Russia, China and the US are all vying for control of Central Asia in what many analysts are calling ‘the New Great Game’. For its part, Russia is making moves in almost all of the central Asian countries to maintain control over their former territories. While the original ‘Great Game’ took place in the 19th Century and focused on territorial control and trade, the ‘New Great Game’ is about control of the massive amounts of untapped resources and logistical advantages provided by Central Asia.
In addition to economic expansion in the former Soviet states, Russia is (trying) to tighten their grip on the ‘Stans, using the defense that these economically weak countries fail at internal security and cannot protect themselves. It is part of a strategy to make former Soviet states continue to see Russia as a benefactor and a necessary player in their security, the patriarchal bulwark against China and the US.
Russia is the de facto leader of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO or OBKD in Russian), which is the regional counterbalance to NATO. With Russia taking the lead, this body has taken on a number of new missions recently, including cybersecurity, internal security and drone manufacture. Recently, Russia was irked when Uzbekistan decided it no longer needed the protection and benefits provided as a member of the CSTO, leading some analysts to question the strength of the organization and its validity as a regional counterpoint to NATO.
Russia, of course, claims that Uzbekistan’s departure (and alleged military agreements with the United States) is not of great concern for the CSTO. All that being said, Russia clearly prioritizes a military presence in Central Asia. In Kyrgyzstan , Russia will be extending their lease on a military base for 15 years, starting in 2017. This fifteen year extension is a far cry from the 49 years for which Russia was asking. Additionally, Russia has a base in Kazakhstan, though this base isn’t (currently) being used for leverage in the same way as bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Tajikistan, the site of a potential new ‘supergiant’ hydrocarbon field, is perhaps the most visible of the ‘New Great Game’ battlegrounds, with Russia and the US vying for use of the country for security and logistical purposes. As Tye Sundlee reports, Tajikistan is a smart site for US logistical operations in the future, especially as the drawdown from Afghanistan begins. More interestingly, Russia’s Tajik base is also set to close in 2014, and Russia has made it clear they consider the Tajik base an important element of CSTO security. Dushanbe has been skilled at playing the two countries against each other.
In addition to activity in Central Asia, Russia is working hard to control multiple insurgencies in the restless enclaves of the Northern Caucasus, in the most underreported examples of the Russian military’s efforts. In recent months, Russian security forces have struggled with insurgencies in Dagestan, Ingushetia and analysts at Jamestown warned in late July that violence in the region could spread to the Volga region. For a more in-depth look in the Russian campaign in the Northern Caucasus, Small Wars Journal wrote up the conflict in June.
The most interesting thing about the ‘New Great Game’ will be to watch how small, economically weak Cental Asian states are able to manipulate giant powers and leverage them against each other. It gives these countries leverage they haven’t previously had, and Western audiences will likely begin to hear a lot more about them in the coming years.