Donald Trump’s victory has generated lots of questions but the key one is if he will change the United States’ policy on the post-Soviet area. In an interview to EADaily, Director of the Analytical Center of MGIMO Andrey Kazantsev has answered this and some other questions concerning Trump and Central Asia.
What advantages will Trump’s presidency offer to Central Asia?
Judging from Trump’s campaign, he is an isolationist. He believes that the United States must spend less on other countries and must earn more from trade with them. So, we can expect him to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and to cut assistance to Central Asia and Afghanistan, especially as it was Barack Obama’s strategy to send troops to Afghanistan and one of the executors of that policy was Hillary Clinton. She was Secretary of State when Obama criticized George W. Bush for shifting his focus from Afghanistan to Iraq and called it a big mistake as he thought it necessary to fight terrorism in Afghanistan. They shifted all effort to this goal then. And now if the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and Central Asia results in some outburst, it will be Obama and Clinton’s rather than Trump’s mistake.
Is he shifting the responsibility on them?
He may do this. But, for the moment, he does not seem to be very much concerned about this problem. He has just said that he will cut the U.S. foreign assistance. So, if he does this in Afghanistan and something happens, the one to blame will be Obama rather than he.
The situation in Afghanistan is already deteriorating…
Yes, it is. Some sources are reporting the growing presence of ISIL but this threat is not as big as, say, the strengthening of Al Qaeda.
Can the Taliban come back to power in Afghanistan?
If the Americans continue withdrawing their troops from that country and they are already moving some of their units to the Middle East… Well, Trump who said that they need to win over the terrorism in the Middle East will probably stick to this policy. If the United States withdraws troops from Afghanistan, chances that the Taliban may win become higher.
What then will Central Asia face?
They will face growing challenges. I don’t mean the Taliban. I think the latter will focus on Afghanistan. Even in the 1990s, they never attempted to go to Central Asia. I mean international terrorists. Some sources say that there are over 5,000 such terrorists in Afghanistan. Many of them are from Central Asia, Russia and China. They have contacts with Al Qaeda and ISIL. In 1999-2000, they attempted to invade into Central Asia – I mean the so-called Batken War in Kyrgyzstan. In the 1990s, there were lots of clashes on the Tajik-Afghani border. All this can recur. If this happens, Central Asia will face a challenge the region will not be able to confront considering its economic crisis.
Will it be an extra burden for Russia?
It will be a threat for Russia, China and Iran. Russia is traditionally responsible for Central Asia. The exercises the Russians are regularly conducting there under the Collective Security Treaty show that they are ready for such challenges. The groups I mentioned are small enough for the Collective Security troops to be able to neutralize them. But the problem is that not all of the Central Asian nations are signatories to the Collective Security Treaty.
Here we have one more serious geo-political problem. I don’t mean Russian-U.S. relations. I don’t think that Trump will drastically change the U.S. policy on Russia. He does not even care, he is a businessman. Here he will listen to those who will be his advisors and the one who will be his secretary of state.
I mean the attitudes Saudi Arabia and Qatar may take up should the Taliban revive in Afghanistan. They are keen to expand the Middle East conflict as far as Afghanistan and Central Asia. This is not their official policy but the interests of some of their ruling clans. The money those people are sending to ISIL and Al Qaeda shows that they would love to see the conflict covering Central Asia and Afghanistan and causing harm to Iran and Russia.
Will Trump continue the Obama-Clinton policy of confrontation with Russia and China in Central Asia?
There is no clarity here. The Chinese were also happy at Trump’s victory even though he made quite tough statements on China. But he mentioned economic ties and said nothing about defense. Most of the candidates for the post of Secretary of State are hawks with very hard-nosed attitudes. In any case, in the next six months, Russia and China may well face a window of opportunities in their relations with the United States.
Will Trump continue lobbying Obama’s projects, like CASA-1000 and TAPI?
They are already fading away because of the growing tensions in Afghanistan. For TAPI this is a serious challenge. Besides, the Americans are not the sponsors of those projects.
But they lobbied them, didn't they?
Yes, they did at some stage. But at that time, they had big hopes concerning Afghanistan. They believed that things might change there. They changed but in a way that TAPI is no longer on the agenda.
Are the U.S.-sponsored energy projects in Kazakhstan somehow involved in the new U.S. policy?
Yes, they are. They will be continued. The Americans do not regard Kazakhstan as Central Asia. For them Central Asia is part of South Asia. They have a division that deals with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan as parts of the problem of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Kazakhstan is a different story as it is much more developed than its southern neighbors. On the other hand, growing problems in Central Asia may cause additional risks for Kazakhstan. But in any case the Americans do not regard it as part of the Afghanistan package. The energy projects you have mentioned are meant for the Europeans rather than the Americans. The key consumer of Kazakhstan’s fuel is Europe, while for the Americans this is just business.