“Just too many ‘Stans.”
So declared a sizable Englishman in the dining room of the National Liberal Club in London about three decades ago, in the wake of the dramatic disintegration of the Soviet Union. His voice was rather loud, reflecting the frustration of trying to keep in mind a complicated new geography.
A variety of members and guests were having dinner, convivial and engaged in their own conversations. Nonetheless, this writer, dining alone on a business trip, took sympathetic note of the remark.
A lot of complexity, in other words, did indeed emerge in Central Asia, thanks to President Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union undertaking dramatic reforms that fatally weakened the already-crumbling structures of that enormous nation.
The Soviet Union comprised a number of Soviet republics in addition to Russia, the largest. They included what is now Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan along with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, and Ukraine.
All these entities are now independent nations.
That is indeed a lot of ‘”Stans,” especially when you add neighboring states such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. They represent an analytic as well as practical policy challenge even for the most skillful businessperson, diplomat, military professional, politician or anyone else charged with coping with that enormous complex organizational and political as well as physical landscape.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia is now trying hard to harness this constellation of countries into a working coalition that will bolster his badly weakened position.
On Oct.14, he made a major policy speech in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, to the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia . The 28 members include Russia and some of the former Soviet states and also China, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, South Korea, Turkey, Vietnam and others.
President Putin warned in his speech that the Ukraine war represents an effort by the United States and other Western nations to expand influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Rationalizing Russia’s invasion as self-defense is a lie.
During the same two-day visit to Astana, Mr. Putin participated in the first Central Asia Summit. This meeting, organized by Russia, also included the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Additionally, President Putin held talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Both nations now communicate regularly with Iran, including occasional summits.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan proposed the CICA initiative in the fall of 1992. He served as head of that country from independence in 1991 until forced to resign in 2019 amid allegations of corruption and public protests, a sign of the times in Central Asia and elsewhere. President Nazarbayev remains a powerful figure even while out of office.
Of particular note is the continuing fitful armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, fueled by traditional ethnic hostilities. A ceasefire established in 1994 broke down in 2020, resulting in brief but full-scale war.
Renewed armistice is tenuous. On Oct. 12, President Emmanuel Macron of France accused President Putin of provoking armed clashes in order to destabilize the region. Mr. Putin’s meddling is spurred in part by Russia’s weak, deteriorating economy.
“The Great Game” refers to the long-term competition between Great Britain and Imperial Russia for influence in Central Asia in the 19th century. The fellow in the National Liberal Club echoed the challenges involved.
American foreign policy should emulate Britain’s traditional approach. We need disciplined, focused leadership not seen since President George H.W. Bush.
Arthur I. Cyr is author of “After the Cold War – American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). He is also the director of the Clausen Center at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisc., and a Clausen Distinguished Professor. He welcomes questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.