As Russia faces growing challenges in its war in Ukraine, the latest being the withdrawal of Russian forces from the city of Kherson, the conflict is producing ripple effects in unexpected areas. One such place is Central Asia, a resource-rich and strategically located region that has been a problematic and elusive partner for the United States and is dominated by Russian and Chinese influence. However, while such fortunes may be in the process of shifting, Washington will need a more nuanced and targeted strategy to align these developments in its favor as part of its broader competition with Moscow and Beijing.
Central Asia, which consists of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, has long been a difficult region for the United States to build its influence, even as it contains tremendous energy and mineral resources, and borders hotspots like Afghanistan. Unlike Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, no Central Asian states have a pro-Western orientation or sought to become members of the European Union (EU) and NATO. Indeed, three out Central Asian countries—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan—are members of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) military bloc (with the latter two hosting Russian military bases) while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are officially neutral and view the United States and the West rather skeptically.
One of the major sources of skepticism stem from U.S. efforts to promote democracy and human rights in the region. Central Asian countries (with the partial exception of Kyrgyzstan) have highly centralized and authoritarian political systems and are extremely sensitive to U.S. criticism regarding their domestic conduct. This has made it difficult for Washington to build inroads in the region as it has in more democratic and Western-oriented states like Ukraine and Georgia. By contrast, Russia and China find it easier to cooperate with Central Asian governments and frequently emphasize their policy of “noninterference” in domestic affairs to distinguish themselves from the United States.
Read more in the National Interest.