21st Century Geopolitics in Central Asia: A Review door Joshua FOUST op The Conjecturer, april 2006.
Central Asia is the geographic center of Asia, literally the middle half of the Silk Road, and a strategically vital region to almost every major country on earth. It sits on vast reserves of oil, has access to critical states like Iran and Afghanistan, and is hotly contested by Russia, China, India, the U.S., and even Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan.
Examining the current body of literature on the region can shed some light on broad historical patterns, but there has simply been too much turmoil, too much fluidity for any of the literature to accurately reflect the current picture. In short, while Russia is still in a mad scramble for influence and China and India desperately seek new sources of oil, the US has had to shuffle its military assets and seen its influence wane, if only temporarily. In the midst of this, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan have all inhabited shifting places on the hierarchy of U.S. alliances, and all of these changes have happened over the last six or seven months. As such, there is a lot of disagreement over the future of Central Asia and the nature of international competition—whether it will continue on its present course of a Sino-Russian sphere of influence, or whether it reverses itself again toward the U.S./India side of things, remains to be seen.
The purpose of this literature review is to examine the current body of scholarship on the emerging geopolitical situation in Central Asia and to highlight where further work is needed. In a sense, the current scramble for influence and control of resources and local powers is eerily reminiscent of the Great Game of the 19th Century, only it is critically different in several aspects:
1. The British Empire is not a player
2. The Central Asian states themselves did not formally exist before 1991
3. While Russia sees this as a strategic game of vital interests, the U.S. does not—think of chess versus checkers
4. China was not a player in the 19th century, as it was wrapped up with its own affairs
5. India is an under-studied actor exerting increasing influence on the region.
These new folds to the Central Asian game mean that it is difficult to predict what the final fallout of “the game” will be, and that policy makers will be hard-pressed to craft workable solutions in the short and medium term. After an overview of the basics of geopolitics as they relate to Central Asia, I will show the current thinking on Russian, Chinese, American, Indian, and local geostrategic concerns.
Any discussion of international politics in Central Asia must include Russia and the Great Game. Even ignoring the fact that the five “Stans” (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) were republics of the Soviet Union, Russia has had an interest in the region dating back centuries. During the course of the Great Game, Russia conquered the territories that now comprise the five independent republics, making them Russian colonies (Hopkirk, 1994). This was in part due to a sense of “destiny” (roughly analogous to Manifest Destiny in the American west during the same time frame), and in part due to a desire to achieve access to a warm water port. It was also a play to keep the British Empire out of Russia’s affairs—at the beginning of the 19th century, 2,000 miles separated the Tsarist and British Empires, but by the 20th century, only 20 kept them apart (ibid.). This history of Russian conquest and influence in the area is vital to understanding its current stance.
This tension between the two Great Powers was captured in some academic circles. At the turn of the 20th century, a British geographer, Sir Halford Mackinder, published the familiar “Heartland” theory, in which control of the Eurasian heartland—essentially the region occupied by the Russian Empire and later Soviet Union—would automatically lead to control of the world through the use of land power (Mackinder, 1904). In essence, Mackinder argued that advancing technology would enable the land powers of Eurasia to overcome the sea powers of the Columbian epoch (i.e. the British). If Europe were ever to unite with Russia, he argued∗, an unstoppable world power would result. As such, the strategy of the British Empire should be to keep Eurasia divided—especially Germany and Russia—and thus prevent the rise of a major land power in Asia (Mackinder, 1919).
From an American perspective, Mackinder’s pivot fit in nicely with Alfred Mahan’s conception of the role of ocean dominance. He claimed that sea power was the driving force of international politics (Mahan, 1890), and that control of the sea meant control of the world (ibid.). While his purpose was to replicate the success of the British Empire in the United States, Mahan hit upon a strategy similar to Mackinder’s: keep Russia divided from the rest of Eurasia and it will not become a rival power (Mahan, 1905). Both American and British nervousness about Russian expansionism were well founded: as of 1900, Russia had been expanding its territory by an average of 35 square miles per day for 400 years.
Around this same time, Norman Angell published a book called The Great Illusion: A Study of the Relation of Military Power to National Advantage. Here, Angell argued that any total war in the modern industrial era would result in untold devastation (Angell, 1909). Since it was written right before World War I, Angell seemed to be saying that Great Power conflict was ultimately futile, since neither power could actually gain from warfare. World War I seemed to confirm this idea, and many hoped that the period of Great Power warfare was over. The Cold War seemed to prove otherwise, and it wasn’t until its end nearly 70 years later that such a realization was borne out.
After World War II, the idea of containment came to dominate American strategy. Similar to Mackinder’s Heartland theory and based upon Mahan’s notion to keep Russia divided, American policy makers began the Cold War by trying to counter Soviet expansionism (Kennan, 1947). During this time, the Soviet Union created buffer states, or states meant to serve as protection against future invasion. Nicholas Spykman explored this in great depth in America’s Strategy in World Politics: The United States and the Balance of Power:
But willingness to support other states has not been motivated solely by a desire for security of a frontier or a zone of special strategic significance, but also by a desire to stop the expansion of some great state which after further growth might become a menace (Spykman, 1942: 19).
This type of strategy was in existence for most of the Cold War, and applied directly to Central Asia—indeed, it was widely speculated that the annexation of Afghanistan was in fact an attempt to create a buffer zone along the Soviet Union’s southern border (Partem, 1983). Ever since the collapse of the USSR, however, the situation has changed dramatically—Russia feels constrained on all sides, squeezed by NATO expansion and American inroads with former Soviet Union states (Friedman, 2004). Russia is at its smallest geographical extent since 1700, and feels its ability to remain a cohesive state is at risk (ibid.).
Indeed, a brief look at how Russia is reacting to the changing strategic environment in its “Near Abroad” (a region that encompasses all the former Soviet Republics, and includes Central Asia) shows how threatened Russia feels. “Russia’s contemporary geopolitical position,” explained Alexei Mitrofanov, a member of the Duma and deputy chair of the Duma Defense committee, “is comparable to that which it experienced during the critical year of 1942—in other words, Russia is in a life or death struggle… a geopolitical Stalingrad” (Weitz, 1998). Mtrifanov goes on to state his fear of increased American and Turkish influence in Central Asia, and the desperate need to counter American attempts to keep Russia down and out of Central Asia (ibid.). In other words, many Russian policy makers and politicians feel that the current wave of globalization and westernization represents an existential threat to Russia.
Such fear is not misplaced. Over the past decade, the Central Asian states have been witness to political and economic upheavals, ethnic polarization, Islamic extremism (especially in the contested Ferghana Valley), corruption, and civil war (Roy, 2001). Although the Central Asian states remain heavily tied to Moscow, the historical legacy of Russian control is only just now being worked out in the region: for much of the 90’s, Russia was so preoccupied with its own internal strife it was unable to focus much attention on the situation along its southern border (ibid.). Although regional structures like the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) have attempted to draw them together, the Central Asian states remain fragmented and in disunity.
But what does Russia hope to accomplish in the area? Its goals in the region are fairly easy to ascertain. For the most part, it wishes to maintain its influence in the Near Abroad, with “good neighborly relations and strategic partnership” with the CIS states (Putin, 2000). “A priority area in Russia’s policy is ensuring conformity of multilateral and bilateral cooperation with the member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States to the national security tasks of the country” (ibid.). One of these tasks is maintaining control of regional assets, such as oil fields and minerals (Weitz, 1998). Another is maintaining, in a sense, the racial superiority of Russia—policy makers are keen to prevent the “yellowing of Russia” as Muslims continue to grow and reproduce while European Slavs experience negative growth (Robbins, 1993). Russia is very concerned about the growth of Islamism in the Central Asian states, and sees unity under Islam as a grave threat (ibid.). In addition, comparatively new threats like narcotics trafficking, WMD proliferation, and environmental degradation are challenges to which Russia is not well suited (Lubin, 1999). Even ignoring the serious problem of opium trade coming from Afghanistan, the severe health and weather patterns from the drying Aral Sea, as well as the continuing de-nuclearization of Kazakhstan pose serious issues for Russia. These “new twist” problems greatly complicate Russia’s relationship with its former states, as it has little direct control over enforcement or prevention (ibid.).
Russia isn’t alone—China, too, has been asserting itself in the area for well over a decade. Indeed, China saw the collapse of the USSR and the emergence of independent republics as an “opportunity to reassert traditional regional interests” by “delinking local and regional conflicts… to create a multipolar world in which U.S. power declines relative to that of regional powers” (Walsh, 1993: 273-4). China’s big concern is that ethno-nationalism and radical Islam could destabilize the Northwest provinces (Gansu and Qinghai) and the Autonomous Territories (Ningxia, Xingjian, and Tibet). Because these outlier territories are so important to China’s nuclear strategy, space program, and laogai (labor camps), China is quite unwilling to allow external factors to affect politics locally (ibid.). The threat of ethnic conflict is not an idle one, either—while in recent years China has successfully cracked down on dissent of all stripes under the banner of “anti-terrorism,” local separatist movements, especially in the Ferghana Valley, have been courting the cooperation of angry Uighur nationalists (Atal, 2003:103). Keenly aware of the impact of Christianity and Falun Gong, China is extremely nervous about allowing the spread of Islamic extremism into its borders.
China also has an interest in building energy and economic ties to Central Asia. The incredible reserves of oil and natural gas, as well as the region’s natural geography as a commerce corridor, make it extremely attractive to Chinese strategists (Goldstein, 2005). The formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was meant to establish these ties, by linking all the states of Central Asia into a loose economic union with China. The need for petrol, concerns over the construction of an oil pipe to Kazakhstan, and alarm over Japan’s cozy relationship with Russia’s gas companies, all have been factors in China using the SCO to try to gain some sort of strategic foothold in the area (ibid.). China has even taken to buying Central Asian energy companies: after the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) failed to buy Unocal due to domestic concerns in the U.S., it managed to buy PetroKazakhstan, establishing a strong Chinese presence in the country (Blank, 2005).
However, China has run smack up against a United States determined to become dominant. It has been rather forcibly pushed out of the region during the campaign in Afghanistan as some states either left or drastically reduced their commitments to the SCO for basing deals (Blank, 2002). In the face of such strategic friction with the U.S., China and Russia have been flirting with a renewed partnership—both see the region as a common geopolitical interest, and both see Muslim incursion as a major security threat (Blank, 2000). Indeed, Russia has been involved in several major SCO summits, and possibly sees the formation of an informal alliance as a way to form a Sino-Russian geopolitical bloc in Central Asia, or at the least as a way to thwart U.S. attempts at regional hegemony (Cutler, 2001).
Why would Russia and China see the U.S.’s presence as such a threat? In short, it is a resource scramble: all three players want access to non-Arab oil, and Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan offer access to huge amount of it (Brzezinski, 1997). “An important part of U.S. policy is to deny Russian… monopoly in the development and export of regional energy resources and to secure alternatives to Persian Gulf oil” (Atal, 2003: 105). The U.S., too, has a keen interest in maintaining the “geopolitical pluralism” of the region and preventing Russian dominance (Brzezinski, 1997: 139). The contrast between this attitude and that of Russia’s is important: while Russia tends to see “the New Great Game” as a low-intensity, soft-power battle for dominance and survival, the U.S. sees it as merely a grab for usable resources and convenience. Put another way, Russia is playing for keeps, while the U.S. is playing for fun (for lack of a better term). The United States is acting in the region in its own interests, and it seems those of the local states as secondary at best—the drive for oil, in particular, is not out of some desire to infuse the regimes with cash, but rather to develop a non-Arab source of oil (Olcott, 2003).
The resource scramble has been complicated recently by the military campaign in Afghanistan. In the process of bombing the country, the U.S. negotiated basing deals with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, indicating it had a much more long-term goal: containing Russian and Chinese influence (Cutler, 2002). Again, this containment policy is not analogous to Kennan’s Cold War policy of the same name—far from preventing the spread of an adversarial ideology, the U.S. is instead simply trying to prevent political or economic domination by any one rival country. The tricky part is that in many ways, Russia is powerless to prevent the spread of US influence: while a country like Kazakhstan has deep social and historical roots in and with Russia, ultimately it sees its future better assured by close relations with the United States (Atal, 2003: 101). This, too, is a consequence of Russia’s shortsighted policies as the Soviet Union. “Since Soviet times, Central Asia’s natural fuel resources, including oil and gas, have been looked upon as competition by Russian interests, which have promoted and developed Siberian sources instead” (ibid.). In other words, instead of developing Central Asian resources and thus ensuring close ties after the fall of the USSR, it instead merely saw them as backwater upstarts after Slavic pieces of the economic pie. And Russia has been struggling to compensate for it ever since.
The role of security and democratization in U.S. policy cannot be discounted, either. Extremely recently, Condoleezza Rice has made support for democracy movements a major policy platform of the State Department (Rice, 2006). “The past 60 years of trying to buy stability at the expense of democracy is now gone,” she said. “The United States is… dedicated to the proposition that human beings desire democracy and they ought to be supported in that desire” (ibid.). At the same time, the U.S. is very concerned with “exporting security,” which can involve anything from foreign port operations to personnel exchanges to “a belief in the future” (Barnett, 2004: 231). While the vagueness of this concept can make it frustrating to quantify and therefore study, there is little doubt that both seemingly contradictory ideals—promoting possibly disruptive democratizations movements and the stability of a strong U.S. presence—play major roles in foreign policy. Additionally, the impact of these policies on the strategic interests of the other players in Central Asia is still unclear, as it is still far too soon after their announcement to really tell.
The Central Asian Republics
How do the republics themselves handle all of this foreign interest in their countries? It is a tricky question, as the Central Asia states “do not view themselves through the same prism that we do” (Zinni, 2000). Each state has its own conception of its identity and its place in the region. Delicately laid on top of this fracturing regional identity, however, is a sense of adversarial regionalism, pitting Kazakhstan as the prime balance to a U.S.-friendly Uzbekistan (Bohr, 2004). How this has changed in recent months, however, given President Karimov’s decision to expel U.S. civilian and military assets as retaliation for criticism over the massacre in Andijon, is not yet apparent. Similarly, given the increased U.S. presence in Kyrgyzstan and fraying ties with Kazakhstan as President Nazarbayev cracks down on democracy activists, the current situation is extremely difficult to portray. Nevertheless, the major regional countries—Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan—still have long-term strategic patterns that may not change very much.
Kazakhstan is perhaps the most important country in the region, as it sits on the lion’s share of the region’s energy reserves and is the U.S.’s closest strategic partner (Khidirbekughli, 2003). Kazakh-U.S. ties go back to the early 90’s: though the U.S. has been sending military advisors to ex-Soviet states since at least 1994, the real kicker to the U.S. establishing a presence in the region was Kazakhstan’s signing up for the NATO Partnership for Peace program in 1996 (Lawson, 2004: 11). By 1997, not only had the U.S. sent Kazakhstan a fast patrol boat for it’s miniscule Caspian fleet, but had conducted a dramatic joint exercise: 500 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division were flown in C-17 Globemaster transports non-stop from their base in North Carolina to the middle of the Kazakh desert outside Shymkent. It sent a very clear message: the U.S. was serious about its ties with Central Asia. It also demonstrated, along with copious amounts of American investment in Tenghiz oil fields, that the U.S. was committed to the Kazakh state. This is unlikely to change.
Uzbekistan is hugely important as well, both because it is the most populous country in the region, and because it is centrally located and shares borders with every single other state. Politically, it is somewhat at odds with Kazakhstan, as it tends to be much more authoritarian and less pluralistic (Challenges, 1998). At the same time, it has aspirations to regional dominance and a larger military budget than all the other Central Asia states combined (ibid.). Despite all the recent friendly gestures northward, it remains unlikely Uzbekistan will become a client state of Moscow (Ahari, 1996)—there is simply too much history, too many sour memories of its time in the Soviet Union. Indeed, despite the changes in the region Uzbekistan’s overall strategy has not changed very greatly. “Well before September 2001, Russia was being overshadowed in the region by the United States and by the Central Asian states’ own broader engagement with other European and Asian states” (Olcott, 2003: 5). Over the past six months, Uzbekistan has kicked out foreign aid workers, evicted the U.S. military, and managed to get travel restrictions to Europe placed on its top officials. Since most of the literature about Uzbekistan’s role in the region is based around its close relationship with the United States and the west, this recent turn of events is difficult to unravel, and its ultimate impact may not be felt still for years. It is clear, however, that the loss of the airbase in southern Uzbekistan is a major blow against U.S. influence in the area (STRATFOR, 2006). Despite this, Uzbekistan is still trying to maintain some sort of neutral position as the primary local player (ibid.).
One understudied player in the region is India. Most had ignored India as an unrelated piece of South Asia, until late last year India lost a bid on PetroKazakhstan. The Indian state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation reportedly narrowly lost a bidding war with the CNPC (Blank, 2005) and ever since the South Asian nation has been scrambling for energy resources. “With its energy requirements skyrocketing, India’s attention is now focused on tapping Iran’s and Turkmenistan’s reserves. According to some estimates, India’s daily oil imports will rise more than three-fold by 2020, from the current level of 1.4 million barrels per day. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is on record as saying; ‘energy security is second only in our scheme of things to food security’” (ibid., 2005). India is also in talks with Pakistan about constructing oil pipes from both Iran and Central Asia—something that will dramatically alter the economic landscape of the area. In recent years, too, India has adopted what is known as “the Gujral doctrine,” which stipulates that India grant unilateral trade concessions to the Central Asian states (Blank, 2003). India also has a compelling interest in containing ethnic strife and Islamic extremism, yet the full impact of its increasing presence in Central Asia is far from certain.
Conclusions, Recommendations for Further Study
For most of the 1990’s and the early 2000’s, the strategic picture in Central Asia was fairly simple: the U.S. was trying to create a pro-western zone, China was looking for more resources and influence, Russia was desperately trying to remain relevant, and each of the Central Asian states was trying to chart its own course while getting as rich as possible. Since September 11, however, the picture has been changing somewhat unpredictably: most scholars seemed to view the U.S.-Uzbekistan partnership, for example, as a rather long term commitment, but it barely lasted three years. Similarly, there was a great deal of disagreement over actual U.S. intentions in the area, such as whether its policies are truly hegemonic or merely self-interested. The same questions remain for Kazakhstan: Kazakhstan and the U.S. were strengthening ties, but recently China bought a huge stake in Kazakhstan’s national oil interests, while Moscow has been courting Astana for closer trade ties.
In fact, over the last 12 months, the strategic picture in Central Asia has become almost unrecognizable to one well versed in the literature from even 2003. News reports capture bits of this picture, and it is difficult to piece together a complete picture of what is really happening: since it is the last bastion of U.S. military presence in the area, Kyrgyzstan may well become the most important U.S. partner in the region, even while U.S. oil companies invest massive amounts of money into Kazakhstan’s oil industry. Similarly, Uzbekistan has recently increased its participation in groups like the SCO while extending a friendly hand to Moscow and pushing Washington out. China has managed impressive inroads in the region despite U.S. attempts to counter, and Moscow has been increasing its presence as well. There is little chance of outright war between any major powers—Angell was finally right in saying that it would eventually be seen as too costly—but the low-intensity conflicts (which amount to little more than annoying friction for the U.S., but represent vital interests to Russia) will certainly remain.
In the future, what is needed is a comprehensive survey of recent happenings in the area, ones that take account of both the broader historical trends of the area and the most recent events. In the past six months alone, there have too many reversals of policy, too many big changes in how the major powers interact with each other, for there to be an accurate picture of the geopolitics of Central Asia. There are big holes in the literature over the influence of Turkey and Iran, and the growing influence of Pakistan. Future study must incorporate these events to form a better idea of what is likely to happen down the road.
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