It was just about five years ago when President George W. Bush said he looked into the "soul" of his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, and pronounced that that their meeting was "the beginning of a very constructive relationship." Now, amid sharp geopolitical maneuvering in the Caucasus and Central Asia, the United States and Russia seem to be girding for Cold War II. Unlike the epic conflict during the last half of the 20th century, Washington is poorly positioned to defeat Russia in a new superpower standoff.
Talk of a revived Cold War followed US Vice President Dick Cheney's blistering attack on Russia in a May 4 speech in Vilnius, Lithuania. Cheney criticized the Kremlin for carrying out a drastic rollback of political rights, as well as using its energy infrastructure as "tools of intimidation or blackmail."
The bulk of Cheney's speech in Vilnius focused on the Bush administration's global democratization mission. The vice president used terms that, ironically, seemed to parallel the Marxist belief in determinism. "We have every reason for confidence in the future of democracy because the evidence is on our side, and because we are upholding great and enduring values," Cheney said. He lent a messianic tone to his comments by adding, "we are created in the image and likeness of God, and He planted in our hearts a yearning to be free."
Referring specifically to the former Soviet Union, Cheney indicated that the United States wants to "free this region from all remaining lines of division, from violations of human rights, from frozen conflicts," including the stalemated Caucasus wars in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia."
The vice president attempted to hedge his harsh words about the Kremlin's behavior, saying "none of us believe that Russia is fated to be an enemy." In Moscow, though, officials and media analysts were having none of it. The Kremlin termed Cheney's speech "completely incomprehensible," while Russia media outlets fulminated that Washington was trying to stoke a new Cold War. The Kommersant daily published a commentary that compared Cheney's comments to Winston Churchill's famed "Iron Curtain" speech in 1946. "The Cold War has restarted, only now the front lines have shifted," Kommersant said.
To a great extent, Cheney's words were merely a public admission of a trend that has been readily evident for at least two and a half years. The sharp decline in relations can be traced to the point when US forces began struggling to contain the insurgency in Iraq. It has long been clear to anyone who truly follows developments in the Caucasus and Central Asia that the two countries were antagonists, not allies. Both sides maintained the increasingly apparent fiction that they were partners when, in fact, they were competitors for political and economic influence in those two regions.
Cheney's comments on Russia are largely accurate: the Putin administration has indeed restricted individual liberties, and the Kremlin has certainly used state-controlled energy companies to increase its geopolitical leverage, especially in Central Asia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
But in picking a fight with Russia, the Bush administration seems to be making dangerous assumptions about the United States' current strengths and weaknesses, while ignoring the old Wall Street caveat that says "past performance does not ensure future results." It's already clear that a new-style Cold War if it unfolds, as now seems likely will be more economic than political and ideological in nature. And instead of the struggle focusing on Western and Central Europe, the epicenters of the new conflict stand to be the Caucasus and Central Asia. Given these factors, the United States is at a severe disadvantage as it moves toward the next stage of geopolitical competition with Russia.
For one, Russia has a decided geographic advantage, as its territory borders the Caucasus and Central Asia. More importantly, as the United States has become bogged down in Iraq, Russian energy companies have made deep inroads into the Caucasus and Central Asia. Moscow even wields extensive influence over the energy infrastructure of Georgia, the closest US ally in the two regions. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In just the last few months, Moscow also has significantly reinforced its grip on energy export routes, the key to victory in the geopolitical struggle.
The United States has few mechanisms at its disposal to break the Russian stranglehold. Any chance of US success seems to be tied to the fate of two pipelines running through Azerbaijan and Georgia to Turkey; the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil route that opened in 2005; and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum natural gas link that is projected to open later this year. It appears that for both pipelines to accomplish their strategic aims, Kazakhstan must opt to ship a large amount of its abundant natural resources via those two routes.
After making his speech in Vilnius, Cheney flew to Kazakhstan to lobby President Nursultan Nazarbayev on making a commitment to the US-backed pipelines. At the same time Cheney was in Astana, Kazakhstani Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov was on a working visit to Azerbaijan, where he announced that the Kazakhstani government was interested in exporting oil via BTC, and exploring the feasibility of also sending natural gas to Western markets via the Baku-Erzurum route. On the surface, such statements seem encouraging. But deep down they don't have that much value. Kazakhstani officials, including Nazarbayev, have made similar statements in the past. Akhmetov may have gone farther than any Kazakhstani official by saying that the country could sign a BTC export agreement as soon as next month. Still, there is no certainty that an agreement will in fact be signed in June.
Whether or not that happens, the crucial issue is how much energy is Kazakhstan willing to export via Azerbaijan. And on this Astana remains mum. In April, Kazakhstan committed to significantly increasing its oil exports via Russia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. It could well turn out that Kazakhstan could decide to send only a token amount of its oil and gas via Azerbaijan just enough to remain in the Bush administration's favor, without tilting the US-Russian energy contest in Washington's favor.
Another US response to Russia's growing influence in Central Asia is to try and reorient the region toward South Asia. This intention was reflected in a recent US State Department reorganization that created the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs. Central Asian policy had formerly been handled by the State Department's Europe and Eurasia bureau. Apparently connected with the State Department reorganization, US officials in late April advanced a plan to develop a new electricity grid linking Central and South Asia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The plan counts on electricity generated in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to serve as the engine for the development of stronger inter-regional ties. This vision stands a good chance of short-circuiting, however, as it does not seem to take into account that Russian companies control a significant part of Tajikistan's electricity-generating infrastructure.
In addition, the United States is now vulnerable on an issue that used to be its strength: ideology. During the original Cold War, the appeal of democracy enabled the United States to occupy the moral high ground. In recent years, US credibility on democratization and human rights issues has been severely damaged by scandals, in particular the Abu Ghraib prison torture incident in Iraq. Authoritarian-minded leaders in the Caucasus and Central Asia, even those on friendly terms with the United States, are now less inclined than ever to listen to US rhetoric on the need to respect human rights. For example, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev during his recent visit to Washington brushed aside criticism over his administration's human rights record by invoking Abu Ghraib. "Things happen everywhere. Does Abu Ghraib mean that the US government is not democratic?" Aliyev said during a meeting with non-governmental organization representatives. [For background see the Eurasia insight archive].
Many policy makers in the Caucasus and Central Asia also view US statements concerning democratization with cynicism, believing that the Bush administration harbors double standards. Cheney during his recent trip helped stoke such cynicism: immediately after his Vilnius speech, he traveled to Kazakhstan, where democratization concerns took a back seat to energy issues. Nazarbayev's administration has faced considerable international criticism in recent years for manipulating elections and for restricting political freedoms, yet Cheney glossed over Kazakhstan's shortcomings. During a short news conference May 6, according to a White House transcript, Cheney expressed "admiration for all that's been accomplished here in Kazakhstan in the last 15 years, both in the economic and political realm." Earlier, Cheney held a high-profile meeting with several representatives of Kazakhstan's political opposition. But he remained silent when Kazakhstani authorities prevented one of the country's highest profile opposition figures, Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, from attending that meeting.
Since March 2005, when Kyrgyzstan experienced its Tulip revolution, democratization has come to be associated with upheaval by many in Central Asia. Indeed, Kyrgyzstan has seen a dramatic rise in crime and corruption since the ouster of former president Askar Akayev. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Russia has been able to capitalize on this by casting itself as a purveyor of political stability, even if such stability comes at a cost of lost political and civil liberties.
During that May 6 news conference, Nazarbayev appeared to tell the United States, in diplomatic terms, that Kazakhstan is going to go its own political way, regardless of what the United States thinks. "We have to get used [to the fact] that every independent state, while solving its problems, has a certain policy, and everybody should learn to respect this policy," Khabar television quoted the Kazakhstani president as saying.
Justin Burke is EurasiaNets editor.