Russia Wary of Postwar US Goals ; US Moves in Central Asia May Be on Today's Agenda When Secretary Powell Meets President Putin

By Weir, Fred | The Christian Science Monitor, December 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Russia Wary of Postwar US Goals ; US Moves in Central Asia May Be on Today's Agenda When Secretary Powell Meets President Putin


Weir, Fred, The Christian Science Monitor


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.

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