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Working With Russia To Prevent Eurasian Collapse

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev with Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbaev, Tajikistan's Emomali Rahmon, and Kyrgyzstan's Kurmanbek Bakiev during exercises of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- Eurasia's answer to NATO?
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev with Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbaev, Tajikistan's Emomali Rahmon, and Kyrgyzstan's Kurmanbek Bakiev during exercises of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- Eurasia's answer to NATO?
The Eurasian region continues to disintegrate, and neither Russia nor the West has been able to arrest the destabilizing dynamics.

Evidence of rising instability throughout the region include the August 2008 Russia-Georgia war, renewed terrorist attacks in the North Caucasus, the persistent failure of Western forces to stabilize Afghanistan, the inability of Central Asian rulers to reign in local clans and drug lords, and the paralysis of legitimately elected bodies of power in Ukraine and Moldova.

Violence is gradually spreading, waiting for an opportunity to erupt into a large-scale conflict. Transregional transportation routes may soon be choked due to Russia's conflicts with Ukraine, Georgia, and Turkmenistan.

The West's attempts to secure and stabilize Eurasia after the end of the Cold War must be recognized as a failure. In the mid-1990s, U.S. geostrategists such as Zbigniew Brzezinski recommended that the United States pursue a policy of replacing Russia as the referee and protector of the newly established non-Russian states in the region. After initial hesitation, the United States and other Western states followed this advice.

Yet Eurasia has not become stable or peaceful and continues to disintegrate. The bureaucrats in Washington and Brussels have failed to understand that they lack the resources, the will, and the experience to stabilize the complex region. Today -- after the Iraq war and the global financial crisis -- the United States is beginning to recognize its overextension, but it is not at all clear if Washington and Brussels are prepared to act differently in Eurasia.

Russia's Absence Felt

Russia, too, has contributed to the Eurasian meltdown. The Soviet collapse and the subsequent retreat of Russia from the region have greatly destabilized the area. By the time Vladimir Putin assumed power in 2000, Moscow's severely undermined position in the region was obvious to everyone, especially after a wave of terrorist attacks took place in Chechnya and other parts of Russia.

The relative recovery of the Russian economy during the post-Yeltsin decade began to revive Russia's standing in Eurasia, yet Moscow could ill afford serious efforts to stabilize and pacify the region.

At best, the Kremlin could defend its core interests abroad and begin to escape the alternative of an unstable society, dwindling population, and truncated sovereignty. By capitalizing on high oil prices, it could also advocate multilateral arrangements in the region and strengthen its presence in neighboring economies and energy companies worldwide.

Preventing a collapse in Eurasia requires recognizing Russia's role in stabilizing the region. Once this is done in practice, and not rhetorically, many pieces of the region's puzzle may start falling into place. Energy supplies may become more reliable; governments in politically contested areas -- like Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova -- may obtain a greater legitimacy; and the so-called frozen conflicts may have a better opportunity to be resolved.

Russia's recent resurgence is a response to its lacking recognition as a vital power and partner of the West. If Russia chooses to dedicate itself to obstructing Western policies in Eurasia, we will see more of the collapsing dynamics in the region. Ukraine and Moldova may disintegrate, as did Georgia. Central Asia and Azerbaijan are likely to be subjected to a much greater degree of instability with unpredictable consequences. Russia too will suffer greatly as its modernization processes will be derailed. In short, the region may change beyond recognition -- and possibly through the use of force.

Spirit Of Cooperation

Non-Russian powers too must become involved as participants in establishing a collective-security arrangement in Eurasia. From a security perspective, it is important that the two most prominent actors in the region -- NATO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) -- develop a joint assessment of threat and closely coordinate their policies.

Instead of expanding its reach further, NATO ought to learn its limitations. Without the full-fledged involvement of the SCO, Afghanistan is likely to turn into another version of Iraq, with additional negative implications for the U.S. reputation in the world.

Another key issue is energy security. A new, shared understanding of energy challenges must be reached that would encourage mutual respect for each side's critical interests. Viewing Russia as a potentially reliable alternative to traditional Middle Eastern sources of energy may serve the West and members of the region better than the image of a "neo-imperialist" bully that only seeks to subvert its neighbors' policies.

Trying to persuade European countries to invest additional billions into the Nabucco pipeline in order to bypass Russia may well turn out to be a waste of money and time. A more important and potentially unifying idea for all the parties would be to engage in the development of acceptable rules and principles of energy security among Eurasia's powers.

Finally, to restore the region's capacity to function and perform basic services for its residents, it is critical to curb Russophobic nationalism. While rebuilding a Russia-centered empire would be very dangerous, there is hardly an alternative to the emergence of an economically and culturally transparent community of nations with strong ties to the former metropole.

Russians and other ethnic minorities must be able freely to travel, develop their linguistic and religious traditions, and celebrate their historically significant events. The overall objective of the outside world should be to strengthen Russia's confidence as a regional great power, while discouraging it from engaging in revisionist behavior.

Andrei Tsygankov is a professor of international relations at San Francisco State University. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL