Rene — The new big game in Central Asia

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The new big game in Central Asia
By Vladimir Radyuhin
The Hindu, Friday, Jul 18, 2003
The U.S. has moved to put a bigger foot in the South Caucasus and
Central Asia… Russia has responded by boosting its military and
economic presence, and building multilateral security structures in
the region.
CENTRAL ASIA and the Caucasus are emerging as the new focal point
of rivalry between Russia and the United States in the wake of the
Iraqi crisis. At the heart of the new standoff are rich oil and gas
resources in the Caspian Sea basin, which may hold 100 billion barrels
of oil alone. Washington has already established a firm foothold in
the local hydrocarbon industry, with U.S. and joint U.S.-British
companies controlling 27 per cent of the Caspian’s oil reserves
and 40 per cent of its gas reserves. Last year, the Baku-Ceyhan
oil pipeline through Georgia and Turkey, America’s most important
Eurasian strategic initiative since the Soviet Union’s collapse,
was launched to bring Caspian oil to Europe bypassing Russia.
In the post-Iraq scenario, the U.S. has moved to put a bigger foot in
the South Caucasus and Central Asia. It has mounted a titanic effort
to revive GUUAM, a moribund economic and security group of five former
Soviet states, Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova,
set up four years ago as a counterweight to Russian influence. It
was largely thanks to U.S. diplomatic pressure that a long-delayed
GUUAM summit was held on July 3-4 despite the fact that three out
of the five heads of state failed to attend. Georgia’s President,
Eduard Shevardnadze, one of the two leaders who did come for the
summit, frankly admitted: “Without support of the Americans it
would be difficult to resolve the issues facing the organisation.”
The U.S. has pledged $46 million to support GUUAM projects in
anti-terrorist training, information exchange and in establishing a
GUUAM Parliamentary Assembly. A joint GUUAM-U.S. statement said that
both sides were “looking forward to a new level of joint cooperative
Georgia, which suspects Russia of trying to tear away its rebel
provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, has emerged as Washington’s
main ally in the region. Earlier this year, the Georgian Parliament
ratified a defence pact with the U.S. giving the American military
unprecedented rights to visa-free travel and free deployment of
troops, weapons and defence hardware on Georgian territory. Since
last year, American Green Berets have been training Georgian troops
in anti-terrorist operations. Last week, a NATO Air Force General
was in Georgia to seek its consent for AWACS planes, deployed at a
NATO base in Turkey, to patrol in Georgian airspace. American U-2 spy
planes have already made several flights along Georgia’s border with
Russia. This allows the U.S. to spy deep inside Russia’s territory,
including the North Caucasus, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.
The U.S. is reported to be nurturing plans to set up a military base
in oil-rich Azerbaijan and has encouraged Turkey to negotiate for
establishing its military bases in that country. Washington is trying
to win over even Armenia, Russia’s only staunch ally in the region,
with offers of military aid and joint training exercises with NATO.
In Central Asia, the Pentagon has recently resumed talks with
Tajikistan on the lease of three military bases in addition to the
two the U.S. established in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in the wake
of the 11/9 attacks. Last year, Tajikistan received $109 million
in economic aid from the U.S. and accepted its offer to renovate a
runway at Dushanbe airport.
Washington is also stepping up military assistance to the three Central
Asian participants in the NATO Partnership for Peace Programme –
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The NATO Secretary-General,
George Robertson, held talks in Kazakhstan last week on the opening
of two bases on its territory. Last year alone, the U.S. has pumped
over $900 million into Central Asia through various aid programmes.
Russia has responded to the U.S. push by boosting its military and
economic presence, and building multilateral security structures
in the region. Next month, a new Russian air force base is to be
formally opened in Kant, Kyrgyzstan, just 30 km from the U.S. base
in the capital, Bishkek. Preparations are also under way to set up a
Russian military base with its 201st division deployed in Tajikistan.
This will allow Russia to strengthen the network of its military
facilities in Central Asia, which also include the Baikonur cosmodrome,
the ballistic missiles test range in Kazakstan, and a major early
warning radar in Tajikistan. Russia has also moved to consolidate
its naval supremacy on the Caspian Sea with the planned induction of
dozens of new warships in its Caspian Flotilla over the next few years.
At the end of April, Russia and five other ex-Soviet states –
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Armenia and Belarus – transformed
the 10-year-old Collective Security Treaty into a full-fledged
regional defence pact. The Collective Security Treaty Organisation
(CSTO) will be modelled after the cold war Warsaw Pact in Eastern
Europe, complete with a joint headquarters and armed forces, and a
written commitment to repulse aggression against any member-state.
Interestingly, Iran’s Ambassador in Moscow earlier this month
discussed “possible cooperation” with the CSTO with its Russian
General Secretary, Nikolai Bordyuzha.
Russia is increasingly teaming up with China to build a security belt
in Central Asia and the Caspian to counterbalance U.S. presence in the
region. At the end of May, Russia, China and four former Soviet states
– Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – completed the
institutionalisation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO),
establishing the group’s permanent bodies, including a secretariat
to be based in Beijing, and a regional anti-terror structure. The
latter will be based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, side by side with a
Central Asian branch of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States)
Anti-terrorism Centre established last year. The SCO will hold its
first anti-terrorism exercise next month in Kazakhstan.
Russia also wants India to become a big player in Central Asia as a
balancing factor to both American and Chinese presence in the region.
It was with Moscow’s full support that Delhi built defence ties
with Tajikistan and invited the Tajik military to undergo training
in India. Russia has been lobbying for India’s admission to the
Shanghai Group and for close cooperation on regional security in the
Moscow-Delhi-Beijing triangle.
On the economic front, Russia scored a major coup against U.S.
interests in April with the signing of a mega-deal with Turkmenistan,
the world’s third biggest holder of proven gas reserves, for the
purchase of all of its gas exports during the next 25 years. The
deal gives a big boost to the Russian plan to set up an “OPEC for
gas,” with Russia providing the main channel for gas exports from
ex-Soviet states to Europe. This effectively kills a U.S.-backed
alternative trans-Caspian route via the South Caucasus and Turkey
to Europe and puts a big question mark over a plan to build a gas
pipeline from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan, another pet
project of Washington. The gas deal with Turkmenistan also opens the
way for Moscow’s project to supply Iranian gas to Afghanistan, which
would eliminate Iran as Russia’s competitor in European markets and
increase Teheran’s influence in Afghanistan.
The new Big Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus is gaining momentum,
but Russia is working hard to mitigate, if not to avoid altogether,
a confrontational scenario. In his trademark foreign policy style, the
Russian President, Vladimir Putin, is trying to find common ground and
shared interests with the U.S. even on most divisive issues. While the
U.S. is keen to increase its influence and involvement in the region,
its ability and willingness to take responsibility for dealing with
local conflicts, political instability and lack of democracy is
questionable. Neither the U.S. nor Europe has any workable plan,
for example, for resolving the bitter territorial dispute between
Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorny Karabakh enclave, or for
settling the problem of Georgia’s breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and
South Ossetia. It was Russia that helped put out the fires of war in
the region and sat the rivals down at the negotiating table.
Nor is the U.S. ready to use its military presence in Central Asia
to protect the local autocratic regimes from internal threats. If
anything, these threats have recently increased, as the Taliban rears
its head in Afghanistan and extremist Islamic movements in Central
Asia rally new supporters on the call to fight “American invaders.”
The opening of a Russian air force base side by side with the U.S.
base in Kyrgyzstan is a sign that the two countries may have agreed
on a division of responsibilities in the region: the U.S. deals with
external threats, while Russia takes care of internal stability. Mr.
Putin’s chances of turning Russian-American confrontation to
cooperation in Russia’s southern underbelly depend, among other things,
on how long the U.S. gets stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan.