Center for American Progress

Reimagining U.S. Interests and Priorities in Post-Soviet Eurasia

Reimagining U.S. Interests and Priorities in Post-Soviet Eurasia

Reimagining Eurasia leaves the United States better prepared to deal with the coming challenge from China, write Samuel Charap and Alexandros Petersen.

President Barack Obama, right, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev shake hands during their meeting ahead of the G20 summit in London, Wednesday, April 1, 2009. (AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
President Barack Obama, right, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev shake hands during their meeting ahead of the G20 summit in London, Wednesday, April 1, 2009. (AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

This was originally published as a chapter in: Paul J. Saunders, ed., Enduring Rivalry: American and Russian Perspectives on the Former Soviet Space (Washington: Center for the National Interest, 2011).

In U.S. foreign policy debates, self-defined “realists” and neoconservatives disagree sharply on many issues. Yet they share a strikingly similar view on the motivations behind Russia’s actions in what we call here post-Soviet Eurasia, i.e. the twelve former-Soviet republics not members of institutional Europe.

Thomas Graham, generally considered a realist, writes that “restoring and maintaining itself as the dominant influence in the former-Soviet space is a top priority for Russia. Historically, this is the region that has given Russia its geopolitical weight. Politically, economically, and militarily, it remains critical to Russia’s security and prosperity in the eyes of the Russian elite. Psychologically, it is central to Russia’s self-identity as a great power, for a great power, by definition, must radiate power and influence into neighboring regions.”[1]

Compare that to leading neoconservative Robert Kagan’s assertion that “What Russia wants today is what great powers have always wanted: to maintain predominant influence in the regions that matter to them, and to exclude the influence of other great powers.”[2]

In other words, realists and neoconservatives, along with many Russian analysts, explain Russia’s pattern of heavy-handed policies in the region over the course of the 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union as a function of unalterable historical and geographical drivers. The consistent U.S. rejection of Russian heavy-handedness in the region and promotion of core values, however, divides the neocons, who demand ever-greater push-back, and the realists, who argue that the U.S. must alter this stance if it is to act on what they often call its “primary” interests in ensuring close ties with Moscow.

The problem with both approaches is that the core assumption about the causes of Russian conduct in post-Soviet Eurasia rests both on an historical deterministic logic – it is this way now because it was this way before – and, more importantly, on a questionable historical linkage between the Russian Federation and the two previous states with similar geographical cores. Both of those states were problematic for their neighbors by nature; one was called the Russian Empire, after all, and the other was founded on an expansionist ideology that envisioned itself at the forefront of a global movement. The Russian Federation, though far from the “democratic federative law-governed state with a republican form of government,” envisioned by the first article of its constitution, is neither an empire nor the font of world revolution. It is one of the 15 successor states of the Soviet Union; it also happens to be the one where the Union elite (the RSFSR never had Republic-level institutions separate from the all-union ones until the very end of the Soviet period, after all) largely still control foreign and defense policy. This elite’s reference point for relations with the other successor states was not pre¬revolutionary Russia or the USSR’s relations with its neighbors; rather, the Soviet-era habits of seeing the other former SSRs as constituent sub-units of the same state obtained. These habits manifested themselves institutionally: until 2000, relations with the CIS were handled by a special ministry, not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The MFA simply was not made to deal with these issues, and the Moscow elite had trouble digesting the notion that, for example, Belarus, was inostranny, the Russian world for foreign, which literally means “of another country.”

In other words, one unique aspect of Russia’s post-Soviet transformation is the institutional and individual learning process of how to develop good neighborly relations with states that used to be part of the same country and that remain deeply integrated in many ways. When Moscow meddles in its neighborhood, it often does so not out of security imperatives but Soviet-era habit.

The relevance of this for U.S. interests in the region, while perhaps not direct, is crucial. For if we assume an inherent, fundamental and immutable clash of interests between the United States and Russia in post-Soviet Eurasia, then the U.S. is presented with a stark choice between realist and neoconservative prescriptions. (It should be noted as well that the realist prescriptions often are divorced from the realities of U.S. foreign policy-making as it is practiced today. The government is far too unwieldy and internally divided to pull off a “grand bargain” and even if it could, any U.S. president who did would be engaging in political suicide, not to mention violation of U.S. international commitments under such documents as the Charter of Paris and even the UN Charter.) But since this assumption is flawed, U.S. interests and priorities can and should be examined in a different light. What is needed is a fundamental reimagining of Eurasia.

Reimagining Eurasia is not an easy intellectual exercise. Modes of thinking in foreign policy prescription and implementation tend to be well ingrained, but when it comes to dealing with the Eurasian continent, the history of U.S. posture towards the region weighs all the more heavily on the minds of those concerned. In many ways, the “realist” and “interventionist” modes of thinking are inherited from the imperial British policy dichotomy when dealing with the Russian Empire: the 19th century-long push and pull between the “forward school”—active interventionists—and progenitors of “masterly inactivity”—another way of saying accommodating Russian interests in the hope that St. Petersburg would eventually be pacified with a final border treaty, or grand bargain. This dichotomy was continued into the Cold War, to some extent epitomized by the debate between “containment” and “rollback” of the Soviet menace.

While always keeping in mind and holding the greatest respect for the history of East-West relations over the centuries, the utility of the Reimagining Eurasia concept becomes apparent through an intellectual exercise—of forgetting. What if Eurasia were a clean slate? What if the historical baggage of the “Great Game” and the Cold War were momentarily put aside? What would determine U.S. policy in a region comprised of numerous small states, with varying degrees of development, resource wealth, governance problems and foreign policy sophistication, girt to the north by a legacy great power with serious development, resource, governance and foreign policy questions of its own, a rising economic and geopolitical power to the east, an unpredictable international spoiler to the south and connections to Europe, South Asia and the Middle East that hold the potential to bring the dividends of trade and cooperation or instability and alienation? How would a decision-maker in Washington determine U.S. interests and actions in the region? What would U.S. policy look like?

It would probably look significantly different from current policy, or the approaches of the last two decades. A policymaker going through this thought experiment would inevitably question U.S. preoccupation with states of moderate geopolitical importance, such as Georgia and Kyrgyzstan and lack of attention paid to emerging geopolitical heavyweights such as Kazakhstan and Turkey. The policymaker might come up with innovative strategies for tackling the neuralgic knot that is Ukraine, the region’s relative underperformer; Uzbekistan, or the simmering stumbling blocks of the Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria conflicts. To help navigate this daunting landscape, we have emphasized three key principles as a guide (these have appeared in our articles in Foreign Affairs and The National Interest).[3]

First, U.S. policy toward these countries should be predicated on their respective merits, not their value as bargaining chips or their relationships with other countries. Policy makers and analysts should start with the basic question of what American interests are at stake in a given bilateral relationship. That should also mean paying little attention to leaders’ pronouncements of geopolitical loyalty.

Second, the United States should broaden engagement with the states of the region, using all of the tools in the toolbox, not just in terms of security and natural resources, but diplomatically, economically and culturally.

Third, U.S. policy should emphasize transparency and win-win opportunities, while simultaneously rejecting Russian notions of “spheres of influence” and antiquated zero-sum arguments from the Eurasian governments themselves.

The Reimagining Eurasia concept is not a middle road, nor is it a compromise—it does not lie in between realist and interventionist modes of thinking. It approaches the subject matter from an entirely different angle. It is neither premised on passivity nor aggressiveness, but it is prepared to use either when that suits U.S. objectives. It is a framework that allows for greater effectiveness, not a paradigm into which policies must fit.

Reimagining Eurasia entails rearranging priorities

Reimagining Eurasia does not rest on assumptions about Russian behavior, nor does it prescribe specific policy responses. Its three principles chart an analytical guide. It can be used to readjust U.S. priorities in the region, such as through a more considered balance of U.S. engagement with Eurasia’s diverse states based on their significance for U.S. and transatlantic interests. Often, U.S. engagement has reflected a lopsided emphasis on either countering perceived threats from Moscow, or priorities unrelated to the countries of the region themselves, such as pursuing the war in Afghanistan.

The states in the spotlight


The centrality of Georgia to U.S. interests in the region is a oft-invoked rhetorical trope, with little evidence provided to back up the assertion besides the notion that Tbilisi is a bulwark against Moscow’s influence in the region. To be sure, U.S. engagement in support of Georgia’s democratic development, market reforms, and sovereignty has had an important, positive impact and should continue. But the emphasis on engagement with this relatively poor, resource-barren (though transit-rich), deeply internally divided state on the other side of the planet seems totally disproportionate to its importance to the United States. This does not imply that the U.S. should artificially downgrade the bilateral relationship, but, especially at a time of limited resources, the centrality of Georgia seems somewhat exaggerated.


Kyrgyzstan’s current strategic importance is rooted in the effort in Afghanistan, principally due to the coalition’s use of the Manas airbase. Of all the Central Asian states, it therefore gets by far the most attention. However, aside from the Manas airbase, Kyrgyzstan has little strategic significance to the U.S.; an unfortunate reality given that Kyrgyzstan has the most pluralistic – if dangerously tumultuous – politics of any of the Central Asian states. Yet because of the focus on Manas, engagement with Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors seems an afterthought.

The underweighted


Despite its relatively small size, Azerbaijan retains a high geopolitical significance to the U.S. Not only does it rest between Russia and Iran, but it also provides a bridge between Europe and the energy rich Caspian basin. It is therefore critical both in terms of providing the gateway to the Central Asian states, and, critically, Afghanistan, removing the need to take a longer and more difficult route through Pakistan, and in surrounding Iran with commercially minded states that seek to do deals with the West, not subvert it.


Turkmenistan’s colossal energy resources, principally its reserves of natural gas, make it highly significant to the West as an energy exporter in its own right. However, Turkmenistan’s geographical situation means that it also holds significance as a natural transit passage for Caspian energy (as well as a supply to coalition forces in Afghanistan), therefore adding a further geostrategic dimension to Ashgabat’s significance to the U.S.

Right weight wrong reasons


Ukraine has, since the early 1990s, been at the center of U.S. attention in the region. Much of the impetus for this policy stems from the maxim coined by Zbignew Brzezinski over 15 years ago in a landmark Foreign Affairs article, which characterized the strategic rationale behind U.S. policy toward Ukraine since its independence, writing, “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.”[4] Perhaps at the time that was a sensible justification for U.S. engagement with Ukraine: much uncertainty surrounded Russia’s future trajectory. But by definition this rationale would not remain valid in perpetuity. Yet to this day U.S. policy in part seems aimed at thwarting any and all Russian influence in Ukraine. This is a foolhardy framework for policy both because it is destined to fail (Russia will always have a significant degree of influence in Ukraine), it fosters social and political dividing lines in Ukraine, thus stunting the country’s development, and it doesn’t further U.S. interests. Ukraine is a critically important country for any number of reasons: size (the largest in Eurasia besides Russia); location (bordering EU, NATO, and on the Black Sea); resources (human, natural and military); and the unique challenges it faces in consolidating its transformation from Soviet communism. U.S. policy can and should focus on these. Countering Russia is not an achievable or effective Ukraine policy for 2011.

A reimagined Ukraine policy would not ignore the unique history between Russia and Ukraine—both the cultural and ethnic ties that bring them together and the cultural and political-economic conflicts that have driven them apart. In fact, it would actually more accurately reflect this history and its implications. And a more realistic appreciation of these implications should temper our expectations for “success” in the short term. But this long-term focus neither lessens the need for engagement nor implies that we have to neglect states farther east.

Reimagining Eurasia and democracy promotion

Sadly, Washington discussions that are polarized between the realists and the interventionists present false choices about the place for democracy in the U.S. approach to the region. First, this debate has created an artificial dividing line between U.S. interests and U.S. concern for the domestic politics of the region’s states (often the short-hand “values” is used for this concern, although that’s somewhat of a misnomer— pluralistic, representative political systems that respect human and property rights are neither an exclusive function of individuals’ values, nor are they exclusively American phenomena). In fact, facilitating more representative and accountable government in the region, besides reflecting Americans’ own experience, is a U.S. interest: authoritarian political systems tend to be unstable in the long term and their capacity to enforce contracts over time is also questionable.

Second, both poles of this debate seem to put Russia in a special category among the post-communist states of Europe and Eurasia in terms of its domestic transformation. For the realists, Russia’s “great power” status means the U.S. has no business being concerned about the nature of its domestic politics. The interventionists often portray Russia as an active anti-democratic force in the region. This is an exaggerated claim. Russia has at times used heavy-handed tactics to further its interests in post-Soviet Eurasia that involve undercutting the decisions of other governments (some democratically elected, others not) of the region, it is not an active foe of democracy per se. Indeed, the damage done by this meddling pales in comparison to steps taken by some Eurasian governments themselves to stifle dissent, eliminate political opponents, and monopolize public life. And Russia’s own domestic transformation is ongoing; therefore, the policy tools that the U.S. has to nudge it in a more pluralistic, democratic direction should be employed just as they are in Russia’s neighbors (after all, to varying degrees the pathologies of governance inherited from the Soviet period are shared by all of them).

The more interventionist approach in U.S. policy toward the region that prevailed in the second term of President George W. Bush actually complicated the promotion of democracy in the region. This was especially true in Ukraine and Georgia after their respective “colored revolutions.” With all attention focused on Moscow’s actions (some real, some imagined) in these countries and the notion that they could be “anchored to the West, Washington failed to either facilitate institutionalization of political pluralism or push both governments to adjust their own problematic policies. In Ukraine, the added factor of the role of Russian language complicated matters further; or rather, the perception of Russian language and related cultural-historical issues as a tool of Kremlin political coercion trumped concern about the grievances and rights of the millions of patriotic Ukrainians who had different ideas than President Viktor Yushchenko’s. Indeed, his exclusionary language and cultural policies profoundly alienated the South and East of the country. In Georgia, concerns about human rights abuses, the weakness of the judicial system and the monopolization of the electronic media environment were de-emphasized for fear that Russia might use such statements against Georgia. In both cases “support for democracy” at times devolved into support for ruling elites who claim geopolitical fealty. This focus on championing perceived allies in the perceived “struggle for influence” against Moscow has blinded many to the institutional rot throughout the region.

Outside of the zero-sum frame, we can see these countries for what they are, warts and all. And focus more effectively on deeper engagement with all of them to further all of our interests, including that in furthering domestic transformation.

The U.S. interest in furthering democracy and good governance in the region is not achieved by showering attention on favorites and isolating others. Isolation as a means of promoting modern governance in the region has proven at best of extremely limited utility. In a sense, it is the foreign policy equivalent of refusing to work on hard problems.

Reimagining Eurasia will lead to more effective conflict policies

Seeing the region for what it is reveals just how debilitating the protracted conflicts there are for the states they affect. It also strips away misconceptions about the centrality of Russia’s role in them. While undeniably important and often problematic, Russia’s role should not blind us to the ethnic, cultural and territorial disputes among locals that have little to do with Moscow’s policies.

The Georgia conflicts are case in point. While the U.S. should not sign up to Russia’s bizarre idea that after 8/08 it is still “not a party to the conflict,” we cannot ignore the fact that the Russian military presence and status claims are only one (inter-state) level of a multi-level conflict, that includes two long-standing inter-ethnic disputes within Georgia. In other words, if magically Russia withdrew all its men and materiel from Abkhazia and South Ossetia tomorrow and announced a reversal of its decision to recognize the two breakaway autonomies as sovereign states, that would not resolve the Georgia conflicts. Indeed, given the current lack of trust, enduring hatreds (some a function of the ethnic cleansing that took place in 8/08), and perceptions of victimization that exist among Georgia’s communities, such a drastic shift in Russian policy would likely lead to further bloodshed.

This hypothesis does not imply that Russian occupation of the breakaway autonomies is either “good” or legal. It does, however, imply that inter-community reconciliation is a necessary component of conflict resolution. It also implies that the United States needs to understand the grievances and threat perceptions of all parties in order to craft effective policies.

Currently, however, the United States exclusively focuses its efforts on the inter-state conflict. This should continue, but should be supplemented by smart policies to effect conflict transformation and consistent advice to the Government of Georgia on the need to implement its stated commitment to engagement with both the authorities in and residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Conclusion: Reimagining Eurasia leaves the U.S. better prepared to deal with the coming challenge from China

Most of the U.S. debate on strategies for Eurasia hinges on Russia: its role in the region and its relationship with Washington. This inordinate focus, whether on the nemesis to the north or the potential partner, begets a misunderstanding of the region and its strategic importance, adjacent to Afghanistan, as the trade space between Europe, East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East, and as a burgeoning economic and diplomatic zone in and of itself. Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Eurasian states have emerged each with their own roles, ambitions, foibles and challenges. Our approach to each of them should not be exclusively bilateral in nature, but certainly based on their respective merits. This is also true of the key issues in the region such as protracted conflicts, customs and border bottlenecks, transnational trafficking, energy geopolitics, just to name few. Russia is involved in many, but not all of these. Moscow’s views and actions are very important to consider, but they are not the be all and end all anymore in this part of the world. Russia is one of a number of external factors that impact developments in the region. And the region is important to the U.S. above and beyond Russia’s role there.

A reimagined Eurasia will allow for the flexibility to accurately analyze the most consequential development in the region: the increasing influence—economic and political—of China. Whether through its immense natural gas pipeline built in record time through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan—now headed to the Caspian coast—or its massive soft loans to Moldova, Astana and Ashgabat during the global financial crisis, Beijing is the region’s most significant external actor of the future. How to understand China’s concerns in Central Asia regarding its Uyghur minority, its reluctance to become involved in Kyrgyzstan’s political tumult of 2010, while at the same time organizing the five states of Central Asia within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, flirting with Azerbaijan, making strategic investments in Belarus and playing a waiting game in Afghanistan? What to make of pushback from Eurasian states: anti-Chinese protests in Kazakhstan, intimidation of ethnic Han traders in Kyrgyzstan and general mistrust about their activities across the region. How to deal with the reticence of Eurasian governments to replace one imperial master in Moscow with another in Beijing? Is this an opportunity for the United States and its allies, or a warning against being overbearing? How much influence can Washington’s better governance principles have when Beijing makes a point of supporting the often authoritarian, corrupt status-quo? These are questions that can only be delved into fruitfully by following Reimagining Eurasia’s three principles. A debate about whether we ought to engage or push back against Russia is increasingly irrelevant in the region’s 21st century strategic context.

Far more relevant in the coming months and years will be how the United States develops a “China in Eurasia” strategy, post the military drawdown in Afghanistan and in the context of increasingly independent and interdependent Eurasian actors. It is here that that the thought experiment we conducted earlier becomes immediately applicable. U.S. policy should not get stuck once more in a paradigm that prizes the role of an external great power over the region’s genuine dynamics. In crafting a China in Eurasia strategy, the first step must be a reimagined Euraisa: one in which each state and issue is assessed on its merits, where engagement is broad-based and long-lasting, where spheres of influence are rejected and the potential for cooperation across the region is emphasized. In short, the best China in Eurasia strategy is a fully-fledged, active and independent engagement of the countries of post-Soviet Eurasia. By reimagining Eurasia, we can avoid repeating the mistakes of the realist and interventionists approaches to Russia in Eurasia in our approach to China, the pivotal emerging power of the 21st century.

This was originally published as a chapter in: Paul J. Saunders, ed., Enduring Rivalry: American and Russian Perspectives on the Former Soviet Space (Washington: Center for the National Interest, 2011).


[1]. Thomas Graham, “Resurgent Russia and U.S. Purposes,” A Century Foundation Report, 2009.

[2]. Robert Kagan, The Return of History, p 19.

[3]. For these and related articles, see

[4]. Zbigniew Brzezinski, “The Premature Partnership,” Foreign Affairs March/April 1994.

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