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stand firmly with the front-line caspian-region nations

STAND FIRMLY WITH THE FRONT-LINE CASPIAN-REGION NATIONS

Image source: U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan

As we slog toward the third month of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked and barbaric attack on Ukraine, it is time – even past time – for the United States to stand firmly and visibly with the now independent former Soviet Socialist Republics of the Caspian region:  the South Caucasus and Central Asia.

We have now seen clearly what Russia is capable of doing in what Putin has called Russia’s special sphere of influence, by which he has meant the now-independent countries of the former Soviet Union.  The massive destruction, the war-crime brutality, and the criminal attacks on civilian populations and their homes and schools and hospitals are like nothing most now living have ever seen.  Except when Putin decided to bring Grozny to heel.  Except when Putin decided to help his friend Assad in Syria.

If – and this is still a big “if” – Putin and the Russian government can get by with the hideous atrocity of their war in Ukraine, then Moldova and Georgia will surely be next in the Kremlin’s cross-hairs as Putin allegedly seeks to build a new Russian Empire.  And should he – theoretically, I emphasize – defeat, or threaten into submission, those independent nations, would he be satisfied with what would be an Eastern Orthodox empire?  Or would he then go after other currently independent states of the former Soviet Union, especially the Muslim states of Azerbaijan and the five in Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan?

U.S. foreign policy since the independence of the former Soviet Socialist Republics 30 years ago has been to support unwaveringly the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of these young nations.  When Putin asserted in the past that they were in Russia’s special sphere of influence and occasionally went so far as to call it Russia’s exclusive sphere of influence, presidential administrations in Washington, both Republican and Democrat, calmly stated that the United States doesn’t recognize Moscow’s self-proclaimed “sphere of influence.”  However, this point was usually rather far down on the list of public talking points, simply because it seemed so theoretical and, back in those more normal times, there seemed to be no reason to challenge Putin head-on.

Over the years, each of these countries in its own way has pursued what Kazakhstan first articulated – a multi-vector foreign policy.  This means they have worked to balance their relations with Russia, China, the European Union, and the United States:  positive relations with all, dominated by none.  But Putin’s ghastly atrocities in Ukraine make clear that Russia has now broken that system for the foreseeable future, and these countries know they will need to proceed with extreme caution as they seek to protect their independence. 

At this moment in history, the U.S. government has the responsibility to reaffirm its support for the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of these nations.  That would be all the more welcome because in recent years these countries have lamented that “the United States has left the region.”  Of course, that’s not true.  The United States has full-scale embassies in every single one of these countries and implements, as it always has, a wide range of humanitarian, commercial, cultural, and military training and assistance programs.  But, as is true nearly everywhere, perception is reality.  

Part of the problem is simply the corporate culture of U.S. foreign policy in which the focus is almost always on the crise du jour.  U.S. foreign-policy implementers are unspokenly grateful when they don’t need to pay special attention to a bilateral relationship and can just let it cruise along on autopilot.

But there’s another reason, too, why Washington has kept these Caspian-region bilateral relationships in the second or even third tier of its attention.  These countries, after three decades of independence, have generally not met Washington’s legitimate expectations for democracy, human rights, and good governance.  For nearly the past 20 years, this has colored how Washington views these countries, even as they provided unusually strong assistance to the United States when it was still involved in Afghanistan.

But reality has shifted and a new era of history is unfolding.  At this moment, as almost never before in their three decades of independence, the United States needs to demonstrate that it will continue to protect the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of these nations. 

By far the best way to do that would be with high-level visits from senior officials in the current administration.  Not just one show-piece visit or an occasional “virtual visit,” but an on-going series of truly high-level, in-person visits to make visible and clear to all that the United States will stand with them against pressure and threats from Moscow. 

The Kremlin will surely seek to force these countries behind Putin’s New Iron Curtain.  It is imperative that Washington show that the United States will stand firmly with these nations and not permit them to become isolated from the world community.  


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