The Caspian Region in the COVID-19 Era: Implications for Security Policy and Regional Cooperation
During the Caspian Policy Center’s August 11 webinar discussion, the security challenges and policy implications for the post-COVID19 era in the Caspian Basin region were discussed by panelists from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and the United States.1 The webinar specifically focused on the security policy implications caused by the disease and the opportunities for regional cooperation.
The region remains a key transportation and logistics route for U.S. and European assistance to Afghanistan and its development. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with substantially depressed energy prices put additional budgetary pressure on regional governments struggling with widespread medical challenges created by the disease. Fiscal constraints have come at a time when there are ongoing terrorism problems in neighboring regions, border security challenges, and drug smuggling, which exacerbate internal security challenges and potential conflicts. Altogether, these developments could cause large-scale upheaval in the regional security landscape.
Existing multilateral institutions have proven invaluable to the nations and demonstrated their mutual worth during the crisis. Entities such as the C5+1, the Turkic Council, and the Non-Aligned Movement have all facilitated crisis communications for medical professionals, national policy professionals, senior leaders and decision-makers, and security officials.2 Specifically, regional leaders used the established communications channels available in the C5+1 and Turkic Council to report on COVID19 situations with fidelity to other regional leaders and decision-makers. Medical best practices, as well as border and customs issues, and logistics and supply issues were, and continue to be, discussed in these fora.
“The future came sooner than we expected,” as one panelist remarked.3 He was referring to the maturation of multilateral communications and crisis management in the established fora of the C5+1 and the Turkic Council. Everyone, including the United States, envisioned the respective entities to be a practical consultative body for episodic engagements among regional leaders, as had been practiced in the past. However, their utility for discussing crisis response measures along these established lines of communication proved to be resilient, reliable, and effective for communicating among the nations over the past several months.
Ironically, the C5+1 has demonstrated it can and does work well without the United States present and directly involved. The strategic value and importance of multilateral fora for the discussion and coordination of major transnational issues have come to the fore during this crisis. In the future, the Caspian nations ought to continue to look for issues that present opportunities for multilateral engagements and cooperation on and across borders.4
The United States has a unique role in this regard. Through its diplomatic and military capacities it is able to work both bi- and multi-laterally with its regional partners to facilitate the broader regional discussions through focused agenda conferences and workgroups. The take-away point for the United States is to look for issue-based formats such as COVID-19 to advance the U.S. connections with the region.5
The reality confronting the region is that the security threat from highly communicable diseases is agnostic to nationalities in that “biological threats do not recognize borders.”6 Transnational terrorism and drug smuggling also have no regard for borders and directly affect the security landscape of the region. One panelist noted that diplomacy could continue with the assistance of technological means during a crisis but at a degraded level. The collateral engagements that happen on the margins of larger meetings and visits are often the most substantive, but currently are what is missing.
This was contrasted to the opportunities for useful military engagements in the region that mostly require face-to-face engagement, particularly at the senior leader levels. The practical work of bi-and multilateral military training, equipment provision and training, and schooling in the United States have all been substantially curtailed and thus reducing the engagements and maintenance of relationships among the U.S. and the Caspian nations.7
The U.S. long-term strategy in the region remains as it has been for many years. “The objectives remain: strategic partnerships, defense of the U.S. homeland from terrorist and other threats, and prevention of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”8 However, one panelist noted that the countries in the region are challenged in supporting the United States by both Russia and China. In fact, for his country, the U.S.-China relationship is the primary concern, while the U.S.-Russia relationship is a distant second. For his nation (and, presumably, others), it is a delicate balancing act on how to engage the United States, China, and Russia.9
The success of the C5+1 in fostering deeper connections between the Central Asian states demonstrates the positive impact of U.S. engagement. The creation of such bonds between the Central Asian states also strengthens the countries against malign outside influence from state and non-state actors, while creating a stable bloc beneficial to the U.S. national interest. The region requires continued U.S. assistance in dealing with the fiscal pressures caused by terrorism, drug smuggling, and COVID-19.
The creation of multilateral fora between countries of the Caspian basin with which the United States can hold meetings will strengthen the sovereignty of these countries, as well as provide a framework conducive to safe investment. A secure Caspian will not easily be manipulated by foreign adversaries, while also acting as a powerful ally against terrorism. It is in the United States’ national interest to develop new fora of cooperation between these countries, to create a strong, secure, and sovereign Caspian region.
1 Caspian Policy Center Discusses the COVID-19 Implications for Security Policy and Regional Cooperation with Foreign Policy and Security Experts from Washington and the Greater Caspian Region.” Caspian Policy Center. 11 August 2020, https://www.caspianpolicy.org/press-release-covid-19-in-the-caspian-region-implications-for-health-policy/ (retrieved 18 August 2020).
2 C5+1 members: United States of America, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Turkic Council Members: Azerbaijan, Hungary, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan. Regional members of the Non-Aligned Movement: Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan
3 Ambassador Emin Suleymanov, Ambassador of the Republic of Azerbaijan to the United States of America
4 Laura Cooper, US DASD for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia
5 Ambassador Henry Ensher, U.S. Department of State, in his closing remarks as the moderator, noted that the U.S. should seek opportunities to identify “…issue-based formats to advance our connections in the region.”
6 Laura Cooper.
7 Mr. Clark Adams, the Director for Central Asia Policy in the U.S. Department of Defense, discussed the importance of relationships and the tools the U.S. Defense Department uses to engage the region.
8 Laura Cooper.
9 Iskander Akylbayev, Executive Director of Kazakhstan Council on International Relations