"I believe that energy underpins many processes that we see happening around us in the world in general, and in the Russian and Eurasian space in particular," said Ariel Cohen at a 10 October 2006 Kennan Institute noon discussion. Cohen, senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security at the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies of the Heritage Foundation, discussed the changing situation in Central Asia, and the implications that these changes have for United States security and foreign policy in the region.
Cohen argued that energy has become the primary factor influencing developments in the region, leading to the increased assertiveness of Russian foreign policy. "Russia was blessed by nature with abundance of natural resources in general, and hydrocarbons in particular. So the funding for the more assertive, more powerful policy comes from exporting energy resources," he said. At the same time, the abundance of oil and gas reserves in the region has led to increased focus on the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus by the United States, Europe, China, and India.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, U.S. policymakers in the George H.W. Bush administration, the Clinton administration, and the George W. Bush administration have held that the United States has important interests in the region, according to Cohen. He asserted that the United States can play a role in the region, but not a dominant role. The region will continue to be more influenced by Russia, China, and the Muslim world, he argued, because of geography, history, and long-standing cultural ties. Nevertheless, Cohen said he supports U.S. engagement with the region, and summarized the interests of the United States in Central Asia in three simple words: energy, security, and democracy.
In the energy sphere, Cohen discussed what he saw as a trend away from a tolerant market environment made up of both public and private companies. In the future, an important question will be whether Russia attempts to impose its internal policy—which emphasizes state ownership and involvement in hydrocarbons—on the region as a whole, or whether market mechanisms continue to work in the future.
The challenge for the United States, according to Cohen, will be to manage the diversification of energy transit. With China and India both increasing their demand for hydrocarbons, Western Europe will face increasing questions about how it will meet its energy needs, especially if Russia achieves its goal of increasing China's share of its energy exports from 3 percent to 30 percent. Russia does not have enough readily available and developed fields to supply Europe at the current level and increase sales to China by one third.
In terms of security, Cohen said the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 changed the dynamic of the region dramatically. Prior to 9/11, U.S. policy in the region was aimed at promoting democratization and regional cooperation. Given political developments in the region, Cohen remarked that perhaps such an approach was premature. Citing the example of Europe, Cohen said that regional cooperation develops only after nation-states are consolidated and develop shared economic and political interests.
During and after the invasion of Afghanistan, the United States defeated the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which was the principal security threat in the region. The U.S. established military bases in the region, specifically Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, owing to their strategic location. Recently, some of these bases, such as Karshi Kanabad air force base in Uzbekistan, have been closed down because of the changing political and strategic environment. "In Central Asia last year, Russia was the leading foreign power that facilitated the U.S. departure from Uzbekistan," he said, adding that Russia and China had offered Uzbekistan support, including oil and gas deals, in the wake of the Andijan massacre when Uzbek relations with the United States deteriorated.
Cohen termed the enthusiasm with which the "colored revolutions" were greeted by observers in the West "irrational exuberance," adding that he too had been one of those who had greeted these revolutions as signs of a fundamental change in the region. He said the rhetoric of democratization has been called into question, however, and that it had made elites in many of the countries very uncomfortable. The examples of Kyrgyzstan's struggling democracy, the return of Viktor Yanukovych to the prime minister's post in Ukraine, and the increasingly tense state of Russian-Georgian relations illustrate the difficulties facing the United States and the agenda of democratization.
An additional complication, Cohen remarked, was the growing threat of radical militant Islamic groups, who are increasingly prominent in Central Asia and the Caucasus. A good example is Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami—The Islamic Party of Liberation—which is headquartered in London.
These groups are becoming increasingly hostile to the repressive leaders in the region, such as Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov, and could threaten stability in the region. The solution to this problem, according to Cohen, is for these post-Communist regimes to liberalize their societies and to allow more dissent, which would prevent further radicalization. He pointed to Kazakhstan as an example of a country that is protecting itself from Islamic radicalization in this way.
Nevertheless, Cohen urged engagement with the countries of the region, arguing that they were important for geopolitical, as well as economic reasons: "If you don't invest resources into engaging with these countries, your power is going to be eroded by those who want to fill the vacuum—with results that may not be palatable for us, as a nation-state, for the foreseeable future."