The Superpower and the “Stans”: Why Central Asia is Not “Central” to the United States

Although Central Asia stands as a region of strategic importance, relations between the United States and the five Central Asian republics are limited in scope. Why? [T]he absence of a Central Asian lobby, the nature of the many “linkages” between the “Stans” and other nearby Great Powers, and the onset of a “New Cold War” between Russia and the West impede the fostering of greater ties between the United States and the Central Asian republics. Central Asia’s importance from a U.S./Western perspective will also likely continue to dissipate unless local elites implement significant reforms in the near future.

Dr. Charles J. Sullivan is as an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Nazarbayev University in Nursultan, Kazakhstan. He received his PhD from The George Washington University and has published in Canadian Slavonic Papers, East European Quarterly, U.S. Army War College Quarterly, Strategic Analysis, Asia Policy, Asian Affairs, and Vedomosti.

The United States should care a lot about Central Asia. The five Central Asian republics, henceforth referred to as the “Stans” (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan), are situated in a strategic region of the world. They share borders with America’s principal adversaries (Russia, China, and Iran), boast substantial energy reserves, and will come to play some role in Afghanistan’s uncertain future. Moreover, the “Stans” have recently been exhibiting a level of dynamism not seen before in an effort to entice Western countries. During the 1990s, the United States was primarily interested in Central Asia’s oil and gas reserves.

Nowadays, however, some of the “Stans” apparently aspire to reform their systems. For instance, while Kazakhstan seeks to modernize its economy over the course of the next several decades,[1] Uzbekistan under new leadership is currently directing a top-down political liberalization campaign.[2] Of course, not all is well with the “Stans.” Turkmenistan remains a highly isolated and repressive state more than a decade after the passing of its former infamous leader President Saparmurat Niyazov, who was also known as Turkmenbashi.[3] Kyrgyzstan somehow managed to avoid the onset of civil war in the wake of President Kurmanbek Bakiev’s violent ouster followed by ethnic rioting in the south of the country in 2010. Finally, the leadership successions which will eventually take place in countries like Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, the specter of radical Islam hanging over parts of the region, and the growing drug trade emanating from Afghanistan all threaten to destabilize the Central Asian republics in the coming years.[4] In summary, there exists a variety of reasons for the United States to remain attentive to key regional developments.

Yet why are the United States and the “Stans” seemingly so far apart? Government officials from the United States as well as the “Stans” would presumably disagree with the premise of this article if asked, but the evidence is rather obvious. Several factors seemingly work to ensure that relations between the United States and the “Stans” remain limited in scope. The United States holds diplomatic ties with all of the Central Asian republics, regularly engages with the “Stans” on matters of mutual concern, and has recently endorsed a regional integration project known as the “New Silk Road Initiative” designed to further economic cooperation among these countries.[5] Recently, U.S. President Donald Trump held official meetings with President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev and President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev on separate occasions in 2018. But the extent of such ties is quite narrow owing to a series of factors related to the absence or presence of what are referred to here as “linkages.” According to Levitsky and Way, “linkages” encompass “the density of ties (economic, political, diplomatic, social, and organizational) and cross-border flows (of trade and investment, people, and communication) between particular countries and the United States, the European Union (EU), and Western-led multilateral institutions.” Extensive “linkages” increase the leverage of the West to “induce democratization” within other countries. That said, “Western leverage may be limited by…the existence of a regional power that can provide alternative sources of economic, military, and/or diplomatic support” as well as “competing foreign policy objectives.”[6] Bearing this in mind, since U.S./Western “linkages” remain tenuous (due to several factors discussed here) it is unlikely that U.S.-Central Asian relations will expand greatly in the future.

First, since no Central Asian lobby exerts any considerable influence within the U.S. political system (largely owing to the failure of the “Stans” to permit the rule of law to underpin their economies), the absence of this “linkage” – coupled with a seeming U.S. downgrading of Central Asia’s importance vis-à-vis the Global War on Terror – constrains U.S-Central Asian relations. Second, since Central Asia is situated between Russia and China, the multifaceted “linkages” of these hegemons further offset U.S./Western influence. Finally, in light of the onset of a second Cold War between Russia and the West over the fate of Ukraine, the “Stans” are hesitant to modify their existing “linkages” with the former in favor of building stronger ties with the latter. Taken together, these factors restrict the chances that Central Asia will ever become a “central” region to American foreign policy.

No Rule of Law, No Lobby

The “Stans” rarely make the news headlines in the West. Aside from the 2006 release of the popular comedy film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan and the two so-called “revolutions” which took place in 2005 and 2010 in Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia remains distant. With the exception of a weekly direct flight operating from JFK to Tashkent via Uzbekistan Airways, flying from the United States to any of the “Stans” normally takes a full day with layovers in major international airports (some of which entail changing airlines to reach final destinations). Aside from Uzbekistan, the “Stans” are also sparsely populated. Moreover, in comparison to other Asian countries, the number of Central Asians who have immigrated to the U.S. in recent years is insignificant.[7] But geography and a small diaspora cannot fully explain the nature of the sparse ties between the United States and the “Stans.”

So, why do the “Stans” lack a lobbying presence in American politics? The main reason owing for the lack of a Central Asian lobby in Washington is the fact that the rule of law does not pervade in any of the “Stans” today, largely because those at the top of the Central Asian governments do not wish to reform their corrupt systems. Absent the rule of law, U.S. and Western commercial interests will remain underdeveloped in Central Asia. After all, why would Western corporations choose to invest in the region if they know that partaking in corrupt business practices is the only way to navigate the complex post-Soviet bureaucracies currently in place?[8] Consequently, Central Asia’s main contemporary appeal to Washington lies with its geostrategic location in relation to the Global War on Terror, and the region’s utility on this front from America’s perspective has decreased considerably over the course of the past several years.

In the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, the United States established closer ties with several of the “Stans” in light of their proximity to Afghanistan and animus towards violent extremist organizations such as the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and other groups. In furtherance of Operation Enduring Freedom (2001-14), the United States stationed troops at the Karshi-Khanabad (K2) airbase in Uzbekistan and Manas International Airport in Kyrgyzstan. However, in late 2005 the U.S. military vacated K2 after relations between Washington and Tashkent deteriorated in the wake of a state-sponsored massacre in the city of Andijan in May of the same year.[9] In Kyrgyzstan, shadowy corporations serving as contractors to provide jet fuel for U.S. military aircraft attracted scrutiny and tarnished America’s image in the aftermath of President Kurmanbek Bakiev’s ouster in 2010.[10] Several years later, Kyrgyzstan (under Russian political pressure) rejected a contractual extension for the U.S. military to continue leasing facilities at Manas in furtherance of the Afghan war.[11] In 2014, America’s forces in Kyrgyzstan vacated Manas. Hence, although the “Stans” once played a role in assisting the U.S.-led War in Afghanistan, nowadays Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and other former members of the Northern Distribution Network have lost much of their geostrategic appeal (with the exception of their ability to contribute to U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Central/South Asia) from Washington’s perspective. The War in Afghanistan appears unwinnable and America sees little value in prioritizing relations with greedy local elites who preach about the necessity of reform but have institutionalized the practice of graft to such an extent that only cosmetic reforms can be implemented. Meanwhile, Russia and China aspire to make further inroads within Central Asia.

The Other Superpowers

Central Asia is situated between Russia and China. Granted, these two Great Powers are not as powerful as the United States on a global scale. Yet since the aforementioned “linkages” between the “Stans” and the West are tenuous, the Central Asian republics essentially perceive Russia and China as superpowers. The historical and contemporary “linkages” between Russia and the “Stans” (ranging from national, cultural, and linguistic to political, economic, and military) are extensive and the infrastructural projects associated with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) harbor significant potential for Beijing to amass much greater “linkages” with the “Stans.” All of the Central Asian republics seek to limit Moscow and Beijing’s leverage, but existing “linkages” coupled with geographic realities undercut the ability of the “Stans” to effectively offset Russian and Chinese influence.

In addition to maintaining military alliances with several of the “Stans” and other former SSRs such as Belarus and Armenia via the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia leads a regional economic integration project known as the Eurasian Economic Union. The EAEU consists of Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Sizable Russian minorities and Russian-speaking peoples also reside within several of these countries. Moreover, Russia maintains a substantial military presence in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Historical “linkages” between Russia and the “Stans” harken to the Tsarist conquest of the region during the nineteenth century. Following the collapse of the Russian empire, the Soviet Union orchestrated Central Asia’s formation into distinct units (or Soviet Socialist Republics) by establishing governing institutions and overseeing industrialization and mass-educational drives. Thus, it can be argued that in contrast to those peoples inhabiting the western region of the USSR, national identities in the “Stans” developed under Soviet rule.[12]

China, by contrast, lacks extensive “linkages” to the Central Asian republics but Beijing (on account of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s interest in developing the Silk Road Economic Belt stretching from western China onto Europe) is establishing a regional presence via the BRI. Certainly, the “Stans” should be concerned about possibly falling victim to Beijing’s “debt-trap diplomacy”[13] and try to mollify any repercussions associated with China’s founding of a larger economic footprint. The mass protests against the anticipated privatization and leasing of land plots to foreign companies in Kazakhstan during the spring of 2016 is a case in point.[14] And even though the Central Asian republics have been relatively silent on recent events transpiring within the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, Beijing’s assault on the cultural practices of Uighurs and other Turkic peoples likely discredits China in the eyes of ordinary Central Asians. Taken together, although Beijing has made efforts to amass support for the BRI, Chinese soft power in Central Asia is seemingly lacking. Nevertheless, the “Stans” hope that China’s infrastructural projects will yield future economic benefits and Central Asia’s leaders have already invested a considerable amount of speech in the BRI, thereby enhancing the prospects that new “linkages” will evolve.

Russia has declined considerably since the collapse of the USSR but still retains cultural, linguistic, political, economic, and military supremacy in Central Asia. China can also contribute to further marginalizing the United States as a regional player as Beijing amasses its own “linkages.” In brief, from the perspectives of Central Asia’s rulers the sole superpower wields less influence over them than the two hegemons next door. From such a vantage point, it is arguably best to stay close to Russia, particularly if/when Great Power relations worsen.

Cold War 2.0

Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in March of 2014 has served as an inflection point for the “Stans” as well as other former SSRs which have not joined the EU and NATO. The United States and the West have placed economic sanctions on Russia for violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and Washington provides arms to Kiev in its fight against separatist forces in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. But the West will likely not go to war against Russia, and the Central Asian republics are aware of this. Countries like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Belarus, and Armenia understand that Russia will come to their defense if they suffer a military attack from the United States, NATO, or some other foreign adversary. No other Great Power or military alliance, however, will defend the “Stans” should they run afoul of Russia and provoke Moscow to attack or deploy “little green men” within their borders. Moreover, it is also possible that China could coordinate with Russia in initiating a joint attack against any of the Central Asian republics should Beijing cast aside all concerns for international law. Hence, by not publicly voicing dissent against Russia in the so-called “New Cold War” between Moscow and the West, the “Stans” suffer the economic consequences but also ensure that their sovereignty and territorial integrity remain intact.

While the “New Cold War” is not truly global and lacks an ideological dimension, Russia (though considerably weaker than the USSR) has revealed that it will respond with force if the West threatens its geostrategic interests.[15] The crux of the “New Cold War” concerns the extension of U.S./Western power and values into the former Soviet Union region or Russia’s sphere of influence. Despite repeated warnings from Moscow for years, the United States and the West have continuously encouraged EU and NATO expansion. The consequences of doing so were made clear in 2014. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s abdication from power in the midst of a spiraling political crisis spurred Russia to adopt an aggressive foreign policy designed to block further EU/NATO expansion into neighboring countries.[16] Shortly after Yanukovych fled, Russia seized the Crimean peninsula and began fostering instability in eastern Ukraine. Today, Moscow can escalate tensions with Kiev at any time. Russian forces recently captured several Ukrainian ships attempting to navigate the Kerch Strait into the Sea of Azov. Tensions have receded to an extent but a military escalation remains a possibility. In response to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, Central Asia’s rulers have not publicly criticized Russia for its brazen actions. For instance, (now former) President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev has lamented the West’s imposition of “barbaric” sanctions against Russia and stated that the EAEU is not to blame for the economic downturn facing the region since 2014.[17] In issuing such a declaration, Nazarbayev is careful not to lay blame upon Russia for Kazakhstan’s current woes. It is thus quite evident that the “Stans” do not wish to upset Russia amidst the backdrop of worsening Great Power relations.

It seems unlikely that Russia would resort to punishing military force or economic sanctions if any of the “Stans” or other former SSRs were to voice disagreement with Moscow’s actions towards Ukraine. Granted, such an act would greatly embarrass Moscow and fray relations, but Russia would look particularly bad if it exacted revenge on one of its smaller neighbors (not to mention a military ally) for offering verbal support to Ukraine. However, the extensive “linkages” between Russia and the “Stans,” working in tandem with the gradual undermining of the sovereignty of nations principle and the territorial integrity norm by Great Powers over the past generation, render it likely that the Central Asian republics will keep quiet on matters involving Ukraine.

Furthermore, Russia’s neighbors have learned a stark lesson from Ukraine’s suffering: Do not let protesters force the head of state from office (especially if he maintains friendly ties with Moscow), for Russia may respond in such a way that causes permanent changes. In the case of Ukraine, relations between Moscow and Kiev appear to have been irreparably damaged since Russia will not relinquish administrative control over Crimea. Based upon this state of affairs, Central Asia’s rulers seek to prevent the occurrence of a Euromaidan-type situation within their own countries (be it authentic or manufactured by external powers) because this type of domestic threat might not only spark sociopolitical upheaval but also possibly provide revanchist Russian elites with an opportunity to seize more territory under some questionable pretense. In taking these factors into consideration, the U.S. should thus expect the “Stans” to remain largely uncritical of Russia’s actions in its “Near Abroad” as well as suppress any calls for greater liberalization from below (owing to a fear of how Russia might respond to the unsanctioned mass mobilization of ordinary Central Asians). Central Asia’s tilt towards Russia in response to the Ukraine crisis consequently further widens an already sizable gap between the United States and the “Stans.”


The aforementioned factors which serve to impede the development of more robust “linkages” between the United States and the “Stans” are unfortunate, given both that Central Asia remains an area of strategic importance and that the “Stans” are currently contending with a revanchist Russia and a rising China. Bearing this in mind, the key to ensuring sustained U.S./Western interest in Central Asia lies with the “Stans” instituting political and economic reforms in the hopes of courting investment and gradually developing a lobbying presence in North American and European capitals.

Central Asia’s future will largely be determined by the degree to which the “Stans” signal that they are serious about change. The main problem, though, is that local elites are primarily interested in holding onto power so that they can keep reaping the benefits of such setups. Central Asia’s leaders inform their citizens that their governments are providing adequate services and that life will continue to improve as politics becomes more accountable. The implication, though, is that change will take a very long time (perhaps up to a generation) and ordinary citizens should simply be grateful and not pester elites to usher in any changes too quickly. In the meantime, reforms are being instituted but most of them are cosmetic. Central Asia’s elites prefer such reforms because they serve to buttress the legitimacy of the ruling regimes without changing the current political and economic landscapes. Now, this gambit may prove successful in terms of keeping ordinary citizens docile, at least for some time. But consequential reforms need to be enacted, not endlessly debated, in order to entice America and the West to view the “Stans” as credible economic partners. Hence, as long as the rule of law remains absent while corruption persists as an endemic feature of local political cultures, U.S. and Western corporations mostly will not invest in Central Asia.[18]

Understandably, local elites are hesitant to implement far-reaching reforms for doing so will shake the foundations of the systems from which they have profited as well as likely upset Russia and China. But abstaining from instituting such reforms also entails passing on the U.S. and the West. Indeed, implementing too many political and economic reforms haphazardly could spur instability. But such reforms also hold out the possibility that the “Stans” can diversify their economies, build human capital, and check Russian and Chinese influence. Naturally, Central Asia’s leaders prefer to proceed with implementing reforms gradually, and doing so makes sense. But time also appears to be running out for the “Stans,” owing to the United States’ preoccupation with pivoting towards the Asia-Pacific region in order to effectively address China’s continuous geopolitical rise. In summary, the Central Asian republics risk forfeiting their already diminishing geostrategic importance (from a U.S./Western perspective) if they so choose to remain idle actors.

Assuming, though, that local elites commit to reformist agendas, the United States and the “Stans” still will have to wage a steep uphill struggle. Washington harbors suspicions related to Russia and China’s respective regional integration projects, but the United States cannot really do much to confound the EAEU or the BRI absent strong “linkages” with the “Stans.” In turn, Russia and China’s mutual suspicions regarding U.S. regional interests will complicate the forging of closer ties between Washington and the “Stans.” Durable “linkages” between the United States and the “Stans” can only be developed if Moscow and Beijing perceive the fostering of such ties as complementary to their interests, and a substantial improvement in Great Power relations is thus needed for such “linkages” to materialize. In spite of being independent for a generation, the Central Asian republics are still girded in their geopolitics by Great Power relations. Hence, the primary task facing the “Stans” implies not just instituting meaningful political and economic reforms but striving to realize the competing regional integration projects of the United States, Russia, and China in a time of uncertain Great Power politics.[19]


[1] Charles J. Sullivan, “State-Building in the Steppe: Challenges to Kazakhstan’s Modernizing Aspirations,” Strategic Analysis 41.3 (2017): 273-284.

[2] Charles J. Sullivan, “Uzbekistan and the United States: Interests and Avenues for Cooperation,” Asian Affairs 50.1 (2019): 102-111.

[3] Charles J. Sullivan, “Halk, Watan, Berdymukhammedov! Political Transition and Regime Continuity in Turkmenistan,” Region: Regional Studies of Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia 5.1 (2016): 35-51.

[4] On the regional drug trade, see Svante E. Cornell and Niklas L.P. Swanström, “The Eurasian Drug Trade: A Challenge to Regional Security,” Problems of Post-Communism 53.4 (July/August 2016): 10-28.

[5] For an overview of America’s strategic vision concerning this regional initiative, see “U.S. Support for the New Silk Road,” U.S. Department of State,

[6] Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, “Linkage versus Leverage. Rethinking the International Dimension of Regime Change,” Comparative Politics 38.4 (July 2006): 379, 383.

[7] Jie Zong and Jeanne Batalova, “Asian Immigrants in the United States,” Migration Policy Institute, 6 January 2016,

[8] For an overview of the extent to which corruption poses a challenge in Central Asia (and in comparison to other countries), see “Corruption Perceptions Index 2018,” Transparency International,

[9] Alexander Cooley, Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia. Oxford University Press, New York, NY (2012), p. 31-36, 38-39.

[10] Ibid., 142-148.

[11] Morgan Hartley and Chris Walker, “The US Spent Billions in Kyrgyzstan, but is Leaving Without a Trace,” Forbes, 25 September 2013,

[12] Keith Darden and Anna Gryzmala-Busse, “The Great Divide: Literacy, Nationalism, and the Communist Collapse,” World Politics 59.1 (October 2006): 83-115.

[13] John Pomfret, “China’s Debt Traps Around the World are a Trademark of Its Imperialist Ambitions,” The Washington Post, 27 August 2018,

[14] Charles J. Sullivan, “Kazakhstan at a Crossroads,” Asia Policy 13.2 (April 2018): 125.

[15] Robert Legvold, “Managing the New Cold War: What Moscow and Washington Can Learn from the Last One,” Foreign Affairs 93.4 (August 2014): 74-84.

[16] John J. Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions that Provoked Putin,” Foreign Affairs 93.5 (September/October 2014): 77-89.

[17] “Eurasian Economic Union is Not Responsible for Economic Hardships in Kazakhstan,” Tengri News, 11 February 2015,

[18] For example, see Sullivan (2018), 127-130.

[19] Sullivan (2019), 109.

Dr. Charles J. Sullivan
Dr. Charles J. Sullivan

Dr. Charles J. Sullivan is as an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Nazarbayev University in Nursultan, Kazakhstan. He received his PhD from The George Washington University and has published in Canadian Slavonic Papers, East European Quarterly, U.S. Army War College Quarterly, Strategic Analysis, Asia Policy, Asian Affairs, and Vedomosti.