A weekend swing through ex-Soviet Central Asia by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who arrived yesterday in Moscow for talks with President Vladimir Putin, has set nerves jangling at the Kremlin over long term US objectives in a region Russia regards as its own backyard.
Mr. Powell's visits to the key states of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan focused on practical issues such as opening aid routes to Afghanistan and cooperation to rebuild that war-ravaged country.
But the growing American presence, and Powell's insistence that these remote republics are now important US allies in the war on terrorism, hints at deep future shifts in the geopolitical landscape. "I am sure we can have better relationships with these countries without causing the Russians to be concerned about it," Powell told journalists before arriving in Uzbekistan, where the US has based more than 1,000 troops since September.
Many Russian experts are not so sure. They cite concerns about growing American military involvement - on Sunday, Kazakhstan joined Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in granting base access to US forces fighting in Afghanistan - as well as fears that Washington is maneuvering to cut Russia out of the region's vast oil and gas reserves.
"It looks as though the Americans are set to stay in Central Asia," says Sergei Kazyonnov, an expert with the independent Institute of National Security Research in Moscow. "There is a growing feeling here that the US is using the tragedy of Sept. 11 not only to punish the terrorists, but also to extend its own influence."
In talks with Uzbek leader Islam Karimov, Powell won agreement to reopen a famous bridge at the border town of Termez, which will expedite aid deliveries. Mr. Karimov holds another card as well: He is a longtime ally of Afghan Gen. Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek warlord who so far has refused to recognize the new power-sharing government.
"Karimov's own regime is very unstable, and so he has seized the post-Sept. 11 opportunity to build a US alliance with both hands," says Maria Podkopeyeva, an analyst with the Experimental Creative Center, a Moscow foreign policy think tank. "There is a very complex, fast-breaking interaction going on here, and you can be sure that Russia is watching developments closely."
In Kazakhstan, Powell talked military cooperation and oil pipelines with President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The US favors development of pipelines that would connect the coming Caspian and Central Asian oil boom directly to world markets without Russia's existing network. Russia stands to lose transit fees that may be worth tens of billions of dollars over coming decades.
The main route under US consideration would pass from Baku, Azerbaijan, through the turbulent southern Caucasus and Turkey to Ceyhan, on the Mediterranean Sea. American oil companies have also talked about a pipeline through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. "This idea has never seemed realistic, because Afghanistan is far from pacified," says Vyacheslav Belokrinitsky, a regional expert with the official Institute of International Relations in Moscow. "But if we are now talking about a permanent US military presence in the region to ensure stability, well, who knows?"
US-Russian ties have warmed markedly since Mr. Putin phoned President Bush on Sept. 11 to pledge his full support for the global war on terrorism.
Powell will meet with Putin today to take stock of that relationship, and to discuss a number of strategic issues. Moscow is upset over US backtracking last week on the Russia-North Atlantic Council, created as a forum to forge joint policies on fighting terrorism, stemming the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and peacekeeping in troublespots such as Afghanistan. At the last moment, the US appeared to balk at giving Russia a veto in the council.
The Kremlin is also frustrated by continued American insistence on scrapping the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to allow the construction of a missile-defense shield. Reaching a deal on this issue is "still a challenge for us," Powell told journalists yesterday.
But suspicions over the rise of US influence in Central Asia may cloud the prospects for long-term partnership with Russia. Just a decade ago, the five states of the region were part of the USSR's economic and military system, with hundreds of Soviet intercontinental missiles and the main space-launching center located in Kazakhstan. Since the Soviet demise, Russia has expended major efforts to rebuild a common, Moscow-run security zone in the region, with incomplete success.
"The Sept. 11 crisis brought regional changes that Russia was unprepared for," says Vitaly Ponomaryov, an expert with Panorama, an independent think tank. "Uzbekistan has long been straining at the Moscow leash, and jumped at the chance to invite the Americans in."
Russia has acquiesced to US military penetration into its former lair because of a common interest in crushing the extremist Taliban, and curbing terrorism and drug trafficking. But now that the war is winding down, US actions may be seen differently in Moscow. "The Russian leadership is extraordinarily sensitive to what happens in Central Asia," says Mr. Belokrinitsky. "For Russia, it is about access to Central Asia's resources, and national prestige connected with our historical positions in this region. This may not be the main issue between Moscow and Washington, but the way things go in Central Asia will be very indicative for the fate of the overall relationship," he says.
"Many people in Moscow are hoping the US will have the wisdom to radically scale down or remove its military from Central Asia once it has achieved its present goals in Afghanistan. Otherwise, it will be a continual stumbling block for our relations."