Richard Lourie: The Next Round of the Great Game





[Richard Lourie is author of “The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin” and “Sakharov: A Biography.”]

The April uprising in Kyrgyzstan illuminates the latest phase of the Great Game.

The game’s initial phase ran from 1807, when Napoleon proposed to Tsar Alexander to invade British India, until 1907, when tsarist Russia and imperial Britain sat down and — like civilized Europeans — divided spheres of interest, some of which ran right through countries like Iran.

For Britain, the Great Game had primarily been about securing the jewel of the imperial crown — India — from Russian encroachment. For Russia, eastward expansion was a form of Manifest Destiny that wouldn’t be satisfied until the mountains of Asia were under its control and the shores of the Pacific were reached.

There was another flare-up of the game during World War I when Kaiser Wilhelm tried to instigate a Muslim jihad against Russia and Britain, a process that Punch, the British humor magazine, termed “Deutschland Uber Allah.”

Soviet control of the area seemed to terminate the contest, but as Peter Hopkirk, who quite literally wrote the book on the subject (“The Great Game”), says, Central Asia is a “volatile area where the Great Game has never really ceased.”

But now the questions are: Who is playing? What is at stake? And who is winning, at least at the moment?

Britain has been replaced by the United States, which has interests to protect, not territory. Both China and Russia see the United States as a dangerous interloper in their geopolitical backyard, but Afghanistan is an “accidental” area of interest for Washington. If al-Qaida had attacked from Yemen, for example, U.S. bases in Kyrgyzstan would not currently be an issue.

The Central Asian states and the United States are engaged in a purely utilitarian relationship. Washington wants the right to use air space and air bases to supply its war effort in Afghanistan. Hungry for money and respect, the Central Asian leaders worry that the United States will “betray” their purely pragmatic relationship and protest their despotic policies. U.S. protests against Uzbekistan when government forces opened fire on protesters in Andijan, Uzbekistan, in 2005 were a case in point.

Russian authorities and opposition intellectuals do agree on one thing: China is more likely to be a source of trouble for Russia than the United States. Russia doesn’t like having NATO troops on both sides of its territory, but the United States has so far shown no signs of putting down roots in Central Asia. In fact, after any “success” in Afghanistan, the United States will greatly downplay its presence in the region. Its enduring interests are in the Middle East, not Central Asia.

China, on the other hand, recently broke the Russian monopoly on energy transmission in the region, completing a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to western China that crosses through nominal Russian allies like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. That’s another big difference between the old Great Game and the new: The Central Asia states are benefiting from the jockeying among the great powers instead of just being exploited by them...


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