US–Russian Rivalry in the Caucasus: Towards a New Cold War?
by MOHAMMAD SOLTANIFAR
The Caucasus has long been of considerable geopolitical and geoeconomic importance. Throughout history, the region has played a commercially vital role as a link between Europe and Asia and that is why regional and global powers have sought to dominate it. The collapse in 1991 of the Soviet Union enhanced the strategic significance of the Caucasus and pushed it further into the spotlight. The security vacuum resulting from the Soviet disintegration, together with rich in situ energy reserves and the demand for these on world markets, have created cause for rivalry between regional and transregional powers.
The strategic Caucasus region has become much more complicated, with its components inseparable. A change in any one of these constituents will have a ripple effect throughout the entire body, meaning that the peripheral countries have to reach consensus if security is to be established there.
Players in the Caucasus are the United States, Europe, Russia, Iran, Turkey, China, India and Pakistan. They are determined to build connections in the region.
Efforts undertaken to stabilise the Caucasus are not in harmony and each country puts priority on its own strategic, political, economic and cultural interests. Hence, the Caucasian countries have opted for their own approaches in the light of their geopolitical and historical backgrounds, further complicating the security and political equations.
The battle for influence in the region is fiercest between Russia and the United States. Russia is seeking to foster its longtime political, economic and military domination of the Caucasus, while the United States has invested in the Caucasian energy sector and developed military co-operation with a number of Caucasian countries, undoubtedly in the hope of boosting its penetration of the region.
US Strategic GoalsWestern powers, and specifically the United States, cannot close their eyes to the geostrategic and geoeconomic importance of the Caucasus. Owing to its numerous political, economic and social woes, Russia has failed to be a successor to the Soviet Union in terms of dominating the region. The United States has taken the opportunity to attempt to fill the security vacuum. The United States seeks control of Caucasian energy resources and to curtail Russian and Iranian influence in the region.
US policy in the region is characterised by the following strategic goals:
1. Boosting the US presence in the Caucasus and Central Asia to serve US interests within the framework of the new world order.
2. Backing the national independence of the former Soviet republics in a bid to avert any revival of Russian influence.
3. Blocking Iran’s penetration of the Caucasus and pushing the Islamic Republic into isolation.
4. Preventing the expansion of China’s presence in the region.
5. Opening the region to US corporate exploitation.
6. Tapping Caucasian energy resources in order to reduce US dependence on Middle East oil suppliers that are increasingly seen as unstable and potentially unreliable.
7. Opposing oil projects that threaten US interests.
8. Improving relations with Muslim countries and supporting “civilised” Islamic nations against radical Islamist movements.
9. Clearing the way for the involvement in the Caucasus of Turkey and Israel—two staunch allies of the United States.
The final outcome of these strategic goals will be an increase in the US military presence in the Caucasus under the guise of promoting democracy and human rights.
The Caucasus’s wealth of oil and gas has given the region special importance in the White House’s strategy of ensuring America’s continued global hegemony. Domination of the Caucasus would enable the United States to curb the influence of competitors such as China, Russia and Iran.
In the aftermath of the Cold War, the United States proclaimed the advent of a “new world order” in which the spread of liberal democracy across the globe was deemed to be inevitable. But instead of democracy, it is US hegemony that has expanded.
RussiaRussia is a major player in the Caucasus and the chief potential obstacle to US ambitions in the region. US–Russian relations fluctuated in the wake of the Soviet collapse, but President Vladimir Putin has managed to stabilise ties with Washington on a reasonably friendly footing. However, both countries regard the Caucasus as a priority and rivalry persists between them for domination over the region.
Washington is well aware of Moscow’s traditional definitions of security and knows that Russia is worried about its loss of influence over the former Soviet space. Consequently, Washington is watchful for attempts by Russia to reassert its dominance over its neighbours. Any new Russian supremacy could result in the outbreak of tensions similar to those of the Cold War.
As a result, the White House is trying its best to accommodate those Russian security concerns it regards as legitimate, provided doing so does not harm US interests. In developing its relations with Russia, the United States is seeking to:
1. Facilitate the integration of Russia in the global economy and international security structures.
2. Involve Russia in defusing crises.
3. Encourage Russian co-operation with NATO.
4. Persuade Russia to halt its arms trade with countries the United States regards as supporters of terrorism.
5. Co-operate with Russia in the oil and gas sectors as a counter against OPEC.
NATO ExpansionWashington is pushing for NATO expansion into the Caucasus and Central Asia as a means of extending US influence in these regions.
Great-power rivalry in the Caucasus is a composite of geopolitical, security and economic games. In line with its strategic policies, the United States wants NATO to expand eastwards, and of course the US goal is represented as a demand from Central Asian and Caucasian countries.
Russia has always opposed NATO’s eastwards expansion, while Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia are keen to see the organisation brought into the region. Initially, they seemed to regard NATO membership as a prelude to joining the European Union and improving their economic situation, but security is today a shared and increasingly important concern of the South Caucasus countries.
In brief, NATO expansion into the Caucasus and Central Asia will allow the United States to:
1. Marshal its European allies in line with its own interests under the banner of NATO.
2. Increase its clout by establishing military bases along Russia’s borders and confining the Russian strategic space.
3. Set western limits to Russia and keep it from challenging US hegemony in the future.
4. Establish its presence on the Asian periphery to guarantee its domination of the Middle East.
5. Thrust Iran into political isolation by having NATO expand up to India and China.
The ‘Colour Revolutions’The rich energy reserves of the Caucasus are a major strategic attraction, but the significance of the area is not confined to energy. Washington’s democratisation programmes in the Caucasus are intended to serve US national and security interests.
In backing the independence of Caucasian and Central Asian nations by encouraging their people towards democracy and assisting the establishment of peace and security, Washington seeks the emergence of wealthy and democratic countries that are oriented towards the United States and that will be hospitable towards its objectives in the region.
Some Central Asian and Caucasian countries tolerate organised political parties and critical newspapers, but the opposition is not a genuine threat with the ability to unseat the ruling power. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan lack even the symbols of democracy, while in some other countries of the region the opposition is not powerful enough to win elections.
The dying days of 2003 and 2004 witnessed a variety of events that transformed the geopolitics of the Caucasus and the surrounding region. In 2003, the young US-educated Georgian opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili toppled the government of Eduard Shevardnadze to become president. Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” was the first of the “colour revolutions” in a former Soviet country, so-called because the protesters usually adopt a specific colour as their symbol. It was followed a year later by the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine, with a full repetition of the Georgian scenario.
Viktor Yushchenko, newly installed as Ukrainian president, told a joint session of the US Congress in April 2005 that his nation had made an irreversible choice for democracy and the West, but that it still needed US aid to preserve the gains of the Orange Revolution.
“We do not seek only a thaw in the frosty relations of the past,” Yushchenko told a packed House chamber. “We seek a new atmosphere of trust, frankness and partnership.”
But while thanking America for its support of democracy in the former Soviet republic, Yushchenko also made a plea for new economic and political help, including the lifting of US economic sanctions and US backing for Ukraine’s applications to join the European Union and NATO.
“We do not want any more walls in Europe, and I am certain that neither do you,” said Yushchenko, who delivered his thirty-five-minute address in Ukrainian.
Yushchenko in his speech praised US support for “captive peoples” under Soviet rule and offered a “special tribute” to former president, Ronald Reagan.
The Ukrainian leader appealed to Washington to ease visa restrictions and to recognise Ukraine as a market economy, opening the way to more bilateral trade and investment.
Azerbaijan may be the next in line for US-sponsored “regime change”. Some analysts believe a pardon by President Ilham Aliev in March 2005, setting free opposition activists who were imprisoned in connection with post-election rioting in 2003, was an attempt to show the international community that the Azerbaijani government is sincere about reform. The move came amid signs that Azerbaijan’s fractured opposition is coming together as preparations for the country’s parliamentary election, scheduled for November 2005, get under way. Some opposition members are already expressing a desire to bring about a “democratic revolution” in Azerbaijan, emulating the experiences of Georgia and Ukraine.
In Armenia, Aram Karapetian, leader of the New Times political party, has declared his intention to start a “revolution from below”, citing the example of the Orange and Rose revolutions. He says Armenia’s revolution will be peaceful, but will not have a colour.
A US Hand?Western media tended to portray the “revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine as genuinely popular and indigenous upheavals, largely ignoring the role of US funding and US non-governmental organisations in supporting the anti-regime protest movements in both countries.
An exception was Ian Traynor of the Guardian. He described the campaign that brought Yushchenko to power in Ukraine as
Among the US bodies identified by Traynor as supporting and mobilising the colour revolutions in post-communist countries are the State Department, USAID, the Democratic Party’s National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute of the Republican Party, and the Freedom House NGO. Also involved is the Open Society Institute of the Hungarian-born US financier George Soros.
Soros spent $20 million in 2003 alone in backing reform movements in five Central Asian countries—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. And he has expressed “great pride in having contributed” to the Rose Revolution. According to the Los Angeles Times, during the November 2003 parliamentary elections in Georgia, Soros “supported exit polling that indicated an opposition party placed first, contrary to official results. The poll played a critical role in triggering mass protests over alleged vote-counting fraud”, leading to the overthrow of Eduard Shevardnadze and his replacement by Mikheil Saakashvili.2
After the Rose Revolution, some Central Asian nations cracked down on Soros’s institute. President Islam Karimov ordered its expulsion from Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan accused the institute’s local branch of corruption and nepotism.
As Soros’s role in Georgia indicates, a notable aspect of the colour revolutions is the use of external election monitors and unofficial exit-pollsters that are independent of the incumbent regime and often trained and funded by Western groups. A key moment in the Orange Revolution was the eleven-point lead given Yushchenko by non-state exit polls: “The exit polls are seen as critical because they seize the initiative in the propaganda battle with the regime, invariably appearing first, receiving wide media coverage and putting the onus on the authorities to respond.”3
The latest post-Soviet country to have experienced a colour revolution is Kyrgyzstan, whose president, Askar Akaev, was swept from power by a popular revolt in March 2005. As in the preceding Rose and Orange revolutions, American financing and ideological support were evident in Kyrgyzstan’s “Pink Revolution” (or “Yellow”, protesters in different areas adopting different colours).
Russia’s Turn Next?Belarus is widely tipped as a candidate for another externally supported colour revolution. The country is subject to US sanctions, and in early 2005 was listed by the United States as Europe’s only remaining outpost of tyranny. There have been a number of popular protests against the president, Alexander Lukashenko, the most recent being in March 2005. The police cracked down severely on what was a self-proclaimed attempt to emulate the Kyrgyzstan revolution. Lukashenko has declared that in Belarus “there will be no pink or orange, or even banana revolution”. On 19 April 2005, he said: “All these coloured revolutions are pure and simple banditry.”
But it is Russia that some observers believe to be the ultimate target of the United States in underwriting the colour revolutions. No less a person than Alexander Solzhenitsyn has warned of the prospect of an externally financed uprising in Russia. In a television interview broadcast in June 2005 on the Rossiya channel, the Nobel Prize–winning novelist and former dissident said: “An Orange Revolution may take place if tensions between the public and the authorities flare up and money begins flowing to the opposition.”4 He criticised the United States for trying to impose democracy on other countries: “The US has a strange idea of democracy. They first interfered with the Bosnian situation, bombed Yugoslavia, then Afghanistan, and then Iraq … The US must understand that democracy cannot be introduced by force, by the army.”5
Observers like Solzhenitsyn believe that the United States, having promoted and funded a number of popular protest movements in eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, aims at the very least to encircle Russia with pro-Western regimes that are politically and economically indebted to Washington and that will do its bidding. But they fear that the United States may well attempt to apply the Georgian and Ukrainian regime-change template to Russia itself, inspiring a “democratic” revolution there that unseats Putin or any similarly independent-minded defender of Russia’s interests, replacing him with a leader who is more pliant and accommodating to the West.
If that really is Washington’s game-plan, then the world is due, as the Chinese saying has it, to live through “interesting times”. Any US attempt to destabilise or weaken Russia by blatantly interfering with its choice of leader would inevitably raise the prospect of confrontation with Moscow and a renewal of the tensions and hostilities of the Cold War, if not worse. Writing in 1998, Sergo A. Mikoyan, a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences, deplored the “inability, or refusal, of American policy-makers to respect the proper limits of US power”, especially as regards “US involvement in conflicts near Russia’s borders”.6 It was Russian weakness that allowed the United States to assert itself in the former Soviet sphere, Mikoyan argued. But this weakness arose from problems that are “primarily domestic” in nature and that would one day be surmounted. He concluded with the following wise advice:
1. Ian Traynor, “US Campaign behind the Turmoil in Kiev”, Guardian (London), 26 November 2004.
2. David Holley, “Soros Invests in His Democratic Passion: The Billionaire’s Open Society Institute Network Is Focusing on Central Asia Now”, Los Angeles Times, 5 July 2004.
3. Traynor, “US Campaign”.
4. Jeremy Page, “Russia Is Now Ripe for Freedom Revolution, Warns Solzhenitsyn”, Times (London), 7 June 2005.
5. “Writer Solzhenitsyn Criticizes Russia’s Political System and US Policy”, Novosti, 6 June 2005.
6. Sergo A. Mikoyan, “Russia, the US and Regional Conflict in Eurasia”, Survival 40, no. 3 (autumn 1998), p. 112.
7. Ibid., p. 124.
Mohammad Soltanifar is managing director of the English-language daily, .