by Karen Talbot © Covert Action Quarterly June 2000.

Media analysts and U.S. officials have been nervously trying to assess the "bewildering" policies of Russia’s Acting President Vladimir Putin, especially his actions in Chechnya. As the Russian elections approach in which Putin is favored to win the presidency, he increasingly is being dubbed as a nationalist even though he claims to be defending the territorial integrity and economic base of Russia in the face of escalating incursions on the part of the U.S. and other western countries. That there are grounds for these concerns on the part of the Russians is confirmed by numerous statements and articles in the western press such as the following one by William Pfaff: "The United States also is intervening in the Caspian region to establish an American-dominated oil pipeline route across Azerbaijan and Georgia, cutting out Russia, which is linked to a larger effort to displace Russian influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia."1

Chechnya, the Caucasus, and Caspian Basin Oil

Nine years ago, the peoples of the 15 republics of the Soviet Union voted on the question: Should the Soviet Union dissolve itself, so Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and the other republics would become independent countries? Boris Yeltsin, supported by the Bush administration, championed such a breakup of the U.S.S.R. in an intense year-long campaign across the country.

On March 17, 1991, 75 percent of the Soviet people voted overwhelmingly to retain the U.S.S.R.; nevertheless, within nine months, the Soviet Union was dissolved as Yeltsin took power.2

Now, those "independent" former republics of the U.S.S.R. are economically and militarily dependent on the U.S., major countries of Western Europe, and pro-western Arab states. Among these are Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Kazakhstan. A tiny group of élites have become super-rich proxies for western corporations while the vast majority of the people are indescribably poor.

These three republics are in the region of the Caspian Sea. Because the Caspian Sea is landlocked, the oil and gas have had to be transported mainly by pipeline. There is a major route through Chechnya and other parts of Russia to Novorossiysk on the Black Sea. In fact, the largest network of pipelines in the world had been built during the Soviet era, when the Soviet Union was the number one producer of oil and natural gas in the world.3 Its gas and oil fields, refineries and pipelines extended from western Siberia, as well as from the Caspian Sea Basin, to the Black Sea, the Ukraine and the Baltic and East European countries.4

The U.S. wants the Caspian Sea under total U.S. domination. A consortium of 11 western oil companies now controls more than 50 percent of all oil investments in the Caspian Basin—these include Atlantic Richfield, Chevron, Exxon-Mobil, Pennzoil, Phillips Petroleum, Texaco, and British Petroleum-Amoco.5 Therefore, Washington is pursuing other routes, some or all of which ultimately may come to fruition. The intent is to bypass Russia, as with a proposed pipeline through Turkey to the Mediterranean Sea—the Baku-Ceyhan route.

So long as Chechnya has been kept broiling with conflict and war, the pipeline through that region usually has remained non-operative. In early August 1999, Shamil Basayev and other insurgents invaded Dagestan, located between Chechnya and the Caspian Sea.6

The Russian government expressed fears that this was part of a larger conspiracy by the U.S. to detach the countries surrounding the Caspian Sea from Russia.7

Lewis Dolinsky, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle said: "The incursion by Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev into neighboring Dagestan, where his guerrillas seem to have little support, was an assault on the integrity of Russia with the stated intention of carving out an Islamic state. In addition, there are stories of ties to Osama bin Laden, Pakistani intelligence, Islamists from several countries and the complicity of former Soviet republics in the movement of arms and fighters into Russia."8

The developments in the Caspian and Trans-Caucasus regions involve a dangerous complex of hostilities fed by growing militarization. "Russia and the U.S.-NATO alliance (and their proxies) may be inching ever closer to a shooting war in Central Asia."9

Georgia: Cozying Up to NATO

"Georgia is...central to U.S. plans to exploit the oil and gas riches of the Caspian basin."10

At the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) summit in Istanbul, November 18-19, Georgia signed several crucial agreements including the Ankara Declaration supporting the building of the Baku-Ceyhan and trans-Caspian pipelines. The proposed trans-Caspian pipelines will go beneath the Caspian Sea from its eastern shore to Azerbaijan and connect with other pipelines, bypassing Russia. Also at the OSCE summit, Russia and Georgia issued a joint statement on the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty setting terms for the complete withdrawal of Russian forces from Moldova and Georgia.11

Leading up to the elections in Georgia on October 31, 1999, the removal of Russian bases was a key campaign promise. Georgian President Edouard Shevardnadze asserted that Georgia would "knock on NATO’s door." Georgia’s regime has accused Russia of using the Gudauta military base to supply the Abkhazians who are engaged in a separatist struggle with Georgia.12 The Abkhazi-Georgian conflict has received little attention in the U.S. media.

The CFE agreement signed in Istanbul spelled out cuts in Russian military equipment in Georgia and called for the withdrawal of the military bases at Vaziani and Gudauta and the tank maintenance plant in Tbilisi by December 31, 2000. OSCE member countries will provide financial assistance for the program.13

The U.S. Congress was urged to increase financing to Georgia over the next 2-3 years to ensure "Georgia’s political and military integration into NATO and Western structures as soon as possible."14

All of this exacerbated the already strained relations between Russia and Georgia. The Russian media expressed outrage that Georgia and Azerbaijan were aiding terrorists in Chechnya. But as we will see things shifted, at least temporarily, following Putin’s leadership in the subsequent CIS meeting.

Trans-Balkan Pipeline

Following the OSCE Summit, however, the U.S. began reviving its plan to help finance a trans-Balkan oil pipeline going through Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Albania, thus bypassing Turkey and delaying preparations for the Baku-Ceyhan route. Completion of this pipeline would consolidate U.S. influence in the Balkans while simultaneously avoiding the greater expenses tied to the proposed oil pipeline through Turkey. 15

Interest in the trans-Balkan project was renewed in a meeting, January 12, of international oil investors, U.S. Eximbank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the World Bank and the U.S.-based Albanian-Macedonian-Bulgarian Oil Company (AMBO).16 The trans-Balkan pipeline is expected to cost only $825 million.17 It would enable Central Asian and Caucasian oil to be transported by tanker across the Black Sea, and then to Western Europe, and would avoid not only Russia, but also the environmental complications of transporting oil through Turkey’s Bosporus Strait.18

This strategy may hinder the U.S. in its relations with its NATO ally, Turkey, particularly because it has relied on Turkey to extend U.S. military and political interests in former Yugoslavia and the Caucasus, including in Georgia. With Georgia in confrontation with Russia over the war in Chechnya, the U.S. may want to count on Turkey to intervene. Turkish President Suliman Demirel met with Georgian President Edouard Shevardnadze on January 14, "to guarantee that Georgia’s loyalties lie with the West" in advance of the mid-January Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit in Moscow under the leadership of then Acting President of Russia, Vladimir Putin.19

Meanwhile, the Clinton administration has yet to place any financial resources behind the Baku-Ceyhan route,20 though it certainly has not been abandoned as one of the several proposed pipeline routes.

CIS Military Exercises

In the tug-of-war for Georgia’s loyalties, and those of other states of the region, Russia gained the upper hand, at least temporarily, as a consequence of the CIS summit meeting, January 24 and 25. At that meeting, Russian Acting President Vladimir Putin was rumored to have held separate meetings with Georgian President Edouard Shevardnadze over increasing tensions stemming from Georgia’s forging of closer ties with the West and its suspected aid to rebels fighting Russian troops in Chechnya. The Summit produced measures to tighten security and to combat terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, arms trade and drug trafficking. ITAR-Tass reported that the purpose was to crack down on paramilitary activity along the borders of the three nations.21

As a result, joint military exercises were held in the days immediately following the CIS meeting, "covering the entire Caucasus, including the Russian republics bordering Georgia and Azerbaijan—Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkessia and the Krasnodar region—as well as the Stavropol territory."22

The decision to host those military drills was a turnaround for Uzbekistan. In March 1999, Uzbekistan’s military had withdrawn from the CIS Collective Security Pact and the Uzbek military has often trained with direct U.S. assistance.23

The CIS Summit marked a shift in the stance particularly of Georgia and Uzbekistan regarding Russia. Other CIS states including Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Armenia, have maintained fairly strong ties with Russia.24

The West Retaliates

Responding to these recent diplomatic gains by Russia, high-level delegations were dispatched "to entice much of Central Europe to join the western fold." The delegations—which visited Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Moldova—included European Commission President Romano Prodi, the NATO Secretary-General, and NATO’s supreme commander. But most significantly, NATO also sent a delegation to Georgia February 9, "to further prepare Georgia for cooperation with NATO’s Partnership for Peace Program." A U.S. delegation began visits on February 7.25

Romano Prodi issued a statement in Latvia, February 10, signaling a major policy change for the European Union from the purely economic to the security realm. Prodi essentially announced de facto NATO expansion under the guise of EU security guarantees.26

The statement made it clear that there are plans "to integrate NATO into the EU." If the EU fully adopts Prodi’s plans, it would involve fully absorbing all of Eastern Europe—including the Baltics—into the EU. An economically powerful EU, backed by a militarily powerful NATO, would become entrenched along vast lengths of Russia’s eastern border.27

IMF Funds Delayed

In December, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced it would continue to delay a $640 million loan payment to Russia. Senior Clinton administration officials acknowledged that Moscow’s campaign against Chechnya influenced the decision.28 In Moscow, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry said: "The language of economic sanctions and diktat is unacceptable, all the more so when it concerns the issue of Russia’s territorial integrity."29

In a clear attempt to assuage Russia’s growing concerns on all these fronts, and to regain its diminishing dominance over Russia, NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson also traveled to Moscow to hold talks with Acting President Putin, a meeting initiated by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov last December. The session took two months of negotiation to prepare. Moscow had raised disagreements over the agenda and it looked as if the meeting would not take place at all.30 Significantly, these talks also were held one month before the Russian presidential election.

NATO Strengthens Ties with Ukraine

In a demonstration of how lightning fast events are moving, NATO’s decision-making body—the North Atlantic Council—met in Kiev, Ukraine, March 1-2, after being hurriedly organized. This was seen as "a direct challenge to the Putin government’s assertive new foreign policy."31 Furthermore, it is likely these actions partly were aimed at trying to pressure Putin and the Russian electorate on the eve of the March 26 elections.

Ukraine is viewed as the most strategically important nation on the periphery of Russia. It is economically dependent on Russia but continues to be pushed closer to the West.

Indicative of the deepening military ties between NATO and Ukraine are new plans for naval exercises in the Black Sea—NATO’s Cooperative Partner 2000—to be held June 19-30. (See sidebar: "U.S.-NATO Military Operations in the Caspian Basin.")

The vast network of oil and gas pipelines, built during the Soviet era, include routes through Ukraine to Eastern Europe. So Ukraine is another potentially vital country for the transshipment of oil and gas into Europe.

Many Wars The Caucasus:

Azerbaijan: The oil state of Azerbaijan, on the west shore of the Caspian Sea, is the source of tremendous oil reserves. In order to transport the petroleum to market it must use currently existing pipelines: one running through Georgia to Supsa, which has limited capacity, and another traversing Russia through Chechnya to Novorossiysk. The Azerbaijani leaders along with the western oil companies are going ahead with plans to construct a pipeline through Turkey to Ceyhan, but the expense of that project is causing delays. In order to by-pass Russia, the other alternative is to go through Iran. (The recent parliamentary elections in Iran and the victory of pro-western candidates there may have a major impact on the future of such a pipeline.)

Meanwhile the conflict continues with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave within Azerbaijan currently occupied by Armenian militias with Russia supplying arms to Armenia. On June 17, the Azerbaijani Minister of Defense Safar Abijev asked that "NATO be involved in solving the conflict." Earlier, Azerbaijani spokesmen had floated the idea of a NATO military base in Azerbaijan. They also have held maneuvers in the framework of NATO’s "Partnership for Peace."32

Dagestan: Since the transport of petroleum through Chechnya had been interrupted by the conflict, Russia had been planning an alternative pipeline through Dagestan. But after Basayev invaded Dagestan last August and September, these plans were temporarily thwarted.33

Karachay-Cherkess: Chechnya could also be bypassed to the west by means of a pipeline through the Russian region of Karachay-Cherkess. It clearly is no coincidence that a separatist movement is also flaring up there. On August 27, there was a major confrontation by separatists demanding that Karachay-Cherkess secede from Russia.

According to the historian Rachid Khatuev, the first aim of such a secession is to control the Baku-Novorossiysk pipeline. The Cherkess have a large diaspora abroad, especially in Turkey, where they have considerable influence.34

Armenia: Armenia is strategically significant in the shipment of oil and gas from the Caspian Sea.

In speeches before the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), November 18-19, 1999, both Azerbaijani President Haidar Aliyev and Armenian President Robert Kocharian called for the creation of a security pact in the South Caucasus, involving Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Russia and the U.S.35

Until now, Armenia has been Russia’s greatest ally in the region. But this pact would require the withdrawal of Russian troops from Armenia, undermining that long-existing alliance. Instead, Armenia would be in the camp of its traditional enemies, including Turkey.

Countries of Central Asia:

Kazakhstan: Kazakhstan is a huge country bordering on the Eastern shore of the Caspian Sea. It too has vast petroleum resources. A substantial portion of the oil reserves are in the Tengiz oil fields in the Caspian Basin. Western oil companies are heavily involved in Kazakhstan, as in Azerbaijan. However, the only way to transport the petroleum to market is through existing pipelines in Russia, especially the pipeline that crosses Chechnya and terminates at the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. There is feverish activity to construct an underwater pipeline beneath the Caspian Sea which would make it possible to bypass Russia. The major obstacle to this is a treaty requirement that all five littoral states of the Caspian Sea must agree to such a project. That includes Russia and Iran. Serious disputes are raging among the countries bordering on the Caspian over control of the proposed pipelines and the off-shore oil and gas wealth. U.S. officials have been urging that the legalities regarding the Caspian Sea be disregarded in order to move forward with the trans-Caspian pipeline.36

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev recently warned that drugs, terrorism and scarce water resources are the main threats to stability in Central Asia.37

Turkmenistan: Though its oil reserves are not on the scale of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan—in Central Asia, east of the Caspian—is actively exploring and developing what reserves do exist. It does, however, have significant gas reserves. Consequently, there are plans to construct a trans-Caspian gas pipeline which would terminate in Turkey. Since the country borders on the Caspian Sea it is involved in the bitter ongoing dispute with the other littoral states about how to divide up the riches of the sea.

China has invested heavily to help Turkmenistan with exploration, drilling and construction of refineries. Because it will face oil shortages in the coming decades, China is looking toward the Caspian Basin to help satisfy its energy needs.38

Tajikistan: Tajikistan is made up of many minorities, cultures, clans, and languages, with Tajiks constituting only 65 percent of the population. Since the breakup of the U.S.S.R., the country has suffered from severe economic problems—including a devastating 60 percent drop in GDP, which fuels conflict. In 1992, the Islamic Party of the Resurrection seized power. They were supported from Iran, where the same language, Farsi, is spoken. Later, Kolkhoz farmers rose in armed revolt and brought President Emomali Rakhmonov to power in November 1992, and the Islamic opposition fled to Afghanistan. They returned later, "now sponsored by Pakistan, in neat American uniforms, with Stingers, night vision equipment, Motorola radio stations, and jeeps."39 A bloody civil war followed, causing 200,000 casualties and 500,000 refugees. In June 1997, Rakhmonov conceded one-third of the ministerial offices to the Muslim opposition under a peace treaty which created a coalition government of opposing forces. Rakhmonov again won the presidency in recent elections, part of a three-year-old peace process. Renewed fighting is already erupting. Many of the Islamic fundamentalist factions are backed by forces in Afghanistan and Uzbekistan both of which border on Tajikistan. This border is a major crossing point for Afghan heroin and other contraband. Assassinations and kidnapings are escalating, therefore Rakhmonov requested that Russia reinforce the Russian-led 201st motorized rifle division—a 15,000 to 20,000-strong force.40

Kyrghyzstan: Kyrghyzstan, which borders on China, has not escaped the conflicts fomented in Central Asia. In August 1999, the Uzbek warlord, Juma Namangan, invaded Kyrghyzstan from Tajikistan with 2,000 men. The scenario was identical to Basayev’s invasion of Dagestan. Earlier, Namangan had fought with Islamic rebels in Tajikistan, and then had engaged the Taliban in Afghanistan. His forces consist of Tajik, Afghans, Arabs, and Uzbeks.41

Uzbekistan: Uzbekistan lies west of Kirghizistan in Central Asia. As mentioned above, the Fergana Valley which runs through Uzbekistan promises to be the location of increasing conflicts fomented by the same forces as in other Central Asian countries. Under NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, Uzbek soldiers have trained with U.S. paratroopers in the Fergana Valley and even larger NATO-sponsored military maneuvers have been held with Uzbekistan.

Afghanistan: From 1979 until 1989, a war raged between Soviet troops allied with Afghan government forces against Islamic fundamentalist factions. The fundamentalist fighters were armed by the CIA with Stinger missiles in the largest covert operation in history, additionally financed by the Saudis and Osama Bin Laden. However, after having dislodged the Soviet army, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia supported the Taliban, a fundamentalist Muslim organization operating from Pakistan. In October 1996, the Taliban captured the capital Kabul and later advanced on the north where they now threaten the neighboring countries of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.42

U.S. Role in Central Asia

"Stability is already a thing of the past in the Fergana Valley" (extending through Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan—Central Asia’s largest population center), observed Barnett R. Rubin of the Council of Foreign Relations.

He stated in an interview quoted on the Soros Institute web site:

[T]he international community, and the U.S. in particular, are already engaged in Central Asia and the Fergana Valley, looking for oil and gas, planning pipeline routes, pressuring governments on their economic policies, trying to establish a security structure, trying to cooperate with or displace Russia in many fields including the military one, and so on....

Rubin said that the region from Central Asia through Afghanistan and Pakistan could become "a zone of perpetual violence and conflict like the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, with several ongoing wars that keep spreading.... And in this region there are also nuclear weapons and materials, unlike in Central and East Africa. So the very serious."43

Alliances "Group of Three"

In response to the offensive aimed at surrounding and breaking up Russia from the south, new alliances are being delineated. The "Three" (China, Russia, and India) are building an alliance to counter the Group of Seven (G7) (the seven richest countries of NATO). China clearly perceives that if the West succeeds in carving up Russia, it will become the next target. Among the Uigur population of western China, separatism is being stirred up based on the demand for an "independent and Islamic" state of Turkestan in Central Asia. This secession movement is following the lead of Taiwan and Tibet.

China’s growing dependence on imported oil is also leading to stronger ties with Russia.

Meanwhile, India is fighting a war with Pakistan over Kashmir. (See related article on Kashmir.)

Allies of "The Three"

On August 25, the fifth summit of the "Group of Shanghai" took place in Kirghyzstan. It comprised the presidents of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kirghistan, and Tajikistan. Their agenda included the question of terrorism in their respective countries. They expressed objection to using "the pretext of human rights to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries" and pleaded the cause of a "multipolar world." This was a clear challenge to a world dominated by the U.S. and NATO. The alliance has led to the sale of Russian C-30 jet-fighters to China.44

Group of Seven

The G7 countries are seeking to strengthen support for their offensive in the region. Key to this are Turkey (with Georgia and Azerbaijan in its sphere of influence), Afghanistan and Pakistan (which are bases for the Muslim fundamentalist warlords whose goal is to "chase the Russians from the Caucasus"), and the Chechen separatists.45