Rivalry Brews in Russia’s Backyard

Times Staff Writer

The Cold War may be over, but U.S. and Russian soldiers are expanding outposts in this mountainous former Soviet republic about 3,200 miles east of NATO headquarters in Brussels and nearly 2,000 miles from Moscow.

The U.S. opened its base three years ago as a launching pad for troops and cargo heading into Afghanistan. Two years later, with the Americans showing no signs of leaving, Russia opened its own base. Now, Moscow is quadrupling the number of its troops, while the American garrison is crawling with bulldozers and trucks, as Washington spends $10 million replacing tents with sturdier quarters.

Officially, Russia has welcomed the U.S. presence as a reflection of a new partnership against a common enemy: Islamic extremists. Washington, in turn, has praised Moscow for enhancing cooperative security efforts in this volatile corner of Central Asia.


But the cooperation is limited largely to words. The current U.S. base commander has never met his Russian counterpart, troops are mostly forbidden to venture outside their respective gateposts, and military flights are scrupulously segregated.

The bases here are symbols of a new rivalry between East and West for influence over the lands of Russia’s old empire. More than a decade after it ended, the global Cold War standoff has been supplanted by competition for political and economic hegemony along Russia’s vast frontier stretching from the Baltic Sea to China.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a weakened Russia initially turned inward and the West moved rapidly into the faded superpower’s sphere of influence. But now, armed with $50-a-barrel oil and a determination to protect its interests, a newly confident Kremlin is reasserting centuries-old claims.

The competition extends far beyond Kyrgyzstan. The U.S. also has military bases in neighboring Uzbekistan and has sent military trainers to Georgia, where Russia has two bases. Moscow’s Baltic Sea fleet sails from a sliver of Russian territory between two new North Atlantic Treaty Organization members, Poland and Lithuania; NATO planes now patrol the skies over former Soviet republics to Russia’s west.

The Caspian Sea basin, with its more than 200 billion barrels of oil, is seen by both Russia and the U.S. as a zone of strategic interest. Russia is using its energy reserves to maintain influence in the small, newly independent countries of the Baltic and Caucasus regions.

And now, the struggle between pro-Moscow and pro-Western forces is playing out in the disputed presidential election in Ukraine, a territory that for centuries has been central to Russia’s sense of itself as a great power.

“As a military man, I see that Russia is surrounded. And I can imagine the reaction of the U.S. if our country were all of a sudden to declare the Gulf of Mexico the zone of our vital interests. We’re gritting our teeth,” said Russian parliament deputy Viktor Alksnis, a former air force colonel.

“On the other hand, they are mistaken if they think Russia collapsed along with the Soviet Union in the 1990s,” he said. “For all the 1,000 years of history of our state, Russia has been like a human heart. It squeezes and unsqueezes. And what we have seen recently is that people who should have looked to Russia as a partner in tackling global problems have instead seen a need to drive the Russian bear back into its den.”


In 2000, Boris N. Yeltsin handed over the Russian presidency to Vladimir V. Putin, a former KGB agent whose youth and aura of strength gave his demoralized and chaotic country a badly needed shot of confidence.

While Putin consolidated his political power, Russia also gained a windfall from rising global oil prices. Now, backed by its energy wealth, $100 billion in gold and foreign currency reserves (growing lately at a rate of $2 billion a week) and an upgraded arsenal of 7,800 nuclear warheads, Putin has broadly reasserted the power of the Russian state.

He has blocked the sale of Russia’s biggest oil companies to Western conglomerates, sharply centralized government authority and driven democratic forces to the political margins.

And in the last year or two, it also has become clearer how Putin aims to position Russia in the world at large. Quietly, Russia is regaining a semblance of its historic empire.

By locking in energy contracts, controlling pipelines and buying up regional utilities, the Kremlin now holds a near-monopoly in much of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. Russian businessmen have bought up factories, steel mills and energy companies. Russian interests that back pro-Moscow candidates now represent a powerful political force in nearly every former Soviet republic.

“Until recently, everyone was concerned that Russia, weakened by its internal crisis, was becoming unpredictable,” Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov said this year. “But now a different kind of Russia is feared: a country which has become stronger and more confident after several years of stability and economic growth.”

To some in the West, the scenes now playing out in the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Baltics hark back to the czarist empire’s conflicts with other European powers, including Peter the Great’s parade through the Baltics; periodic invasions of Poland; and the “Great Game” with Britain for control of Central Asia.

“Some people say this is the new Cold War. It is not. It is much closer to 19th century or early 20th century behavior, where you basically had these feverish qualities sweeping Moscow, when they were off to do something thoroughly stupid and dangerous in Europe,” said Bruce P. Jackson, a former Pentagon official who now heads the Project on Transitional Democracies, which has lobbied for democratic reform in the former Soviet republics.

But Russian officials say they are intent merely on protecting their country.

“Our main task is to ensure national security, first of all. It is the creation of a belt of security around our country, and a gradual expansion of our coordination with other states on key world issues. We have agreed to new forms of cooperation with NATO,” Igor S. Ivanov, secretary of the National Security Council, said in an interview.

“But all of this does not mean that we have overcome our differences,” the former foreign minister said. The U.S. and its allies must keep in mind that Russia is strong militarily and economically, that it retains a seat on the United Nations Security Council, and that it has worked for global stability, he said.

Besides investing heavily in upgrading their strategic nuclear arsenal, Russian officials have signaled that they will use it if necessary: a message that Moscow will not be cowed by the threat of NATO airstrikes.

Putin has tried to use the U.S. presence in the region for his own purposes. Recognizing that Islamic militancy on Russia’s borders presents a great danger, he joined the Bush administration’s war on terrorism. In his most crucial policy move, he used his influence in Central Asia to help the United States set up bases to attack the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Putin saw an opportunity to forge an alliance with President Bush that would enable him to paint Russia’s war against Muslim separatists in Chechnya as part of a common fight against terrorism. The strategy appears to have paid off, to a large degree, as Washington has muted its criticism over allegations of torture and civilian slaughter by Russian troops.

Analysts say Russia also has used the U.S. presence in Central Asia to counter an interloper it fears even more: China.

China’s 1.3 billion people and rapidly growing economy, sitting next to Russia’s depopulated Far East, engender “vague horror scenarios” of Chinese expansion, said Dmitry Trenin, deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Putin has made strides toward cooperation with China, concluding an economic and security pact in 2001 and signing a border agreement in November. Yet Putin also hedged his bets by facilitating a “temporary” U.S. presence, analysts say.

“The idea was, if the U.S. comes, it’s a strong counterbalance to China. They don’t have deep roots in the region, like China does. The U.S. will leave sooner, rather than later,” said Ivan Safranchuk, director of the Moscow office of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information.

Russia may have miscalculated.

Officials at NATO, created in 1949 as a bulwark against the Soviet threat, say Russia is proving a reliable partner by participating in joint military exercises, helping halt illegal weapons shipments and sharing intelligence on terrorism and drug trafficking.

“There is discussion on all the most fundamental issues: theater missile defense, defense reform. We’re discussing issues even where there’s political sensitivity. We had an open discussion on Ukraine just a few days ago, and it was a frank discussion, a very frank discussion,” said James Appathurai, NATO spokesman in Brussels. “Of course we do have differences of opinion on some issues.”

But many in the West question whether Russia is committed to transparency in government, democratic elections and a free press. “That is, in a sense, where the true test of the long-term strength of the relationship will be,” Appathurai said.

In an open letter to the European Union and NATO in September, more than 100 U.S. and European political leaders and academics, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), warned that Russia was “breaking away from the core democratic values” of the U.S. and Europe.

“President Putin’s foreign policy is increasingly marked by a threatening attitude towards Russia’s neighbors and Europe’s energy security, the return of rhetoric of militarism and empire, and by a refusal to comply with Russia’s international treaty obligations,” the letter said.


The main lines of new military, economic and political competition in the former Soviet republics, an area the Kremlin calls its “near abroad,” form a tight circle around Russia.

Although Russia has reminded the U.S. of its pledge that bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are temporary, the pace of construction belies the idea that the U.S. will be leaving soon.

“It will all depend on what the Kyrgyz government will support,” said Col. Bradley R. Pray, commander of the U.S. base in Bishkek. “Basically, we’ll have semi-permanent buildings here.”

U.S. officials scoff at the notion that Central Asian bases represent anything more than a steppingstone to Afghanistan. “In strategic terms, a base in Kyrgyzstan is a dagger in the heart of nowhere,” said a diplomat in the region. “What are we going to use it to attack, if not Afghanistan?”

The Kyrgyz government, which faced a significant incursion by Islamic militants from Uzbekistan in 1999, has welcomed both the Russian and U.S. military. American aid to the country has reached $283 million over the last three years.

Kyrgyzstan’s deputy defense minister, Col. Zamir Suerkulov, said the Russian base would provide air support to a multinational force to protect against regional Islamic insurgencies.

But some in the country also feel caught between forces beyond their control.

“When the U.S. base came, many people immediately began to accuse Kyrgyzstan of having betrayed Russia and its allies,” said Orozbek Moldaliev, head of the SEDEP Research Center, a political think tank in Bishkek. “Then when the Russian base came in as well, some began to fear that a conflict between the Americans and Russians on the territory of Kyrgyzstan was inevitable.”

But, he said, “In truth, it’s not just a small profit, it’s a huge benefit for us. Kyrgyzstan is milking not only two cows, it is also deriving a profit from China. So for most of us, the Cold War has gone from being ‘either-or,’ to ‘and-and.’ ”

Earlier this year, thousands of miles to the west, NATO expanded into the three former Soviet Baltic republics -- Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia -- but said it did not intend to open bases there. Russian hard-liners are skeptical.

“NATO keeps talking about ‘no intentions, no plans.’ But we frankly view NATO as an aggressive organization, which is constantly building up its military capabilities and expanding its sphere of operation towards Russia,” said Leonid D. Ivashov, a retired Russian general who formerly oversaw his nation’s international military cooperation directorate.

The Caucasus, the Baltics, and Ukraine -- arenas of rivalry between East and West for centuries -- are also regions of economic competition in which Russia is wielding its main weapon: energy.

Governments that don’t toe the Kremlin line risk steep price increases or having the tap turned off entirely -- as happened to Belarus this year after a tiff with Russia.

Supplies were abruptly halted to much of Azerbaijan and Lithuania as well. Moscow reportedly was concerned over Azerbaijan’s increased military cooperation with the U.S.

Russia’s state-owned gas company, Gazprom, has bought into several Lithuanian gas companies. In 2003, the state-controlled electricity monopoly, Unified Energy Systems, bought a controlling stake in the utility in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. The firm already has expanded its stakes in half of Ukraine’s local electricity providers and has its eye on the market throughout Eastern Europe.

UES chief Anatoly B. Chubais has said he dreams of a “liberal Russian empire” stretching across the territory of the former Soviet Union.

Russia canceled much of Armenia’s $90-million-plus debt last year in exchange for the transfer of assets in several key factories, scientific research institutes and power facilities that produce the majority of the former Soviet republic’s electricity.

The Russian steel giant, Severstal, has bought a controlling stake in Estonia’s major oil terminal. And in Latvia, Russia abruptly cut off oil shipments to the port of Ventspils last year in what some Latvian officials complained was an attempt to starve the Baltic nation into selling the facility at a bargain-basement price.

Putin made it clear how important the energy lever was to Russia when he announced last year that it regarded the Soviet-era pipelines that carry its petroleum products to market to be its responsibility -- “even those parts of the system that are beyond Russia’s borders.”

“This is a huge claim, and frankly a colonial claim -- ‘Even though the assets are on your soil, they belong to us,’ ” said Jackson, the former Pentagon official.

The political turmoil in Ukraine is the latest and largest example of the competition for political influence in the former Soviet republics.

In Georgia, the U.S. is supporting President Mikheil Saakashvili’s attempts to regain control over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- territories that Russia has used to maintain a foothold in the southern Caucasus and destabilize a key new transit route for Caspian Sea oil to the West. Russia has gone so far as to offer citizenship to residents of the two regions.

Lithuanian President Rolandas Paksas was removed from office in April, in large part because of his connections to a Russian businessman who contributed $400,000 to his campaign in 2003.

In Ukraine, the Kremlin poured more than $200 million into this fall’s presidential election, in part to protect economic ties worth up to $10 billion a year. Putin made two trips to Ukraine before the election to boost the candidacy of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, and huge billboards around Moscow urged Ukrainian expatriates to support Putin’s choice. His opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, is a strong advocate of Ukrainian membership in NATO and the European Union.

The reason for the interest is simple. As Vladimir I. Lenin once said, “If we lose Ukraine, we lose our head.”

Ukraine, with a population of 48 million, is the second-largest country in Europe and transports 90% of Russian gas to Europe. Many of the decisive battles of European history have been fought on its fields, and a westward-tilting Ukraine could sever Russia’s access to its Black Sea Fleet, which is currently under a lease agreement with Kiev.

Moreover, Ukraine is the key to Russia’s hope of establishing an economic coalition of former Soviet nations as a front against Europe. Belarus and Kazakhstan are also part of a pact initialed this year.

For both East and West, Ukraine always has been a “pivotal state” in what former U.S. national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski describes as the “Grand Chessboard” of geopolitics. That is especially true for Moscow, he said.

“Its very existence as an independent country helps transform Russia,” Brzezinski said. “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire.”

The dispute in Ukraine also could have implications for Putin’s grip on power. The techniques that have enabled the Kremlin and its allies to determine election outcomes in Chechnya and Belarus are on the brink of failure in Ukraine. Most analysts say that would inevitably encourage Russia’s own democracy advocates and threaten Moscow’s elite.

The U.S. and its allies are reluctant to talk about Russia as a military adversary. “Nothing we know about Russia, nothing we see and feel in the cooperation that’s going on, would suggest we should see Russia as anything but a partner of NATO,” an alliance spokesman said.

But military planners, perhaps on both sides, remain prepared for the possibility that one day, a leader more aggressive than Putin will take the reins of a reinvigorated Russia. This is not unimaginable in a country in which polls show that the 1970s, when Leonid I. Brezhnev led the Soviet Union, are regarded as a golden era.

In an address to the Senate Intelligence Committee in February, former CIA Director George J. Tenet listed Russia, along with North Korea and China, as a “pivotal state.”

“The Kremlin’s increasing assertiveness is partly grounded in a growing confidence in its military capabilities,” Tenet said, noting that although the Russian military remained at “a fraction” of its former strength, training rates and defense spending were increasing.

Russia’s updated military doctrine makes it clear that the Kremlin, like Washington, is prepared to use preemptive strikes against other nations to protect itself, and also to resort to nuclear force if gravely threatened.

The installation of NATO military infrastructure in the Baltics would prompt Russia to “conduct its policy and military planning based on the principles of self-defense,” Defense Minister Ivanov warned in a visit to Washington in April.

Russia’s newly beefed-up nuclear weapons also provide the Kremlin with an important political tool.

“Clearly, nuclear weapons are a shield against potential U.S. sanctions, military or otherwise,” said Trenin, the Carnegie official who has written a book on the Russian military. “The U.S. will not attack a nuclear power.”

Both sides have thought through the logistics, if only theoretically.

In a report prepared by the Rand Corp. for the U.S. Army this year, one scenario explored the possibility of a conflict between Russia and NATO in the Baltics. The report referred to “an assumed decline in Russian-NATO relations in the period after 2007,” and weighed how hard it would be for NATO to respond if Russian troops speedily overran the Baltics and dug in to wait for negotiations.

The report, analysts say, measures military capabilities; the chance of Russia invading the Baltics, most agree, is nearly zero.

Russia, for its part, conducted a military exercise in 1999 that envisioned “enemy” forces taking over Kaliningrad, the wedge of Russian territory between Poland and Lithuania that is the headquarters of the Baltic Fleet, and striking nuclear power plants and other targets inside Russia. As part of the exercise, a pair of Tupolev bombers simulated nuclear cruise missile strikes on the U.S. East Coast and Europe.

Nikolai Sokov, senior research associate at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, wrote in a report this year that Russia appeared to be using the possibility of limited nuclear strikes as a deterrent against political and military pressure.

But Russian officials say it is a mistake to confuse Moscow’s assertion of legitimate interests with a return of empire-building.

“It is wrong to interpret any of this as Russia’s attempts to impose its influence,” said Igor S. Ivanov, the National Security Council secretary. “In these countries, all the generations of people, although they are people of different nationalities, lived in one state. They had common culture, common education, they worked together, they developed their economies together. If you please, common thinking was formed. Naturally, these are not some artificial ties, these are real ties that connect us.”

At the same time, Russia’s reemergence as a player is not to be discounted, they warn.

“Whereas American interests extend thousands of miles, and to many continents, let’s accept that Russia has natural interests in the former Soviet states. Let’s have a dialogue about this,” former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev said in an interview.

“I think we have a unique chance to create a new quality of relations with the West. But we don’t want to be beggars. We don’t want to be treated by the EU or by the United States like we are down; that is something we will not accept,” he said. “Russia will not be scared. Russia will not be intimidated.”