The notion that a “Great Game” exists in Afghanistan and Central Asia presupposes, by default, that these remain “pawns” or “client states”. This is a difficult argument to make 30 years after they received sovereignty amid the collapse of the USSR, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.
It is a well-known fact that the concept of the “Great game” was invented by the English traveller and intelligence agent Arthur Connolly in the mid-19th century. Connolly met his demise in Bukhara in 1842, when he was beheaded by order of Emir Nasrullah, who correctly assessed the geopolitical position of his state in the framework of the nascent confrontation between Russia and Britain in the Middle East. However, the term “Great game” is now used to describe the entire web of relations in which the great powers are involved in Central Asia and Afghanistan. In a sense, the “Great game” is really a relic of an era when the rivalry of European empires took place amid the absence of competitors: ‘Eurocentric’ world politics, where the basic idea was that the spread of the imperial influence of St. Petersburg, London, Paris, Berlin or Vienna was synonymous with international relations.
However, since then the situation in the world has radically changed, and in the 21st century it is strange to rely on terms reflecting the realities of the nineteenth century. There’s only one power among all the European empires of the 19th century, which preserved the scale and resources practically in the same volume in Eurasia. This is Russia, which has retained much of its imperial scale and has a multi-ethnic society. But even Russia now can no longer have, and does not want, the main objective that is characteristic of any empire — the creation of a regional order under its direct power and control.
Instead, Moscow seeks to either build sustainable regional communities based on economic interests, or strengthen the ability of its neighbours to independently ensure the survival of their statehood. The first example is Eurasian economic integration. The second is promoting the security of neighbours through the CSTO mechanisms or bilateral agreements, such as, for example, between Moscow and Tashkent. Moreover, now Russia and its neighbours in Central Asia no longer remain isolated from the rest of the world behind the Iron Curtain. Just as they are involved in the global economy, they participate in political processes that cross the borders of the region and are not related to their narrow problems. Ultimately, the countries of Central Asia already have 30 years of experience in independent development.
Thus, all the structural circumstances in which the policy of Russia and other countries around Afghanistan and Central Asia is taking place have changed. Except for one thing — the unique geopolitical position of Russia, “hanging” over this region from the north and representing, militarily, the strongest power in Eurasia. Russia is surrounded by countries that are militarily and economically weaker than it and are interested in their survival and sovereignty. But it also shows no signs that it would be ready to re-establish an imperial order in its immediate periphery. Moreover, the powers that are located beyond Russia’s neighbours — Iran, Turkey and Pakistan — cannot be viewed as a military alternative to Russian power.
The only exception is China. The PRC is the second-largest economic superpower in the world and is building up its military capabilities. But they are aimed at providing free access to sea trade routes, without which the Chinese economy would be deprived of markets that are important for its survival and progress in achieving national development goals. Therefore, in the West, Chinese efforts are minimal in comparison with its potential, and it relies on Russia. In particular, we see its calm attitude to the development of economic ties with the countries of Central Asia. While Russia may feel concerned for preserving the financial independence of its southern neighbours, it does not raise any fundamental objections. In addition, China is in principle wary of Muslim-populated regions and has its own complex experience of interacting with the Islamic community in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
As a result of its geopolitical position and power capabilities, many look to Russia in attempting to determine the potential impact of the situation in Afghanistan on the region after the withdrawal of US troops and their allies from that country.
The United States is withdrawing from Afghanistan, but retains the potential of a universal balancer for all small and medium-sized countries in the region when they assess the future of their relations with Russia and China. China itself is demonstratively restrained regarding any likelihood of military involvement in the Afghan problem, but has the resources to make use of most of the likely economic benefits. Regional players understand that Russia is the only power that is likely to provide them with serious military support, but they do not want to become dependent on Moscow and therefore attract external partners. Pakistan is more concerned about surviving its rivalry with its historical adversary India, and for this reason it makes use of all of its diplomatic possibilities, particularly the impact of the domestic situation in Afghanistan.
Russia should get some moral satisfaction from the failure of its Western opponents in Afghanistan, but the cost of this is that it will have to focus its agenda in the region on protecting the security of its southern neighbours.
However, there is no reason to believe that this is exactly the “Great game” that Russia itself needs in 2021, especially given its historical experience with Afghanistan and Central Asia.
A repetition of the past situation, however, is now impossible for other objective reasons. The notion that a “Great Game” exists in Afghanistan and Central Asia presupposes, by default, that these remain “pawns” or “client states”. This is a difficult argument to make 30 years after they received sovereignty amid the collapse of the USSR. The Central Asian states are established participants in international politics and a new round of the Afghan issue should become their “Great game”, in which the main stake is sovereignty, survival and respect from their powerful neighbours Russia and China.
The nature of relations between Russia and the countries of Central Asia, regardless of their formal nature, is determined by their mutual geopolitical position and the balance of power. Russia respects the independence of these countries and supports their plans for economic development; it should invest in them, especially in the transport and logistics projects proposed by Uzbekistan. Russia, like Kazakhstan, in any case remains the main beneficiary of the partial reorientation of Asia-Europe trade towards land transport arteries — in 2015, 150 thousand containers per year passed through them, and in 2020 — 800 thousand. As the logistical structure of Chinese exports to Europe changes and more expensive goods are shipped, ground delivery, as the safest means of shipping, will only increase. However, the implementation of some other aspects of development in the region will contribute to the economic stability of the Central Asian countries, and therefore Moscow and Beijing consider them necessary.
Moral duty is the only factor firmly embedded in Russian strategic culture that could serve as a reason for it to intervene if the Central Asian countries find themselves in scenarios which Russia considers a threat. In all other respects, Russia has no serious reason to be more active now than it already is — helping train national armies or conducting a dialogue with the most powerful and aggressive of the Afghan parties. The purpose of this dialogue is to ensure Russian interests and support the sovereignty of Russia’s southern neighbours, something they themselves must fight for, if necessary. The “Great game” for Russia, with its scale and claims in the formation of a just world order, is taking place far beyond the borders of Central Asia.