The Great Game in the Caucasus: Bad Moves by Uncle Sam
The tale of what the Bush Administration is up to in the Caucasus is slowly filtering out, although the U.S. press has largely deep-sixed the story. The recent Georgia-Russia war was just one move in a chess game aimed at cornering the energy reserves of Central Asia, extending the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to Moscow’s vulnerable southern border, and ending Russia’s control of the Black Sea. Georgia was just a pawn—an expendable one at that— in a high stakes game.
While the White House and some in the European Union (EU) represent the recent war as one between an increasingly powerful Russia reasserting itself in its former empire versus a small, democratic nation trying to recover two of its former provinces, that story is fraying a bit. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was recently condemned by the EU’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights for undemocratic practices, and a recent NATO analysis of the war supports the Russian charge that Tbilisi started the whole affair. The maneuvers that led to the war, however, have gone largely unreported.
Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the U.S. moved into Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s richest energy producer. U.S. oil companies, including Chevron, showed up in an effort to pry Kazakhstan away from its leading partners, China and Russia. Kazakh President Nurusultan Nazabayev was wined and dined, campaigning to get his country to send its oil through the trans-Caucasus Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, thus bypassing Russia and putting China’s energy jugular in Western hands.
The U.S. put a full-court press on oil-rich Azerbaijan as well.
Georgia was on the chess board because the BTC runs thorough that country’s south. The U.S. cemented control over the pipeline by helping to sponsor the “Rose Revolution” that brought Saakashvili to power in 2003.
But there was more than oil at stake in all this.
Starting almost a decade ago, the U.S. began pressuring fellow NATO member Turkey to modify or abrogate a rather obscure treaty called the Montreux Convention, a 1936 agreement that gives Turkey the right to restrict the passage of warships through the Bosporus Straits and the Dardanelles. The Convention has allowed Turkey and Russia to control the Black Sea and to prevent any foreign power from establishing a major presence there.
The U.S., which was not a party to the original treaty, has pressed Turkey to let it turn the Black Sea into a NATO lake. Turkey is a NATO member, as are Bulgaria and Rumania. The U.S. already has military bases in Romania. If the Bush Administration had succeeded in bringing the Ukraine and Georgia into the Alliance, NATO would have checkmated the Russian fleet at Sevastopol, restricting its access to the Mediterranean and isolating it from the Middle East.
However, the Americans play a lousy game of chess, particularly if some of the pieces on its side of the board have different agendas.
Take Turkey, for instance.
Ankara has not only shown no inclination to dump the Montreux Convention, it has proposed a “Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Pact” that would sideline NATO in favor of a settlement by regional powers. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan presented the proposal to Moscow shortly after the war.
“The chief value in the Turkish initiative,” said Russian Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov, is that it is “common sense” and assumes that “countries belonging to the region themselves should decide how to conduct affairs there.”
Lavrov went on to add two other “regional” issues that could be dealt with using a similar framework: Iraq and Iran.
That the Turkish proposal caught the Americans by surprise is an indication of how the U.S. failed to understand how complex the game of chess is in that region of the world. Turkey is indeed a member of NATO, but it also has its own national interests to consider.
While Turkish trade with Georgia is $1 billion a year, it’s almost $40 billion with Russia. Turkey also gets 70 per cent of its natural gas from Russia. Turkey and Russia have long dominated the Black Sea, and both see it as central to their economic and security interests. If the U.S. moves large numbers of warships into the area, it won’t just be the Russians who lose control of that body of water.
Neither are the Turks eager to modify international treaties like the Montreux Convention. Doing so, writes M.K. Bhadrakumar, a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service and a former ambassador in the region, “would open a Pandora’s Box. It might well turn out to be a step towards reopening the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, the cornerstone which erected the modern Turkish state out of the debris of the Ottoman Empire.”
According to Bhadrakumar, the U.S. plan was to bring Kazakhstan into NATO as well. The Kazakh-Russian border is the longest land border shared by any two nations in the world. “It would be a nightmare for Russian security if NATO were to gain a foothold in Kazakhstan,” he says.
In short, what the U.S. is up to is the 21st century’s version of the “Great Game,” the competition that pitted 19th century imperial powers against one another in a bid to control Central Asia and the Middle East.
The move to surround Russia and hinder China’s access to energy is part of the Bush Administration’s 2002 “West Point Doctrine,” a strategic posture aimed at preventing the rise of any economic or military competitors.
When U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently said that Russia was facing international isolation over the Georgia war, she was whistling past the graveyard. Rather than being isolated, the Russians have been lining up allies among the very states the U.S. had hoped would join it in ringing the Russians with newly recruited NATO allies.
During the recent meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in the Tajikistan capital of Dushanbe, Kazakh President Nurusultan Nazarbayev assured the Russians they could rely on Kazakhstan for support. “I am amazed that the West simply ignored the fact that Georgian armed forces attacked the peaceful city of Tskhinvali,” said Nazarbayev, “Kazakhstan understands all the measures that have been taken [by Russia] and supports them.”
The SCO is made up of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
Azerbaijan, another major target for the U.S., has kept quiet on the Georgian War, but announced that it was reducing the amount of oil and gas it was shipping through the BTC pipelines and increasing its shipments through Russia and Iran. “We knew there was a risk of political turmoil in Georgia, but we did not expect war,” Elhar Nasirov, vice-president of Azerbaijan’s state oil company, Socar, told the Financial Times. “It’s not a good idea to have all your eggs in one basket, especially when that basket is so fragile.”
If both Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan balk at using the BTC, it could not only derail U.S. strategy in the region, but the pipeline itself.
While NATO has tried to put up a united front on Georgia, the Alliance is deeply split between the U.S., Britain, Poland and the Baltic States on one side, and France, Germany, Italy, and Spain on the other. In part, the reluctance of the latter group to join Washington’s crusade against Moscow is based on self-interest. Russia is an important trading partner and provides Europe with much of its energy.
But a number of European countries are also having serious doubts about Georgia’s leader. According to Der Spiegel, NATO intelligence sources back the Russian account of the war, not Georgia’s. “Five weeks after the war in the Caucasus the mood is shifting against Georgian President Saakashvilli,” the newspaper wrote on Sept. 15.
This shift in sentiment has even been voiced in the U.S. Congress, although it has yet to be reported in any major U.S. media. Addressing the Senate Armed Services Committee Sept. 9, Senator Hillary Clinton said it was not “smart” to isolate Russia over the war and pointedly asked, “Did we embolden the Georgians in any way?” Clinton called for a commission to look into the origins of the war, echoing a similar call by Europe’s foreign ministers meeting in the French city of Avignon.
At a meeting of the EU’s inter-governmental commission in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said it was important to “strengthen the partnership between the European Union and Russia, and France and Russia.”
While a Harris Poll shows that some Europeans are now “more concerned” with Russia than they were before the war, the same poll shows the U.S. is still considered a far more serious “threat to global stability.” The poll also indicates overwhelming opposition in Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Britain to increasing military spending in the aftermath of the Georgian war. Indeed, any government that presses for a more aggressive posture toward Russia, or knuckes under to Washington’s pressure to increase military spending, is likely to find itself out of power.
The Georgian war, like the Iraq war, were disasters brought on by a combination of imperial arrogance and fundamental cluelessness. The U.S. now finds itself locked into a military stalemate in Iraq and Afghanistan, increasingly isolated in the Middle East and Central Asia, and enmeshed in one of the greatest financial meltdowns in its history.
This is how empires end.
CONN HALLINAN says he’s a “foreign policy analyst” but don’t hold that against him. Co-editor Cockburn has known Conn, aka Ringo, since they went on Aldermaston peace marches together in the late 1950s, together with Conn’s brother Terrence, later the two-term D.A. of San Francisco. Hallinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org