Reimagining Eurasia

A New "Great Game" Will Not Increase U.S. Influence in Russia's Backyard

As Kyrgyzstan descended into chaos after President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in April 2010, most observers were focused on the fate of the key U.S. airbase there. They feared that Moscow had orchestrated the unrest as revenge for Bakiyev reneging on his alleged promise to shut down the base and would now demand that the new government follow through on that pledge. But instead of indulging in geopolitical gamesmanship as usual, Russia and the United States actually worked together, pursuing back-channel talks that facilitated Bakiyev's safe escape into exile. Periodic consultations since April have thus far managed to prevent conflict between the Cold War adversaries in the one country where both have military outposts. This marked a tectonic shift in the geopolitics of Eurasia. For the first time in over a decade, what Russia calls its "near abroad" was a locus of cooperation, not confrontation, between Russia and the United States.

This shift has opened a window of opportunity to fundamentally rethink U.S. foreign policy in Eurasia -- a term used here to refer to the countries of the greater Black Sea region and Central Asia -- a strategically situated area with massive natural resource wealth and great economic potential. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has formulated its approach to countries as diverse as Azerbaijan and Ukraine through a Russia-centric lens; U.S. policy toward the region as a whole became a function of its plans for dealing with Moscow. Although Washington focused on ensuring Eurasian states' independence in the 1990s, the past decade saw U.S. policy toward these countries devolve, becoming mired in outright U.S-Russia strategic competition. Although that competitive dynamic has diminished significantly over the past year and a half, its legacy still defines Washington's engagement with the states of the region.

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