To the vast majority of Western policymakers and laypeople alike, Central Asia is an eternal enigma and a region characterized by a litany of contradictions. It is almost irreconcilable how immense energy wealth juxtaposes so closely to abject poverty and how persistent authoritarianism so often covers up the region's vulnerability to sectarian conflict. The perception of Central Asia as a mere transit point to four more strategically important regions (Russia, the Asia-Pacific, the Indian Sub-Continent and Middle East) has caused its influence to be routinely underestimated by great powers for centuries. Blithe indifference to Central Asia has only been intermittently interrupted by periods of intense international competition, such as the nineteenth century Anglo-Russian Great Game.
It is therefore unsurprising that Central Asia's rising significance has largely remained under the radar of Western policymakers, even at a time when U.S.-Russia hostilities are escalating. As Russia and the US both attempt to pivot towards China and maximize benefits from China's meteoric rise as an economic power, Central Asia has once again taken on a familiar role as a strategically important buffer zone between West and East. Nations like Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have in effect become theaters of a second, twenty-first century Great Game involving Russia, China and to a lesser degree, the United States.
How China has Usurped Russia in Great Game 2.0
Much to the chagrin of Vladimir Putin, China is the best-positioned great power in the struggle for influence in Central Asia. While the $400 billion Russia- China gas deal ratified in May was vaunted as a major foreign policy success for Putin, China's expansion of gas contracts to Turkmenistan dilutes the impact of this deal on the future of Sino-Russian energy cooperation. Since Turkmenistan can provide northwestern China with natural gas at substantially lower prices than Russia can, these contracts render Putin's visit to Beijing to discuss pipeline expansions a merely political move to demonstrate that Russia is not overly dependent on the European energy market. Russia's decision to suspend Gazprom investments and purchases in Turkmenistan due to declining European energy demands during the 2008 financial crisis has backfired at the worst possible time for Putin, as sanctions and rapidly declining oil prices increase Russian dependence on Chinese gas demand.
The collapse of Russian economic leverage in Turkmenistan, a country possessing the world's fourth largest natural gas reserves, was further evidenced by its refusal to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) that Putin devised earlier this year. To compensate for this loss, Gazprom has enhanced energy sector cooperation with Kyrgyzstan. In isolation, this move was a moderate success as Kyrgyzstan agreed to join the EEU. However, Russia has failed miserably in its longer-term objective of using investments in Kyrgyzstan as a gateway to expand Gazprom's presence in energy-rich Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan's president Islam Karimov regarded the increase in Russia-Kyrgyzstan cooperation as an act of Russian imperialism and proceeded to cut off energy supplies to southern Kyrgyzstan. Russia's unwillingness to adequately supply Kyrgyzstan with gas to resolve the power failure crisis has revived latent feelings of skepticism towards Russia amongst the Kyrgyz public.
The stop-start nature of Russia's energy deals with Central Asian countries combined with traditional fears of Russian encroachment stemming from centuries of Russian occupation, has caused many Central Asian countries to view China as a more stable and consistent economic partner. In contrast to its rebuke of the Russian EEU, Uzbekistan has expressed support for China's Silk Road economic belt and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank proposals, as they are more likely to be mutually beneficial. China's willingness to invest in infrastructure and heavy industry as well as energy in Uzbekistan has further increased the co-optive power of its proposals.
Russia has failed to match China in its investment pledges and therefore, the EEU has been regarded as a protectionist measure that will isolate and weaken Central Asian economies in the long-term. Many Central Asians also regard the EEU is little more than a cynical ploy to actualize Putin's vision of creating a second Soviet Union. Therefore, lower intraregional trading costs have not translated into enhanced Russian competitiveness in Central Asia or shifted the momentum in the Great Game in Putin's favor. Instead of providing a means for Russia to circumvent the pernicious economic effects of Western sanctions, the second Great Game in Central Asia has shaped up to be a nightmare for Putin and a massive boon for China.
What the West Can Do in Central Asia For Western policymakers, the dramatic decline of Russian leverage in Central Asia represents a valuable opportunity to increase Western leverage in the region and to undermine Putin further by increasing the costs of continued Russian belligerence in Ukraine. Firstly, from an economic standpoint, Western countries need to present Central Asian governments with favorable trade deals that will incentivize energy-rich states in the region to supply Europe directly and resist Russian contract offers. The TANAP pipeline in Turkmenistan represents a positive step towards increased Western economic integration with Central Asia. Erdogan's recent visit to Turkmenistan to cement economic cooperation with Turkey will undoubtedly aid the cause of diluting European NATO countries' dependence on Russia for oil resources.
Central Asia's pre-existing economic linkages with China and extent to which China has succeeded in the Great Game provides a window of opportunity for the West as energy-rich Eurasian states seek to diversify their export markets. Turkmenistan's heavy dependence on China for exports has created a gas shortage crisis at home as President Berdimuhamedow has transitioned away from free gas subsidies. Should China not be pro-active in dealing with the issue of power shortages, Turkmenistan could pivot in a limited way towards the West. Increased access to Turkmenistan's gas reserves would further reduce Putin's ability to conduct "pipeline diplomacy" (Russia's strategy of using oil shipments to Europe as a bargaining chip).
Secondly, the West should exploit deep-seated distrust of Russian involvement in national security issues (as evidenced by Kazakhstan's non-ratification of the security component of the EEU pact), to increase its influence in the region. Counter-terrorism cooperation with Uzbekistan to combat the common threat of Islamist factions has been effective over the past decade. ISIS massacres of Turkmen civilians in Iraq indicate the presence of a common threat that could further cooperation with the reclusive, permanently neutral Turkmenistan regime. Admittedly, security cooperation with highly authoritarian Central Asian regimes that possess dismal human rights record is a major normative concern. However, the absence of viable internal opposition forces within these countries renders the West with little alternative to cooperation with highly imperfect governments in its bid to restrain Russian aggression.
Expanded Western and Chinese economic and political engagement in Central Asia could undermine Putin's main strategy to combat Western sanctions: energy exports to China. Ultimately, the viability of this strategy of containing Putin will depend on the West's willingness to recognize Central Asia as a significant actor, which is difficult to see occurring if the current policy direction is maintained.