“The disintegration late in 1991of the world’s territorially largest state created a black hole in the very center of Eurasia. It was as if the geopoliticians’ heartland had been suddenly yanked from the global map.”
Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to U.S. President Jimmy Carter, in his book “The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives” (1997)
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Given today’s new and perplexing geopolitical situation, Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in 1997, “The long-range task remains: How to encourage Russia’s democratic transformation and economic recovery while avoiding the reemergence of a Eurasian empire that could obstruct the American geostrategic goal of shaping a larger Euro-Atlantic system to which Russia can then be stably and safely related.”
Bogged down by enormous diplomatic and military costs, all previous American governments have failed to succeed in the black hole known as Central Asia. For a long time, Brzezinski’s geopolitical goal lived only on paper, and the region drifted out of Washington’s core strategic envelope. However, the war in Ukraine, which Russia started, has created an opportunity for the U.S. administration under President Joe Biden to realize Brzezinski’s vision.
The first C5+1 Presidential Summit was held on Sept. 19 during the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly. Two days later, the White House released on its website a joint statement in which the U.S. president and his counterparts in the five Central Asian nations expressed their commitment to strengthening their partnerships, expanding their security cooperation, accelerating the C5+1 economic and energy corridor, enhancing energy security, combating the effects of climate change, developing closer people-to-people ties and building toward a new atmosphere of partnership.
While Brzezinski’s goal may appear grand, that of the Biden administration is quite simple. It is to shape Central Asia into a geopolitical belt that conforms to America’s strategic interests. The U.S. wants the ability to prevent Russia from expanding southward, to restrain China from going westward and to respond to Central Asian nations’ need for multidirectional diplomacy.
Entering the Eurasian black hole
Whether or not the Biden administration can fulfill this geopolitical goal will require more observation. However, if the U.S. enters the black hole in the Eurasian continent, it will surely affect the current order of the region, although American hegemony over Eurasia will have a greater negative effect on Russia than on China.
First, the U.S. will make inroads into the political, economic and social fabric of Central Asian nations. Subject to the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the Trade Act of 1974, human rights are an influencing factor in American relations with Central Asian countries. Meanwhile, Moscow is making use of Washington’s instigation of color revolutions in Central Asia to increase the region’s distrust of America, and so the Biden administration wants to improve the resilience of relations with the U.S. and alter the close-knit socioeconomic ties between Russia and Central Asian states.
Second, the U.S. entering the black hole will cripple Russia’s dominant role in Central Asian regional security. The Afghan issue is a common security concern for Central Asian countries, which continue to grumble about Washington’s irresponsible troop withdrawal. Therefore, the U.S. has initiated collaborations with the militaries of these countries so they can play a role in the fight against terrorism and other security matters. National Guard units of Arizona, Montana, Nevada and Mississippi partner with Central Asian nations, and Security Force Assistance Brigades — specialized Army units under the U.S. Central Command — also engage in advising, supporting, coordinating and assessing their forces to improve combat readiness.
Third, a greater U.S. presence in Central Asia will exert external pressure on Russia, which is mired in an unfolding war in Ukraine. Central Asian nations have expressed their concerns about the war while remaining more or less neutral. For example, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have made it clear that they support Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and both have provided humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, Russia has made a strategic contraction in Central Asia and the South Caucasus. As a result, Moscow’s military position in the region has been weakened, and regional players are keeping their distance from Russia and seeking detours around it.
Central Asian dilemma
In terms of political geography, Central Asia is within Russia’s sphere of influence. Nonetheless, the governments of Central Asian nations understand that continuing to walk a tightrope between Russia and Ukraine will carry risks. The rope will become ever thinner. While there is substantial divergence of public opinion in Central Asia about the war in Ukraine, the governments recognize that decoupling too much from Russia is suicidal. Consequently, some of their political elites have started to play the China card, conveying the message to Washington that China could become a powerful and stable partner of Central Asian countries at any time if the war in Ukraine impairs their ties with Russia. But that would not be a real loss for Moscow, given its comprehensive strategic partnership with Beijing. Rather, if the U.S. and Europe fail to take the opportunity to deepen ties with Central Asia, they will probably miss the boat.
Although the war in Ukraine has provided the Biden administration with a chance to realize its geopolitical ambitions, it’s no easy task. The opportunity cost the U.S. will incur to cross the black hole at the center of Eurasia is unknown. Perhaps it will be a huge success story. But it’s just as likely to become a hegemonic catastrophe.