Russia’s Response to U.S. Regional Influence

Russia's Response to U.S. Regional Influence

by Peter Rutland
November 1, 2003

This essay analyzes the evolution of Russian policy towards Central Asia and the Caspian since 1991, and suggests a framework to understand the shift in Russian foreign policy as a whole under President Vladimir Putin.

The analysis of Russia’s reactions to U.S. policy in Central Asia and the Caucasus requires the study of three separate but related phenomena: Russian foreign policy, U.S. foreign policy, and the situation in and around the Caspian Basin. The latter includes not only the domestic politics of each country, but also the role of influential regional actors—Turkey, Iran and China.

This is not an easy task. Each of these factors is complex and contradictory, and has shifted in new directions several times over the past decade. The various factors interact in fluid and unpredictable ways.

When discussing the Caspian region it is comforting, but illusory, to retreat into the certainties of a single, over–arching theoretical construct—such as U.S. hegemony, Russian collapse, Russian imperialism, U.S. imperialism, or whatever—and to use that as the sole prism through which to view developments in the region. Rather than retreat into a simplistic paradigm, we must recognize that we are dealing with a complex and fluid situation: an intersecting nest of “games,” with the various players imagining themselves engaged in different games at different times.

The core argument of this paper is the following: Russia has traditionally regarded Central Asia and the Caucasus as its own “backyard,” or in the parlance of international relations, an area of vital concern to its national security and national interests. On the other hand, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that President Vladimir Putin’s preference is for genuine multilateral cooperation with the United States, even if this includes increased activity for the United States in the Caspian region.

These two trends have been pulling in opposite directions over the past decade—a tension exacerbated by the fact that U.S. policy has also been somewhat inconsistent. The United States has consistently claimed that cooperation with Moscow is its goal, but its actions have often been competitive with Russian interests, as in the promotion of the Baku–Ceyhan pipeline.

The inconsistencies in Moscow’s policies toward the Caspian region are not only due to conflicts in the assessment of where Russia’s national interests lie, but are also driven by more mundane domestic concerns, such as Putin’s desire to placate domestic political critics of “U.S. hegemony.” Also, a high level of policy incoherence has been due to the hijacking of policy by aggressive officials in the field, within government agencies such as the defense and energy ministries.

The emergence of…