Every great contest needs some great contestants. Yet the triangular contest for power in Central Asia among Russia, China, and the United States is very unequal, more scalene than equilateral. Of these, Russia strikes me as the least able to compete effectively for the long haul. Spiraling down across virtually all measures of power, authority, and influence, Russia is a dying state tempting debilitating crises at multiple levels. Cooley’s discussion of Russia’s seeming indifference to the fate of Central Asia after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 is spot on, as is his assessment that “the main challenge in analyzing Russian policy toward Central Asia is that it lacks a single overriding strategic goal” (p. 51). This begs the question: how can a state compete effectively if its objectives are unclear and its competitive resources are being quickly depleted? Nearly all Russian initiatives to regain prestige and stature in the region have failed to impress the Central Asians, much less the Chinese. Writing in 2011, I concluded that “Russia is not one of Asia’s rising powers but the opposite.”  I see nothing today suggesting otherwise.
Can we say that the United States also lacks an overriding strategic goal in Central Asia? When Central Asia was suddenly released from Soviet control in 1991, Americans were even more indifferent to the region than the Russians because few of them knew anything about it. I am unaware of Central Asia ever figuring in U.S. strategy at more than a transactional level. Cooley’s account strengthens this conclusion.
President Obama underlined the transactional basis of U.S. involvement by fixing the date for the transaction to end in 2014. This decision was apparently made without regard for the longer-term strategic implications of the United States’ virtual disappearance from this contest—not just for China and Russia but for all of Eurasia’s key actors. Consider that Central Asia today is arguably the world’s most contested geography. Powerful regional states—Russia, China, India, Iran, and Turkey—all seek a competitive advantage in the Central Asian space. This list includes four nuclear powers, with a fifth (Iran) close at hand and possibly a sixth (Turkey) further over the horizon. Outside contestants—for example, the United States, Europe, Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia—increase the density of this strategic soup. Is this an arena where the United States can afford strategic fatigue?