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Terror war and oil expand US sphere of influence

GIs build bases on Russia's energy-rich flank

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 19, 2002


As the Roman Empire spread two millenniums ago, maps had to be redrawn to reflect new realities. In similar fashion, the expansion of the British Empire kept cartographers at their drawing boards, reshaping territories from Southern Africa to India to Hong Kong.

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Now, as the United States wages its war on terrorism in Afghan-istan – and deploys troops for the first time in the energy-rich regions of Central Asia and the Caucasus – the borders of a new American empire appear to be forming.

Firmly in the Russian and later Soviet sphere of influence since Napoleon's day, these strategic regions, along with their Middle Eastern ramparts to the south, are now home to 60,000 American troops.

Some of these soldiers are building what appear to be long-term bases at remote Central Asian outposts, raising critical questions about America's future role.

One aim is the containment of Islamic extremism, a goal shared by Russia on its vulnerable southern flank. Looking to challenge OPEC leader Saudi Arabia in the oil markets, Russia is also worried about protecting its growing economic interests in Central Asia and the Caucasus, which are crisscrossed by oil and gas pipelines – and potentially lucrative new routes.

But the new nearness of America is triggering heated debate in Moscow, where President Vladimir Putin, by permitting US deployments, is being widely blamed for "losing" Central Asia and succumbing to a new American imperialism.

Others say that Mr. Putin – recognizing that 70 percent of Russia's state budget comes from oil and natural gas exports – has simply traded in cold-war baggage for a new, clear-eyed pragmatism amid Russia's harsh economic realities.

Already 3,000 Americans are based in Uzbekistan, and are believed to run both overt and covert operations in Afghanistan from there. Commanders are setting up new facilities in Kyrgyzstan for a combat air wing and humanitarian missions, with 3,000 more troops.

A deal has been struck with Tajikistan – where Russia has 10,000 of its own troops guarding the Afghan border. Americans have held secret military meetings with Armenia – a key Russian ally – and talks with Kazakhstan. Up to 200 American advisers will soon be helping Georgia control its unruly Pankisi Gorge, where terrorists are suspected to be hiding.

While the US may have grand imperial designs – some experts even go so far as to speak of US troops "guarding" Caspian energy resources in case Iraqi oil supplies are disrupted by any American attempt to change the regime in Baghdad – others emphasize common US-Russian economic interests.

"Don't think like a 'cold warrior,' " says Pat Davis Szymczak, the American publisher of the bi-monthly, Moscow-based magazine Oil and Gas Eurasia, who points out that the bulk of Central Asian energy resources reach the market through Russian pipelines.

"Are we going to send a bunch of Marines to stand around an oil well with guns? So they've protected that oil – big deal. Are they going to take it away in armored vehicles?" Ms. Szymczak asks. "The only way to get it from Uzbekistan to cars in New York is by being friends with the Russians."

While the presence of American forces and the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan are causing fresh thinking about how to tap Caspian riches, the context of cold war rivalries – played up by regional leaders often eager to wiggle free of Russia's influence – still dominates discourse.

During a recent tour of the region, state Duma speaker Gennady Seleznyov, warned that "Russia will not endorse the emergence of permanent US military bases in Central Asia."

"The Russians have every reason to be worried" about US intentions in their "soft underbelly," says Thomas Stauffer, an energy strategist and former Harvard professor in Washington. "The only geopolitical logic I can see [to long-term US moves]," Stauffer adds, "is that we want to get a certain amount of space on the checkerboard, with which we can negotiate with the Russians."