With the break-up of the USSR, its five Central Asian republics – Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan – have emerged from more than a century of Russian and Soviet domination. These five countries, which in modem times have never enjoyed the status of independent actors in international politics, have started to define their geopolitical orientation. The outcome, indeed the very process, threatens to alter political and military equations from China to the Persian Gulf.
Even for the distant West, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of Central Asia, for the region directly affects countries and causes that are of strategic concern to the United States and its allies. With an area roughly half the size of the United States, Central Asia borders on Russia, China, Afghanistan, and Iran; and it is separated from Pakistan only by a thin stretch of land. Its population of 50 million is chiefly Turkic, but some of them also have strong ethnic, linguistic, and cultural ties to Iran. The predominant religion is Islam. Economically, the region is poor but possesses extensive and still largely unexplored natural resources, including natural gas, oil, gold, and uranium. Unlike many underdeveloped areas, Central Asia has a significant technical and scientific intelligentsia and facilities of potentially considerable military importance. Not least, the region is home to a large contingent of ex-Soviet military units, with large stocks of weapons and military equipment.