Terror war and oil expand US sphere of influence

GIs build bases on Russia's energy-rich flank

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.

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."

Such considerations haven't escaped notice in Washington, where US Secretary of State Colin Powell last December said that Kazakhstan's oil was becoming of "critical importance."

And "Caspian reserves could be critical to future global energy supply," notes an analysis earlier this month by the respected, London-based Jane's Foreign Report. "This is in line with the doctrine of 'full-spectrum dominance' that now seems to govern American foreign policy and is manifesting itself in the Caucasus and Central Asia," the report said.

Escaping the template of Cold War rivalry is proving difficult, even though US-Russian economic interests often coincide. "The Russian security establishment still contains a high proportion of dinosaurs," says Anatol Lieven, a regional analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Many in the US see Russia through old prisms, despite Moscow's demonstrated commitment to helping the US wage war in Afghanistan and elsewhere. "You have people who are still saying Russian policy in the 'near abroad' [the former Soviet states] is a key threat to American interests," Lieven says.

That some in Washington want to keep US troops in Central Asia beyond the Afghanistan campaign "accentuates the fact that the war on terrorism is horribly complicated, and risks being lost by being overloaded with other agendas," Lieven adds. "One problem is that some in the Pentagon are gung-ho for world domination. And then you have [others] who say: 'Hang on a second, we are not prepared for that.' "

Moscow's former domains stretch from Uzbekistan to Ukraine, and have often bristled under Russia's strong-arm tactics to re-exert control. The US arrival may be forcing changes.

"The fact that Russia has acquiesced to US troops in Central Asia and indeed Georgia, shows that Russia itself is prepared to play a much more open and even-handed role in the region," says Julian Lee, a senior analyst at the Center for Global Energy Studies in London. "But we're seeing Russian interest in business channels, rather than political and military ones. It's the sensible way forward."

Some observers say that Putin's KGB background makes him as wary as anyone of American moves – but also realistic about the imperative of a pro-West future.

"We are living in the age of a new Rome," notes Andrei Piontkovsky, head of the Center for Strategic Research in Moscow, in an analysis published over the weekend. Dismissing Russia's "boot-licking elite," which he says is "choked with hostility toward the US," Mr. Piontkovsky says that energy reserves and influence at the start of the new century will allow Russia and the US to be "useful partners ... if Russia proves able to overcome its cold war-defeat complex and the United States learns not to trumpet its victories."

Pipelines can be another point of cooperation. The US has long pushed for an oil line from Azerbaijan to Turkey, which deliberately bypasses Russia and Iran. But Russia has a key stake in the year-old, Chevron-led CPC pipeline, which carries Kazakh oil to a Russian Black Sea port.

And though laughed at when first proposed during Taliban rule, plans to build two pipelines, oil and gas, across Afghanistan are now being dusted off. Cutting Russia into any such deal to provide gas to South Asia could make sense, analysts say.

That could help satisfy Russia's bottom line – maximum market share. Russian gas reserves are the largest in the world, but a European Union decision this weekend will break Russia's decades-long monopoly there.

"Putin's a realist, and economics are everything," says Szymczak, of "Oil and Gas Eurasia." The result is a tricky balancing act for Putin, as American influence spreads to Russia's borders. "The reality is that a lot of the money to run this country comes from gas sales," Szymczak says. "Putin needs markets to the east – or the whole thing unravels, and he's got a bigger problem than just a few people thinking: 'Oh goodness, we've got Americans in Uzbekistan!"

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