Fittingly, 2009 began with an energy crisis. In the middle of a bitter winter, Russia shut off its gas supply to Ukraine, affecting much of the rest of Eastern Europe, over disputed payment agreements. This set the stage for discussions across Europe, Central Asia and the U.S. about the future of energy security for Europe, how Europe and America can counter Russian aggression and what must be done to improve relations between Central Asia and the West.
In a conference this week at The Heritage Foundation, Dr. Frederick Starr, an expert in Russian and Eurasian studies and advisor to several presidents, offered the keynote address in which he summed up the panel’s feelings about the region’s geopolitics in general. He said, “I think if we think forward a year we’re likely to be astonished at how different the world that we are discussing today has become. It’s cliché to say that we are at a crossroads, but it seems to me that this is truly the case. I suspect within a year a dramatic resolution one way or another of the great questions of transporting energy and of security that are being raised today. The outlines of an answer will be evident.”
He continued, explaining that the thesis he wished to present for discussion at the conference is that “this is really an astonishingly open situation. There’s no Marxist determinism at work here, pushing it one way or another. This is going to peculiarly depend on human agency, on leadership at all levels, and how leadership interacts in various places.”
The conference focused on one topic—geopolitics in Central Asia—but pinpointed many global actors. In order to engage in a comprehensive discussion on energy transportation and security, countries from across Central Asia and Eastern Europe had to be included in the conversation. Russia is obviously a major player, but so are smaller, less powerful countries like Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Georgia, Turkey and Ukraine.
Dr. Starr expressed the need for the U.S. to improve its relations with countries like Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan in order to counterbalance Russia’s drive to monopolize Europe’s gas supply. He said of Azerbaijan: “There is a serious danger of the West taking it for granted. Azerbaijan, too, has choices. It could at some point make a deal with whomever it wants to make a deal with.”
Starr went on to explain the need for action in approaching the countries of Central Asia soon on diplomatic and economic terms. He said, “It would seem to me that what is called for is a big, strategic approach that embraces our economic interests and theirs, our security interests and theirs. This has to include all of the countries in the Caucasus, as well as the West.” The tone of the conference was hopeful—serious possibilities for energy security and diplomacy are present in the region now and can be taken advantage of if we are wise.
In regard to whether or not Asian geopolitics would be taken seriously in Washington, the tone was less hopeful. Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at Heritage and the host of the conference, explained, “The Obama administration, as it’s coming in, has its own priorities. Unfortunately, Eurasia is not making the top three list and I’m not sure non-Russian Eurasia is making the top five.”
Cohen acknowledged that President Barack Obama has serious issues that he must attend to, both foreign and domestic, in the opening days of his administration. However, he said, “It will be important for this administration to recognize the geopolitical importance of the Caucuses and the Caspian. If we want the world to diversify its sources of oil and energy, we need to keep the region safe, and stable, and secure.” Some steps to achieving this security involve the appointment of the right diplomats, ambassadors and foreign servicemen who speak the languages of the region.
“Most importantly, we have to prioritize. We have to reach out to countries like Turkmenistan, which is still in a very complicated position. We need to build our relationship with Georgia based on the Strategic Partnership Charter, to consider a Strategic Partnership Charter with Azerbaijan.”
Cohen finished by summarizing the conclusion of the conference by explaining that Eurasia is an indispensable geopolitical and geo-economic region that will rightly receive increasing attention over the next several years. The U.S. should lead efforts to integrate the countries of the Caucasus into Western economic planning: “The Obama administration would be well advised not to turn its sight away from Eurasia.”