THE US IS ILL-PREPARED TO WAGE A NEW COLD WAR
by Justin Burke for Eurasianet
US Vice President Dick Cheney’s speech in Vilnius not only alarmed
Moscow, it also led some to question if it signaled the official
start of strained relations between the two countries.
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 4 May 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.
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. 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. 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. 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
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.
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 6 May 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.