US has to up diplomacy in Central Asia and the South Caucasus now
Feb 25, 2022
This piece was originally published in The Hill
Sanctions will not be enough to halt Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression. With Russia’s assault on Ukraine and Putin’s broader ambitions, U.S. sanctions have to be accompanied by tough, more creative and persistent U.S. diplomacy to build a stronger international coalition and reinforce support for a rules-based international order. Nowhere is such diplomacy needed more and needed now than in Central Asia and the Caucasus — countries that like Ukraine were also once part of the Soviet Union, but they likely wonder if there is anyone out there standing with them in the face of the threats coming out of Moscow.
The U.S., along with the U.K. and EU, Japan and Australia, have been clear that Putin’s actions against Ukraine are not acceptable, for example in imposing a growing set of sanctions, sending military aid to Ukraine, and bolstering troop and equipment levels in NATO countries. These countries will not compromise on key principles and will take further measures in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The United States and others are rightly clear in our support of Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. Europe and the U.S. are clear that threats to Ukraine are threats to the security of Europe and to the rules-based system that has brought peace and the means to realize tremendous prosperity to around a billion Americans, Europeans and Russians since 1945.
However, the United States needs to energize its diplomatic approach to the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus, taking into account Russia's pressure on those countries also to accede to becoming part of a Neo-Russian empire.
News articles and media discussions in the United States have tended to ignore or gloss over an important set of facts: the threats to Ukraine are also being made, perhaps more subtly, but still quite clearly to the countries of the Caucasus as well as those of Central Asia. They, too, were once part of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, all but one (Georgia) incorporated by force of Russian arms. While Georgia has sought to join the EU and NATO, most of the others have pursued non-aligned, neutral or multi-vector foreign policies that have enabled them to develop as independent states in a region where Russia, China and others have been manifesting their geopolitical ambitions. (Georgia, it's worth remembering, paid heavily for seeking stronger integration with the West when Russian troops invaded in 2008 supporting separatists in Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia; those Russian “peace-keepers” are still there.)
The U.S. has worried about these countries falling under China's domination via its Belt and Road Initiative, but Russia has not been reticent to suggest these countries should be regarded as within its own sphere of influence. Russian troops are already present in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Tajikistan. Besides supporting breakaway regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Russian forces moved into Kazakhstan in January on 24 hours' notice to support the government. They left within days, but their engagement showed the Moscow-led CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) may no longer be designed only to protect member countries — all of which were constituent republics of the USSR — from external threats. Where they went once, they can go again.
Important too, but less noticed is the extent and strength of Russian soft power in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Russian news outlets, including satellite television, shape public opinion in these countries as they do in Russia itself. Russian media are key sources of entertainment in much of the region. Moscow keeps tabs on the numbers of schools teaching Russian. Russia is a top trade partner and promotes the Eurasian Economic Union as an alternative to the West. For many in these countries, it is where young men go in search of jobs. By providing jobs for hundreds of thousands from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and others, Russia helps address the unemployment among the growing populations in these countries, states where perhaps two-thirds of the citizens were born in 1990 or later.
As the United States acts to check Russian ambitions and shores up an architecture based in the 1975 Helsinki Accords, it needs to pursue active, creative, visible diplomacy in Central Asia and the Caucasus as well as with Ukraine and the other states to the west of Russia. This diplomacy should include visible engagement to listen and respond to what the governments and people of these countries want and need to see from the United States. It needs to counter false narratives from Russian-language media. It should include beefing up assistance programs as well as reinforcing economic reforms and fostering greater U.S. business engagement. It should include revitalized scholarship, including both expanded university education and academic exchange programs. It must include high-level as well as working-level visits of officials to Washington, but even more important, of American officials to the region. It needs to undercut the Russian narrative that the United States doesn’t care — or at least doesn’t care as much as Russia does — and that thus the countries of the proclaimed "Near Abroad" should quietly accede to living in a Russian sphere of influence.
The bottom line is that in dealing with Putin’s aggressive ambitions, the United States and other countries interested in the health of the rules-based international system, and the benefits it has brought, need to get off the bench and on the field. They need to be highly visible in showing interest in the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, and prosperity of the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus, just as they are in those of Ukraine and the Baltics. Failure to do so will greenlight the Kremlin to reassemble the Russian Empire and a return to sphere-of-influence geopolitics.
Robert Cekuta served as U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan from 2015 to 2018 and was the principal deputy assistant secretary for energy resources at the Department of State.