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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Protection, Central Asian Style

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Recent deals between President Vladimir Putin and the heads of Central Asian states have secured Russia a role in the delivery of some, if not all, natural gas from these former Soviet republics to Europe. But Putin's success here in outmaneuvering the United States was not a simple result of Moscow pressure or of vague "Eurasianist" ties that some Russian pundits claim have underpinned a Slavic-Turkic symbiosis since the Mongol conquest. The main factor was much simpler. The Central Asian leaders weren't just looking for ways to fill their coffers, but also for some security in the event of problems like the uprising in Andijan, Uzbekistan, in 2005 or the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. In short, they were looking for a "krysha" -- literally "roof," but a form of protection in Russian slang.

In the search for a krysha, the Central Asian rulers had two options.

The first was the United States, which still has military bases in the region. But a close look at the U.S. performance in Iraq and Afghanistan was unlikely to give them the impression that the U.S. military machine offered much in the way of protection.

The possibility of a U.S. defeat in Iraq and of a retreat on a broader geopolitical front cannot be understood without examining the "Rumsfeld doctrine" and its ultimate collapse. The end of the Cold War was seen by most Americans not as a windfall put in motion by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and accomplished by President Boris Yeltsin, but as legitimate confirmation of the efficacy of U.S. policy, including its military doctrine. The doctrine, named after former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, assumed that U.S. technological preponderance would form the basis for victories ahead. Future wars would involve conflicts between machines and computers more than traditional, human soldiers.

The doctrine seemed to work well enough -- even before it was formulated -- in the 1999 bombardment of the former Yugoslavia. The United States was the first country in the post-Cold War era to engage in a "preventive" war. U.S. President George W. Bush, therefore, is less the spiritual descendent of President Ronald Reagan, as was claimed, than of President Bill Clinton. So the strategy was the logical outcome of the general geopolitical designs of U.S. leaders (both Democratic and Republican) and should not be attributed just to Bush. Things went well: The Serbs capitulated quickly after a few bombing raids, and NATO losses were minimal. The application of the same strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq has not worked.

At the beginning, things seemed to be going marvelously well. The Taliban forces in Afghanistan disintegrated in a few days, and Saddam Hussein's plan to transform Baghdad into a new Stalingrad went nowhere. Bush cheerfully made his "Mission accomplished" speech and the neoconservatives were dreaming of a blitz to Damascus and Tehran. But things soon went awry. The multiethnic and multidenominational residents of Iraq, and of Afghanistan in particular, found it easier to survive amid the destruction wreaked on their cities than had the residents of Belgrade. For quite a few Afghans, the expression "bombed back to the Stone Age" is meaningless, as the Stone Age has not been put that far in the past there.

Both countries were also more resistant in another respect. They have been the scenes of horrific violence for generations, so killing and death have become almost common. Only the brutal rule of Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan provided some modicum of stability and order, regardless of the cost. As soon as they were removed, chaos followed. The Iraqis became engaged in a brutal guerilla civil war and terrorist attacks against the Americans and each other.

The entire American military strategy crumbled: In dealing with guerrillas and terrorists, sophisticated weapons and computers are about as useless as they are in fighting crime in "bad neighborhoods" in big U.S. cities. Russia might have something to offer here. The Russian armed forces, according to some analysts, are in better shape today than five or 10 years ago. It is not military modernization but its widely criticized pre-modern character that makes it a better krysha than U.S. forces.

The problem is that U.S. soldiers are few in number and favor working from their bases and venturing outside them only in armored vehicles. It is a different case with the Russian army, which is still, like in Soviet times, based on conscription and can provide the commander-in-chief with as much cannon fodder as he needs. Soldiers patrol the countryside on foot, so their chances of engaging and defeating the enemy are much better than those of U.S. soldiers. They are also more likely to get killed, but this is not as big a problem when there are so many more who can be sent. Proof that this is the case has already been provided in Chechnya.

Prior to the American invasion of Iraq, the war in Chechnya was seen as a complete failure. Given the U.S. experience in Iraq, things look different. Whereas the United States is talking about pulling out after just four years, Russia has managed to sustain an almost 15-year conflict with much higher losses, and it continues to smolder. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov is a convenient thug, who, with his own cutthroat army, does at least part of the dirty work for the Russians. "Chechenization" has fared much better than "Vietnamization" or "Iraqization."

And this is what the Central Asian rulers saw when they looked at the U.S. military machine. They realized that it shares the attributes of many other U.S. products. From automobiles to health service and education, U.S. goods carry a hefty price tag and are marketed well, but are often of dubious quality. Under the conditions, Russia's wares looked more attractive.

Russia's place as the chief patron in Central Asia will also come at a price: Like the United States, Russia is now likely to become the target of the Islamists.

Dmitry Shlapentokh is a professor of history at Indiana University.