In his work—on Central Asia and recently on Ukraine—Jesse Driscoll focuses on war and post-war. The conflicts of the 1990s in Georgia and Tajikistan and the conflict in Donbas that preceded the war in Ukraine can be analyzed from domestic and outside angles and Driscoll has studied both.
Jesse Driscoll is an area specialist in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Russian-speaking world. He is an associate professor of political science and serves as chair of the Global Leadership Institute at UC San Diego. In his first book, Warlords and Coalition Politics in Post-Soviet States (Cambridge University Press, 2015), Driscoll shows how, after relatively brief periods of anarchic violence in Georgia and Tajikistan, well-functioning internal hierarchies emerged. His more recent book, co-authored with Dominique Arel, Ukraine’s Unnamed War: Before the Russian Invasion of 2022 (Cambridge University Press, 2023), was published shortly after the war between Ukraine and Russia began.
Russia’s invasion on February 24, 2022, did not come out of nowhere, and as it continues to destabilize the regional order, it raises many questions pertaining to Central Asia: How stable are the Central Asian countries and their elites? Could a Donbas scenario take place in Kazakhstan? Are Central Asians susceptible to Russian narratives? Do they need their own security arrangement?
Your first book, Warlords and Coalition Politics in Post-Soviet States (Cambridge University Press, 2015), focused on the processes of state-building after war. Your case studies were Georgia and Tajikistan. Today, a larger war is going on in Eurasia. How do you envision that this will affect the regional order? Some regionalization occurred after the initial post-Soviet breakup—are we now witnessing a complete breakdown of the order centered on Russia?
Obviously, that’s a very big question, and it requires speculating about the future, which is a little irresponsible. As social scientists, we should all begin our answers to questions like this by saying “I don’t know” or “It’s far too early to tell.”
My first book really focuses on the 1990s, as you know. During that time, I think it’s very safe to say that the model of order with Moscow at the center was hegemonic. Hub-and-spoke was a familiar way of thinking. It was how you would naturally want to organize things in terms of an imperial metropolis, and from a practical perspective, it was also necessary. Russia was volatile at the time and keeping good relations with Yeltsin was much more important than, frankly, anything going on in the periphery. For arms control, and for predictability (not having him replaced and having to deal with whoever came after him, which might have been the Communists again in the mid-1990s), this was a major priority—more major than much else. It also deserves to be said that we figured out quickly that something transactional would have to happen with Russia when it came to managing the UN Security Council. I believe that it was in 1994 over Haiti that U.S. and Russian diplomats first had a friendly, but adversarial, conversation about trading votes in the UN Security Council on leadership in UN peacekeeping operations. The US wants Haiti to be led by the United States? “OK, you need to stop talking about Chechnya so much. We, Russia, will be doing our peacekeeping in Tajikistan and Georgia, and you, the US, you’ll be doing your peacekeeping over there in the Caribbean.”
So the language of “spheres of influence” is, of course, nineteenth-century language, and I’m not trying to employ it to offend anyone, but I think that there was a way in which the UN Security Council meshed with the rise of UN peacekeeping operations in the 1990s, and it did, kind of, softly re-enter that, “creeping in” on a spheres-of-influence mode of thinking. And that’s what my first book is about: what happens when the UN is Russia-led. And so when you compare Tajikistan to Georgia, you hold the Russian presence constant but compare Tajik adaptations to Georgian adaptations. It was taken for granted, however, that the UN as a peacekeeping, war-termination machine would be a Russian-led enterprise in the territory that had recently been the Soviet Union. I think most people would remember that they saw that as natural. If there’s one thing that’s clear about the Ukraine war, it’s that a lot of Ukrainians don’t see that as natural.
Russia knew that the United States, after Tajikistan was rebuilt, was never going to try to kick Russia out and invite the Tajiks to join NATO.
I guess the other thing that I would say that’s relevant on this point is that in the early and mid-1990s, the period that is the primary focus of my first book, no one was really talking about NATO expansion in the Caucasus or Central Eurasia. Part of why there was such an easy complementarity of interests between the United States and Russia in the -stans was that Russia knew that the United States, after Tajikistan was rebuilt, was never going to try to kick Russia out and invite the Tajiks to join NATO. In Georgia, the competition between the West and Russia was a bit more obvious from the get-go, I think, so the shared interest in just putting anarchy to bed was less clear. Anyway, that was my first book.
Speculating about the future, another important moving part is that in this language about decolonization—which is really at the heart of what you’re asking about with a Russia-centric Eurasia—there are a lot of things that are still very much in flux about how this war is going to be rendered in the historical memory of people who are not Americans, not Russians, and also not Ukrainians. The third parties—those states that are on the, let’s call it the periphery, to use a bit of a loaded term—how are those people going to end up interpreting this? If you get all your news from Al Jazeera, or you live in Mumbai or Lima or Lagos, what are you thinking? What are you going to think happened in this war 10 years from now? This is not something that we can easily see, not yet.
So I’ll give you two examples of how big the split could be. On the one hand, if you are confident that what is going on in Ukraine should be framed as essentially a colonial war and a genocidal war, then you might actually have a moral and legal obligation to do certain things, starting with kicking Russia off the UN Security Council. You might need to get into certain parts of the international law architecture. If you really believe that this is a genocide, and some people really do, then it’s clear what we should be doing. There’s law there. That gives you one toolkit. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who remain very open to the idea that NATO somehow ginned this whole war up and poor little Russia just wants to be left alone. I think both of those narratives are going to stay in circulation. It’s not clear to me how we keep score in the game or how this gets rendered in historical memory. We in the West are sometimes tempted to declare victory early just because we think we know how the story ends.
I doubt Russia is going to disappear. Maybe it doesn’t disappear, but this is how Russia makes a radical break with the unattractive parts of its Putinist past and becomes a more attractive, affluent state. Maybe Russia becomes a better state, and then time passes, and people in Ukraine actually want to be part of a cooperative sphere of influence with a new Russian state voluntarily. I mean, again, I’m just making stuff up here, but the US and Vietnam are actually pretty good allies right now. Now that’s a long way off for Ukraine and Russia, but it’s something that’s dimly visible if you look at certain historical analogies. Decolonization is funny. It’s very violent while it happens, but then once it happens, sometimes you get a feeling of kinship from the violence where we actually have something in common, which is that we both respect each other militarily and we both know that we are worthy of that respect. That doesn’t happen all at once, and sometimes you just end up angry for decades that turn into centuries. Both can happen. There’s a lot of contingency there. Both can even happen at the same time, because those kinds of processes of reconciliation might take a really, really long time—if they occur at all.
Going back to your focus on civil conflicts, do you notice anything troubling in recent conflicts in Kazakhstan, in Uzbekistan or between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan? Could these internal conflicts be ignited just because there is general disorder on a larger scale?
Of course, I’m troubled by the violence. I’m especially troubled by what happened in Kazakhstan. That’s the first thing to say. It’s scary and unsettling.
That said, I don’t actually think that this is because of general disorder on a larger scale. I think that this is actually just the natural friction of complicated countries in a difficult neighborhood. And while every death is a tragedy, the truth is that a hundred people can die for more or less no reason in a messy conflict in a part of the world where angry people are interspersed, state borders are not well demarcated, and social/economic shocks are going to continue. So compared to those shocks, I don’t think it’s useful to talk about Tajikistan invading Kyrgyzstan. There are much bigger problems in Central Asia, potentially. I think the most dangerous, the most likely to lead to mass killing, are problems of an intrastate nature. I don’t know enough about what happened in Kazakhstan to say for sure, but it could have been much worse, I think. I worry about state breakdown in Central Asia, as much as anything else.
I have to say that I’m fairly bullish on the ability of Central Asian countries, at least at the level of their governments, when they have to overcome personal and ethnic differences. Even when the leaders clearly hate each other and their peoples are nationalistic, they can still basically shake hands and make problems go away because of their neighborhood problems. They all understand that the problems that would come from the spillover of a refugee crisis would threaten everybody’s political stability in ways that are not necessarily predictable, and certainly make everyone worse off.
There are many debates about the role of the CSTO. Does the region need a more robust security arrangement?
When it comes to security arrangements, they are all cooperative—that’s what is baked into the language of arrangements in international relations (IR). So let’s talk about demand and supply.
There are several questions here. Armenia flat out refused to host the CSTO just a couple of weeks ago. Kyrgyzstan canceled training drills in October, I believe. Superficially, the issue was Kyrgyzstan using the CSTO as a platform to amplify how mad they were about the Kyrgyz-Tajik border dispute. But it’s fairly clear to me that part of what’s going on is also Kyrgyzstan signaling to the West that “we’re not crazy about the CSTO at all.” Everyone is watching Ukraine very carefully. because it matters what Russia’s capability is going to be, how isolated Russia is going to be, what kind of ally or adversary Russia is going to be. The future of Russian power is being decided on the battlefield in Ukraine. That’s the demand side.
On the supply side, I think that the CSTO or something like it is probably never going to disappear. That’s because Russia is obsessed, and perhaps reasonably so, with its status in the world. That means that if there’s going to be a security-providing alliance that it will never be invited to join—and I’m talking about NATO—then Russia has to have its own security-providing alliance, which it can, in its national narrative, explain as its answer to NATO. Russians really imagine their great-power status as a vital part of their national identity. I’ve heard it said that “If the United States can break international law and invade Iraq, then we Russians should get to break international law and invade Ukraine.” And I think that argument really convinces a lot of Russians who really believe that, or something like it, deep in their spirits. It really convinces people. The best academic work I’ve read on this is Deborah Welch Larson and Alexei Shevchenko—they’ve got a set of articles that came together in a very good book called Quest for Status.
The United States, to be honest with you, has benefitted, at times, quite a bit from Russia having its own network. Sometimes we use that network, like when we needed to get a whole bunch of material out of Afghanistan quickly and couldn’t ask Pakistan, it was done with the cooperation of all the frontline states that are CSTO members. Sometimes multilateral organizations are just the best way to coordinate to get things done. To be clear, that doesn’t mean the US was using the CSTO for logistics, not exactly, but there is some kind of realist argument for cooperation on large problems. Again, to use the jargon of international relations theory, we sometimes talk about solving market failures with cooperation. These market failures are potentially related to some really big stuff that can have really bad implications if we get it wrong: arms control, intelligence-sharing for dark networks in the global war on terror; the nuclear non-proliferation regime; eco-refugees. The last one is especially scary to me with climate change. If there was a sudden shortage of fresh water in Central Asia and people started moving very quickly—10,000 people at a time—you would need to have some sort of transnational framework to stop people from getting crushed to death or dying from exposure. Militaries are the state capacity of last resort in such crises.
Now, does that have to be organized through the CSTO? No. You could imagine a new organization, but imagining it without Russia being a part of it raises the question of who is going to lead it. Is it going to be China? I mean, maybe—it’s not a rhetorical question—maybe it will be China. Will it be the United States? Probably not, actually. We are kind of a long way away. That doesn’t mean that we won’t want to help, but we are a long way away.
Central Asian elites have evolved from the openly criminal or corrupt individuals who captured those states in the early 1990s. At the very least, there has been a transition in almost all countries toward more national and rational state-makers. Do you see it this way? What do you think about the changes in the elites in Central Asia?
I do see it that way. I think you said it pretty well. I should also admit, since we were just talking about admitting uncertainty, I’m not someone who has studied elites in depth, not systematically. I would like to. I think it’s an accessible sample. I’m surprised that there’s not more descriptive work done on elites in Central Asia cross-nationally. It’s a good dissertation topic for someone.
That said, my basic observation in general is that you certainly have broad, sweeping sociological characteristics—more professional, much more likely to have attended schools like Georgetown, Columbia SIPA, Johns Hopkins SAIS, or the Harvard Kennedy School, or be advised by people who are, or have a resume leading to an OSCE Academy, or something like that. I think that they are probably less likely, though I’d need to check this, to have bank accounts in Russia; less likely to have multiple bank accounts in Russia. We could probably make some other sociological generalizations, too.
I will just make two points. First, in all of these societies, there is a great deal of authority that is what Samuel P. Huntington would have called an overlay of “traditional” patrimonial authority over the institutional power of the presidency.
The presidents of the -stans, with no exception I can think of, have a lot of power. It’s not always a cult of personality, but families matter a great deal. And we are talking about a lot of power. The sweeping claims about sociological characteristics of elites that I just gave a couple of moments ago, I don’t think they apply very well to Rustam Emomali in Tajikistan. Rustam is who he is: a 34-year-old bro who is the mayor of Dushanbe. He apparently likes soccer. He’s clearly being groomed for the big chair. And everybody kind of just takes for granted that he is going to end up with a lot of power in Tajikistan, and the reason that he’s going to end up with a lot of power in Tajikistan is that no one is entirely sure who else they are supposed to put in charge.
I’m not trying to trivialize it. That is a real problem that was worth writing a whole book about. Actually, it might be kind of arbitrary who ends up being the face of the franchise, because what you really want is for there to be a face of the franchise. Because the tournament of deciding who gets to be the face of the franchise is more violent than most people can easily imagine. It’s easy to caricature these regimes from a distance as neo-sultanist, and I never liked that. I think that doesn’t give enough dignity to the actual people who lived through some horrible circumstances before realizing that, yes, we don’t actually have a good alternative to letting it be Emomali’s son, because it’s better than nothing. Or consider Turkmenistan, which seems to just default to sultanism. Getting rid of Turkmenbashi when he passes, in favor of some uncharismatic technocrat caretaker? Pick anyone, and make sure it’s clear the process was arbitrary. Literally anyone is better. But then when it comes time for him to move on, it turns out they just pass power on to his son. I’ll admit that was strange to me, but nonetheless it solved a problem I’ll bet Hobbes would have recognized.
Maybe people at the tippy-top of the pyramid play by different rules than the elites you are asking about. They control huge assets. The enforcement of property rights is controlled by certain families, not others, and this is an interesting and noticeable trend in Central Asia.
I think the other thing I will say about elites in Central Asia is that they are increasingly networked into the diaspora outside of their states. The best thing you can do—and this isn’t just in Central Asia! —is get out. There is a huge sociological gap between the people who make it to a point in their lives where they begin to have life opportunities that actually eject them from Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan and let them join a roving cosmopolitan elite. That is what separates the 2% from the 98%. Most people never come close to getting a visa that might turn into a green card.
This is the politics of resentment within the societies on the part of the 98% of people who are left behind and do not have that mobility, and probably the resentment that cuts across the elites. So all of them are elite, but only some family members have that real transnational, cosmopolitan mobility that (I suspect) is one of the most interesting questions in these societies—and one that, frankly, outsiders can’t see or study as well as insiders because outsiders, almost by definition, never know exactly what the markers are that families are selecting for that maximize the probability of some kids being able to actually get out and other kids probably not doing, even though they are all elites. That’s all very interesting to me. I haven’t read a good book about that or seen a good paper about that.
What of the role of Russian diasporas in post-Soviet space? They have grown recently because of the new migration, but they also represent a risk, particularly in Kazakhstan: even though the Kazakhs and the Russians seem to be at peace, there are constant calls in Russia to check on the welfare of their fellow Russians in Kazakhstan. Could there be a similar scenario to Donbas in Kazakhstan?
I would honestly be surprised—for a couple of different reasons.
The first is that if there’s one thing I got out of writing this book about Ukraine, it’s that the Donbas problem did not spring into existence overnight. People sometimes forget that the Donbas, on the eve of the Maidan events, had peacefully captured control of the whole state. There were elections that were non-violent—and were basically okay. What happened was that people in the Donbas party were just totally ruthless about power-seeking, and they had, over the course of many years, methodically taken over the Ukrainian state. And then they pushed it a little too hard with the Eurasian Economic Union and you got Maidan—we know how the story ends. But that does not spring into existence. There’s no reason I can see why Kazakhs would be threatened by “their” Russians, and the threat of Russian influence is what got Maidan started in an existential way.
There’s no reason I can see why Kazakhs would be threatened by “their” Russians
Second, the people I know who are serious observers of Kazakh politics, such as Caress Schenk—I spoke with her just in December, and that conversation is in my mind—what Caress said is that when she talks to her students, she finds a whole bunch of people who are fairly inoculated against the Russian narrative. And this is heartening.
Third, another thing that I will mention is the work of David Laitin from the 1990s. He wrote a book called Identity in Formation that was very influential for me. (What can I say? He was my advisor.) His work on Kazakhstan emphasizes that the choice set for self-identified Russians in Western Kazakhstan is not just whether or not to fight the state to secede, with help from Russia. Often, the choice set is whether or not to exit: “I don’t want to assimilate into Kazakh culture because I’m a Russian and I think being a Russian is cooler than being a Kazakh, and I’m not going to become a Kazakh anyway. They have their Kazakh stuff—it’s cool, they like Genghis Khan. But I’m not someone who likes Genghis Khan. I’m a Russian, so I’m not going to assimilate into that. I’m trying to decide whether I should buy a house in the suburbs of St. Petersburg and leave.”
It’s the exit, or assimilate, or stick around and bargain choice set that is Laitin’s major contribution. He says, look, you’ve got all these Russians. It’s a beached diaspora—the borders of the Soviet Union shrink, and you’ve got all these little tide pools, funny little Russian-speaking, Russian-identifying political ecosystems. In Kazakhstan I think the puzzle is why there are so many who are still there. To the extent that it’s a puzzle at all, from a great distance (and respectfully recognizing that the distance is great), that’s the puzzle for me. I’m a little surprised that the demographics are so resilient that so many people have not voted with their feet and just left. I speculate the reason they have stayed may be straightforward, namely that Putinism is just so unattractive that no one wants to live in Russia! They would much rather be proud Russians who get to live in a place where the taxes are not as extractive and their phones are probably not tapped. They live in a place where they have the least possible amount of government and they also get to act proud to be Russian.
How about your new book, Ukraine’s Unnamed War: Before the Russian Invasion of 2022? Could you tell us what it is about? Is there anything in this war that surprised you or, on the contrary, bore out your earlier thoughts?
The first thing to say is that we did not write it after the invasion. My co-author, Dominique Arel, and I had been writing it for a really long time, and at the very last minute we actually had to make some changes to it because of the invasion. But the book is essentially about the roots of this war.
One of the things we have become accustomed to is that Russia’s invasion on February 24, 2022, was actually not the beginning of this war. War didn’t spring into existence out of nowhere—it emerged from intra-Ukrainian bargaining processes that have been going on for a long time, and into which Russia has often tried to insert itself. So that’s the first thing.
It’s a book that gives an account of the war arguing that the geopolitical crisis emerged, essentially, from the regime change in Maidan in 2013-2014. Then the book is kind of about how people responded to Maidan, and how they responded differently in Crimea, in the DNR and LNR areas (Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic) of the Eastern Donbas. Critically, the rest of the East and the South could have, but did not, tip into violence, so today it looks less like the DNR and LNR than it otherwise would have. That, in a nutshell, is what our book is about. We wanted to write about all the places in Ukraine where you have a lot of people who, on paper, would declare that they were Russian. Even more people in these places speak Russian at home than Ukrainian (or used to, before 2022). So Putin himself, and a lot of people surrounding Putin, see these people as a resource. Putin specifically (who has been clear, in his sinister way, that he views those people as Russian) thinks they should want to be part of his project.
But people are complicated, and they don’t necessarily want what Putin wants them to want. They have strategic abilities to not take part. That’s what the book describes. It gives a lot of agency to Russian-speakers in Ukraine in making a decision about whether they want to define themselves politically as Russians.
Sometimes they want to do this theatrically in order to bargain; sometimes they really want to join Russia and form militias and ask for Russian military help. But often, this can be resolved with institutional compromises that fall short of violence. The puzzle becomes why there’s violence and why there’s not.
Where the book ends up is the end result of a military stalemate and a state that has different de facto borders with Russia. The state of Ukraine has the same de jure borders according to most people’s interpretation of International Law, but different de facto borders. Once Ukrainians actually adapted institutionally to that new demographic reality, supercharged by war, what you ended up with was a state that was more Ukrainian. It was more Ukrainian culturally, linguistically, more Ukrainian in terms of how history is taught, perhaps spiritually, more Ukrainian in various ways. And all of this was a strategic institutional adaptation to choices that Russia made. Then Putin (and this is bizarre to us, but I guess it only matters that it makes sense to him) called those adaptations a genocide and said, “I have to invade Ukraine in order to protect my people.” That’s the move that has justified this entire war.
I guess I’ll just say it’s not a story many people know. In fact, the more of a Ukraine expert you are, the more likely you are to think legitimate Ukrainian history started in February 2014, with the Revolution of Dignity. To understand what people in the Kremlin think they are giving up if they stop fighting, you may have to wind the clock back further. A lot of people don’t, and won’t, because they don’t want to undercut Ukraine’s heroic war effort by trying to give equal time to the Russian position—and I understand that. The goal of our book is not to explain things from Russia’s point of view (pick it up; you’ll see).
Let me answer the questions about what did and did not surprise me about the war.
It didn’t surprise me that Zelensky was unwilling to budge at the last minute, even when the Germans and others were pushing very hard for Ukraine to just implement Minsk in order to try to make the problem go away and let the world move on. Because by that point he understood that Minsk was not really going to provide security guarantees for his country. It has also not surprised me one little bit how hard the Ukrainians have fought or, given all the assistance that they have received, how capable they have been in broad brushstrokes. They do know what to do with the assistance they have received. They are capable, as a society, of making huge sacrifices to protect their sovereignty. And frankly I’d be lying if I said any of that surprised me.
What surprised me? Like most military experts—like Michael Kofman, like Dara Massicot, like a lot of other people—I was caught completely flatfooted by the lack of Russian capability. Russian military ineptitude was revealed in different ways in the opening days, weeks, and months of the war.
Second, relatedly, I was surprised by Russian intelligence failures, their failure to really assess their own capability, and especially Ukraine’s will to fight—what I talked about above. Political scientists and economists have written important books on the dictator’s dilemma, like an important book by Ronald Wintrobe and another by Caitlin Talmadge of Georgetown, formerly of GW. It’s just really hard, when you’ve got a personalist dictator, to get the incentives right for intelligence collection, for giving straight answers to the boss, and so on. I can’t really describe the magnitude of this intelligence failure. It’s one thing for the United States to think we are going to be greeted as liberators in Iraq, but Iraq is kind of far away and we don’t speak Arabic. I don’t really know how Russia got Ukraine so wrong. Every time I think about it, it’s still a surprise to me. But if they knew they were not going to be greeted as liberators, Russian military planners could have done different things in the opening stages of the war. Ukraine hasn’t done everything right, but I’m glad, as a friend of Ukraine and as an American, that Russia did so much wrong.
I have been very surprised—pleasantly surprised—by the U.S. response, which in turn galvanized the European response and the NATO alliance. The United States really does seem to be in this for the long game. The Ukraine war, as an empirical fact, has just stayed in the public eye much longer than I expected it to. I get my news from the New York Times online, and there has not been a single day since the war started in February that it has not been on the front page. We are coming up on the one-year anniversary, and I think we will be able to say that it has been literally on the front page every single day.
On a personal note, for me, as someone who has devoted my adult professional life to writing about places such as Tajikistan, that’s extraordinary. Deeply unexpected. I’m used to thinking of the United States as a very distractible empire. I remember very vividly the 2009 Iranian presidential election protests, where there were people in Tehran holding up signs in English, trying to get people on CNN to pay attention to what was going on in Iran, and then what happened? Americans changed the channel. Michael Jackson died. Everyone switched to watching Neverland Ranch. I remember just having that experience really take the wind out of the sails of my younger self. I had devoted so much of my life, and so much of my energy, to Persian-speaking people in Central Asia. And I kept telling Tajiks’ stories, trying to get it right.
This 2022 war has been horrible in some ways, but it has had the opposite effect on me, and in a surprising way. It has given me a sense that I am part of a country that sometimes can get it right and cares to educate itself for the right reasons.