Russia-US rivalry spreads to ex-Soviet central Asia

US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov chat before a meeting with 17 nations, the European Union and United Nations at the Hotel Imperial in Vienna, Austria, on Friday.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov chat before a meeting with 17 nations, the European Union and United Nations at the Hotel Imperial in Vienna, Austria, on Friday.


After Ukraine and Syria, the ex-Soviet republics of central Asia could become the latest venue for geo-political rivalry between Moscow and Washington, driven by Kremlin worries about Islamists and U.S. suspicion about Russia’s true intentions.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is due to tour all five states in central Asia, in a signal the United States wants to maintain its influence, even though it is drawing down its troop presence in nearby Afghanistan.

His visit coincides with a chorus of warnings from Russian officials about the danger of Daesh militants infiltrating the region from Afghanistan, accompanied by hints Moscow will respond by beefing up its military presence.

Though Russian officials say they are driven only by concern about militants, not geo-political rivalry, their heightened attention risks fueling US suspicions that Moscow is trying to rebuild its old empire.

“It’s about, if you will, a sort of neo-imperial vision for how the world works, and it’s connected to Russia’s larger geopolitical ambitions,” said Jeffrey Mankoff, Deputy Director and Senior Fellow at Washington think tank CSIS.

A senior US official briefing reporters before Kerry’s trip said the visit was not about making the region’s governments choose between world powers, or trying to displace Russian influence.

The trip was intended to reassure partners in central Asia that the withdrawal from Afghanistan did not mean waning US interest in their security and economic needs, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But the official said that Russia has been exaggerating the sense of insecurity in the region about militants. “The anxiety levels in the region are probably higher than the actual level of activity would warrant,” the official said.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on US cities and the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan, Moscow and Washington have been observing an uneasy truce over central Asia.

Moscow maintained its influence there, with troops helping Tajikistan guard its borders for several years and military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

At the same time it acquiesced when the United States established its own air bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and used the region to re-supply its operations in Afghanistan.

That relationship was thrown out of equilibrium by a resurgence in activity by Islamist militants in Afghanistan and the drawdown of US troops in Afghanistan.

The Taliban takeover of the city of Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan near the border with ex-Soviet Tajikistan, alarmed officials in Moscow. They fear militants could use central Asia as a bridgehead into Russia.

“We have Afghanistan … and all that is linked and the Tajiks are barely managing, and if the Tajiks cannot manage then it will come to Russia next,” said a Russian government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.


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