The United States will focus on strategically located Georgia and energy-rich Azerbaijan. Washington will continue to regard Baku as the equipoise of Islamic Iran and a partner of its other important ally, Israel. Ukraine will cease to be a priority, and this will widen the window of opportunity for settling the Ukrainian crisis.
Just over a week remains before Donald Trump assumes office, but the outline of US policies vis-à-vis the post-Soviet space seems sufficiently clear. Moreover, the hopes for US-Russian normalization are quite real. But America will not leave the post-Soviet space, a sphere of special Russian interests, to its own devices, even though in the mid-term it is unlikely to emerge as a top priority. Nevertheless, the role and importance of the former Soviet republics may count for much in the eyes of the incoming administration.
The new US policy will emphasize economy (business comes first), whereas the focus on democratic values and democratic institutions will fade. Washington is unlikely to prioritize countermeasures to the development of a powerful economic, political and military integration union in the former USSR. The indications are that its main priorities will be economic/energy cooperation and security cooperation, particularly in the fight against international terrorism and extremism.
Thus, Washington will seek to pursue a more differentiated policy towards the post-Soviet countries that, from its point of view, are key to US domestic business and profit-generating.
Given the geopolitical importance of Central Asia and its energy wealth, this region will be high on Washington’s agenda as it maps out its policies in the post-Soviet space. In Central Asia, the key country is Kazakhstan, a vast country strategically located between Russia and China, which the Trump administration has identified as its main rival among major powers. Containing China will be its first priority after combating ISIS.
Generally, the United States regards Kazakhstan as the most advanced economy in Central Asia. Given its growing economic potential and its key transit role for EU-China trade, Kazakhstan is seen as an important partner for US business. Washington is supporting the plans to export oil and gas via the Caspian Sea and Azerbaijan. At the same time, the US has some reservations about a proposed pipeline system from Kazakhstan to China. For decades, Russia’s Pacific ports and the Trans-Siberian Railway were the only alternative to the sea route from Asia to Europe via the Suez Canal. But the situation changed after transport corridors were cut across Kazakhstan, helping it emerge as the key transit country as a result. Eurasia’s new logistic map is likely to take shape in the short term, something that will give a boost to Kazakhstan’s capitalization. Oil and gas, mining and military affairs will also contribute to continued cooperation between the United States and the Central Asian countries. Prospectively much will depend on the effectiveness of the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) concept, a new Chinese strategy intended to optimize the spatial pattern of economic development in the entire Eurasian region. And this will largely determine the new administration’s stance regarding this region.
In Kazakhstan, the United States mostly aims to influence its foreign policy, particularly in the context of its increased involvement in integration projects with Russia and China. Conscious of Astana’s importance to Russia, the US will for the time being use economic mechanisms as a means of pressure.
The US Caucasian policy will be focused on creating a transit infrastructure for Caspian energy. The aim is to lower energy prices, circumvent Russia as a key energy supplier to Europe, and prevent Caspian resources from being channeled to China and Japan. The US will also use all expedients to minimize Iran’s role not only in the Middle East but also in the Caucasus. Washington will be concerned with promoting US-funded economic and energy projects, but it is unlikely to use its influence to settle difficult old conflicts or prevent new ones in the Caucasus. In its policy towards states in the post-Soviet space, the US tends to be guided by principles that underlie American identity, such as personal freedom, human rights, democracy, civil society and others. It usually underestimates the historical, cultural and religious implications and therefore the political evaluations related to the Caucasus and its analyses of local conflicts are often inaccurate because tradition, ethnicity and religion have more relevance in that part of the world than national or state identity. If the impression that the new administration is going to conduct an extremely pragmatic policy is correct, it will take into account these variables and thus avoid trying to settle difficult conflicts in the South Caucasus. In this context, Ukraine will also cease to be a priority, and this will widen the window of opportunity for settling the Ukrainian crisis.
In the South Caucasus, the United States will, as before, focus on strategically located Georgia and energy-rich Azerbaijan. Washington will continue to regard Baku as the equipoise of Islamic Iran and a partner of its other important ally, Israel. Its partnership with Iran will be moderate at best, an attitude, which for various reasons, is reciprocated by Iran. Washington will also have more strategic interest in Baku, given Turkey’s growing independence internationally and its frequent refusals to go along with American approaches.
But this withdrawal from an active role in the post-Soviet space, specifically in Central Asia and the South Caucasus, a withdrawal dictated by the business comes first maxim, is remotely reminiscent of Barack Obama’s first term in office, when he announced a reset with Russia.
As seen by the Obama administration, these regions brought more harm than benefit because of their problems which Washington proved unable to resolve. As a consequence, they sunk in importance. But following the November 2010 elections to Congress, Obama could no longer ignore Republican appeals to recover lost ground and things returned to where they were originally.
This could happen again, despite the proclaimed pragmatism of the new administration. Washington might step aside for a short while and could come crushing back again. Such a possibility must always be kept in mind.