty and independence of the Central Asian countries; second, to prevent a sharp increase in the influence of Russia and China.

Given China's growing might and economic expansion in the region, it is likely that, in the foreseeable future, the U.S. will not view Russia as the main threat to the sovereignty of the Central Asian countries. Furthermore, in view of its waning ability to pursue an active policy in the region and the threat that China's regional rise poses to long-term U.S. interests, Washington will be more interested in forging ties with Russia to counterbalance and contain China.

It seems to me that Russia's concern regarding the U.S. footprint in the region is largely due to the fact that, in the 1990s and early 2000s, Russia lacked the resources and the consolidated state power to assert itself in its own backyard.

Moscow feared that the U.S. would not only strengthen its positions in the countries of Central Asia, but also bring its influence to bear on the internal political processes inside Russia itself and keep the country in check as a servile junior partner. That was the case in the 1990s.

Today, Russia is strong enough that it no longer needs to fear U.S. influence in the region and can play the role of an independent and effective partner in U.S.-Russian-Chinese trilateral relations.

Given the shifting balance of forces in connection with China's growing presence and America's truncated resources, a scaled-down U.S. presence in the region, following the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, could well be acceptable to Moscow, so as to prevent China's influence from growing too strong and to stop the spread of Islamic extremism.

Since Russia has neither the will nor the resources to exert unilateral control over the region — at least not in the near future — a policy that achieves a balance in Russia’s favor is highly desirable.

In this context, it would be amiss not to mention the potential changes that could occur within the Central Asian countries themselves. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asia desperately struggled to maintain and consolidate its independence and sovereignty, fearing (almost by default) a restoration of the Soviet Union. In this respect, Russia is still perceived as a potential threat.

However, given that the current threats to the stability and independence of the region come primarily from Islamic fundamentalism (the Taliban, al-Qaeda, etc.) and Chinese supremacy, Central Asian leaders will be forced to seek a balance of power among the “triumvirate,” so as to preserve their independence and sovereignty.

Ultimately, the strengthening of the Taliban and other radical Islamic groups in neighboring countries — as well as the weakening of both the desire and the capacity of the U.S. to be the deciding factor in the region — will likely nudge the Central Asian leaders into seeking closer ties with Russia.

Russian influence could come to the fore sooner than expected: the upcoming handover of power to new leaders in Central Asia (a process always marred by political instability) is likely to entail major external interference, without which the regional regimes could not cope.

Andranik Migranyan is a political scientist who writes as a contributor for Izvestia newspaper. 

The opinion is first published in Russian in Izvestia.