great game, central asia
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Saad Marwat |

The Soviet Union disintegrated in 1989, straight after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in Germany. This resulted in the emergence of energy-rich Central Asian Republics or CARs. The following decades saw an expansion of US foreign policy through unilateralism that has resulted in US hegemony and expansion of US military bases across the globe, especially in the CARs. During much of this period Russia went underground in matters of international and regional politics as it was sorting out its internal matters. Then came Vladimir Putin.

Read more: Are Russia and China Creating a New World Order in Eurasia?

Russia under Putin

Russia under Putin first flexed its international muscles in 2008, when Moscow sent forces to troubled region of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in order to counter Georgian forces. Georgia lost and withdrew its forces into original positions, ceasefire was signed between Moscow and Tbilisi in Paris.

Furthermore, following the ceasefire, Abkhazia and South Ossetia were declared independent states. The Russian quest for increasing its influence didn’t end here.

In March 2014, Russia initiated the annexation of Crimea, which it claimed was historically Russian territory and not Ukrainian. Moreover, Russia, over the years has also worked on a policy of entering into lucrative military and economic deals with CARs, which ensures its influence over the ex-Soviet CARs.

Lugar laboratory to make biological weapons in Georgia

Considering the geo-strategic importance of Central Asia, the tacit war between USA and Russia is still being fought even though the Cold War officially ended after the Soviet disintegration. Washington has pursued actions such as intimidating countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and creating a presence for itself in form of military bases.

Russia claims that such a strategy is creating a “ring of fire” around Russian borders in form of U.S. military bases. Also, the U.S. innovations and interventions don’t end here. Russia, in  recent years, has accused Washington of making biological weapons in Central Asia and Eurasia.

Such claims by Russia might seem far-fetched given the limited media coverage, yet the presence of the labs in itself might present a point for concern for Russia.  According to Georgian media, Lugar laboratory in Tbilisi is a slow acting lethal weapon.

However, Washington says the lab’s objective is to eradicate different diseases. On the contrary, Moscow alleges that the Lugar laboratory is involved in spreading diseases and is making biological weapons.

Furthermore, lab and its research direction continue to sour relations between Tbilisi and Moscow. Russian foreign ministry says that biological weapons convention treaty prohibits the development of biological weapons, and especially conducting experiments on human subjects.

Russia claims that such a strategy is creating a “ring of fire” around Russian borders in form of U.S. military bases.

According to experts from Russian institute of strategic studies (RISS) Pentagon has also constructed lab on the old Soviet base in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Russian experts believe that construction of base will pave the way for the US to test biological weapons away from its homeland hence escaping the public sentiment.

US has set up center for tactical operations in strategic areas

In terms of military advances, besides Central Asia and Eurasia, Washington has also constructed Center for tactical operations (CTO’s) in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many analysts believe that a massive US presence in the region aims maintain its hegemony and to contain Beijing and Moscow.

Washington has also intensified its military presence in South China Sea and is holding naval exercises with Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). On the contrary, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has called for complete withdrawal of US military from Central Asian nations (CARS).

Improved relationships of Moscow and Tehran

The incumbent President of United States, Donald Trump wants to work with Moscow on many issues like, combating terrorism, reducing nuclear weapons and increasing trade and investment. But dealing with Iran and North Korea will still be a challenge for Washington because the ties between Moscow and Tehran have improved significantly and both share common objectives in Middle East, primarily in Syria.

Washington, in the recent years, has been accused by Russia of making biological weapons in Central Asia and Eurasia.

Russia has deep reservations regarding United States build up in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) has intensified its military presence in Poland and Latvia. Analysts believe that military presence in the region is response to Russian annexation of Crimea and its support to separatists in Ukraine. While NATO says that build up is our commitment to peace in the continent.

Russia and China consolidating their hold on the East

On the other hand, China, one of Russia’s stronger allies, is also rapidly increasing its naval presence in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims its own territory. The initiation of “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) project by Chinese President Xi Jinping will bring many changes to the region.

Read more: Pakistan, China and Russia: New Great Game in South & Central Asia?

China Pakistan Economic Corridor is a flagship project of OBOR; it will connect Gwadar to underdeveloped regions of Western China through road and hence bypassing the long and heavily militarized route of Indian Ocean.

China, one of Russia’s stronger allies, is also rapidly increasing its naval presence in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims its own territory.

On the other hand, Russia is also moving Eastward by re-establishing its ties with countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan. Recently, the military ties between Islamabad and Moscow have improved considerably, and both nations have conducted joint military exercise. Pakistan has also signed a deal with Moscow to buy attack helicopters. These developments indicate that former cold war rivals are moving in the right direction.

The focus of the new great game is on the energy-rich Central Asia. All major actors, Russia, India, China, United States, Pakistan and Iran are working to achieve their interests by bolstering and shifting alliances.

Both United States and Russia possess thousands of nuclear warheads, and misadventure by any side could lead to a catastrophic war which world cannot afford. Interesting times lie ahead, especially when it is yet to be seen how Trump would move forward in terms of US-Russia ties, and whether Putin would succeed in convincing Trump to abandon Central Asian military bases circling Russia’s border.

Saad Marwat is a researcher and works for the Center for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad. This article was first published in CRSS Blog. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

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