Global Policy Forum

The Last War First:


By Mark Irkali and Cali Ruchala

July 22, 2004

It's not about oil. It's not about Israel. It's obviously not about freedom, or Islam, and only remotely about terrorism. What it's all about is what it's always been about. It's about Russia.

The War on Terror is over. The War in Iraq will continue. The war against Russia has been won.

That's the kind of thing you're not going to read in the Washington Post, or hear about at koffeeklatches with capital investors, politicians moonlighting as lawyers or lawyers masquerading as politicians. Washington has drawn a big chalk circle around the largest nation on the earth, and ostensibly a friendly one, but it hasn't made a whisper in the headlines.

If you weren't paying attention, you wouldn't know that American troops are now stationed in nine of the fifteen post-Soviet states. Every one of these deployments has taken place in the last three years, using 9/11 as a pretext, and not one is today engaged in the hunt for the people who have engineered attacks on the United States and its allies. And, as usually happens in this business, most are likely to be permanent.

All you would know from the papers, in fact, is that the five former Soviet states without a Yankee legion in residence are now - surprised? - in grave danger of sinking into totalitarianism, illiberalism, violent nationalism, and, probably, internal collapse. Only a wing of F-16s or a platoon of boys from Fort Campbell can save them from themselves.

If not for the murder of 3,000 American civilians on September 11, 2001, this wouldn't have had a prayer of happening. The corpses of our fellow citizens aside, this is the moneyshot of a thousand policy wonks' and Russia-haters' collective wet dream. Finally, the Russian bear has been hemmed in and brought to heel, and it only took the bloodiest attack on American soil to make it happen. A small price to pay, in some folks' manner of thinking.


Of course, housing a few tons of American military hardware in a run-down garage has never been much of a stimulus for democracy. Among America's Chosen People in the former Soviet Union, five are unabashed dictatorships and a sixth is hugging the line like a drunk clinging to a subway rail. American power is likely to do nothing more than stabilize the status quo, with its cumulative and growing body count.

This is what you're not meant to see, and the mainstream press has for the most part utterly failed to cast light on this covert occupation of the former Soviet Union's borderlands. And so long as our distinguished colleagues at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting accept State Department grants for "promoting freedom" in former Soviet republics that also host American troops, you're not likely to read about the American encirclement of Russia there, either.

Instead, we often read of countries like Armenia and Russia slouching toward dictatorship - if not of the proletariat, then of their bureaucratic managers. Armenia, we're told, is still in the grip of a nationalistic frenzy, stubbornly holding on to sovereign Azeri territory in the form of Karabakh and paying the price of a debilitating embargo by Azerbaijan and Turkey. Quite illogical, those Armenian nationalists. If they saw the light, made peace and bowed to the superior wisdom of accepting a multinational peacekeeping force made up largely by Americans - everything would be much, much better.

Most of the conflicts that ripped apart the former Soviet Union in the 1990s are over, and a few frozen in place. In Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian peacekeepers patrol the ceasefire lines. Unlike American peacekeepers - who are, of course, moral beacons in behavior when sent by their leaders to patrol Third World hellholes - the Russians are supposedly corrupt double-dealers and the vanguard of a future restoration of the Soviet Union. The Americans have repeatedly voiced their pleasure to see them out.


Russia, for its part, is constantly lambasted by chicken hawks of the new school and the Russia-haters of the old for its "imperial ambitions." This has been repeated so often, for so long, that few bother to question the image of the sweaty, unibrowed Mishas and Nikolais scheming to subjugate whole continents to their will.

Here are the facts - the sobering facts - on Russia, America, and their respective "empires." America now has more than a hundred military bases and installations on foreign soil scattered throughout the world. Russia, on the other hand, has four - four - bases with which it can threaten such spectacularly failed states as Georgia, and support unrecognized and embargoed republics such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia. More than a hundred over here, four over there. Judging by the paltry coverage of America's most ambitious deployment this side of Iraq, it's easy to be in the dark about it.

In fact - and this statement should be read twice so as to appreciate its gravity - the United States now has more bases in the other former Soviet states than Russia itself.

Since no one has thought the issue worthy of extended analysis (except, of course, malodorous Russian "nationalists"), a brief primer on the covert creation of this launching pad for World War III - which will be the true legacy of the Bush Administration in this part of the world - is long overdue. Note that this state of affairs is not likely to change at all under a John Kerry presidency: Russia-hating and the messianic zeal that drives America to embark on these demented crusades aren't partisan traits. No matter who wins the elections, US aid will continue to flow and, what's far more dangerous, America's leaders will continue to identify the flag of our country with some of the most hated régimes on the planet, not a few of whom have already been trying to drag us into their petty turf wars with Russia and each other.


Now shiny new members of NATO (a security organization in existence to train fledgling armies in the Middle East, it appears), American planes are now patrolling the airspace of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. This is right on the Russian border, with nary a rogue state or terrorist organization (well, unless you count the geriatric SS veterans who occasionally hold parades in the Baltic capitals) in sight. At a time when American troops are being withdrawn from South Korea and deployments in the Balkans being wound down, nobody really questions the wisdom of allocating troops to bravely defend Tallinn or Riga from the nefarious plots of al-Qaeda.


Okay, so here's a place where it's sort of about oil. It's also about Iran, which is just over the southern border and hosts an estimated 15 million ethnic Azeris among its population. It's also about shoring up support for Ilkham Aliyev, scion of Heydar Aliyev, one of the most singularly vicious and avaricious leaders in the world until his death last November. Vladimir Putin is frequently reminded of his past in the KGB, but Heydar Aliyev actually had his paychecks signed by Beria and Stalin. Ilkham celebrated his ascension to his father's animal-skinned throne by imprisoning dissidents, journalists and protesters and torturing them mercilessly. America, you can be sure, sent vigorous letters of protest on their behalf.

Azerbaijan's oil deposits in the Caspian Sea are said to be enormous. America went to tremendous lengths of illegality in the 1990s to secure access to it. The Clinton Administration hammered away until working out the basics of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline. Baku is where the oil is loaded, it detours through Tbilisi because the Azeris want nothing to do with the Armenians, and Ceyhan is where it'll be offloaded into waiting tankers destined for American and European ports. A number of experts still believe the whole thing is a joke, and that demand for Azeri crude will never make the expense of the oddly-shaped pipeline worth the trouble.

But it did make Azerbaijan worth the trouble of an American security presence. The country was prohibited by an act of Congress from accepting a single American submachine gun up until 2001, when three planes slammed into American buildings and construction on the BTC Pipeline was due to begin. No one gives solid estimates on the numbers of American troops stationed in Azerbaijan now, except that they're there, and that they have precious little to do with the War on Terror.


The motherlode of the Bush Administration's perfidy after 9/11, Georgia is the place where the sparks of World War III are most likely to meet dry tinder.

In the 1990s, Abkhazia and South Ossetia fought wars for independence, and won. Not a single article has been written about Georgia lately without mentioning them, nor do they fail to comment generally on the supposed influence of Russia in planning and prosecuting the wars. This is quite a surprise to the authors of the present article, both of whom followed the wars first-hand.

The South Ossetian and the Abkhaz War began primarily as defensive fights - that is to say, Georgia unilaterally announced that peaceful negotiation had failed (or simply refused to engage in it to begin with) and sent in troops without violent provocation. The Abkhaz were at first driven out of the cities, then joined in the ranks by volunteers from the North Caucasus. Far from encouraging the movement on its restive southern frontier, Russia actually jailed its leader, Musa Shanibov, before popular protests forced his release. In the final battle of the Abkhaz War, Russian jets pounded Georgian positions, but it wasn't the decisive factor: the betrayal of a cease-fire by the Abkhaz and the flare-up of Georgia's third civil war against supporters of deposed president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, whose remaining partisans besieged Georgian heavy weaponry in the city of Poti and prevented it from being transported north, settled the war before it was over.

As for the South Ossetians (who objected to their ethnic homeland being split in half by the sudden creation of a tangible Russian-Georgian frontier), their autonomy was unilaterally revoked by Gamsakhurdia, after which they declared independence. The population was simply brutalized by Georgian paramilitaries and irregulars until Edvard Shevardnadze - who had nothing to do with the war - arrived on the scene and called off the siege. If suffering can pay for independence, the people of Tskhinvali, who ate rat-meat in cellars while gleeful artillery sang over their heads, have paid in spades.

These are the facts on the two break-away regions, which the new government in Tbilisi would like to reign in - typically for Georgians, in the most dangerous, impulsive game of brinkmanship imaginable. Until two years ago, Georgia didn't even have an army worth mentioning, but no more. Under fraudulent (and probably impeachable) claims that al-Qaeda operatives from Afghanistan were hiding in a lawless region near Chechnya and Dagestan, the Bush Administration dispatched a troupe of Green Berets to train the Georgian army, the leaders of which had once suggested the sensible use of genocide as a means to "solve" the Abkhaz conundrum.

The US military contingent's mandate was soon expanded to include guarding the Georgian leg of the BTC Pipeline. Now there seems to be no agreement over their role or even their length of duty within the US government itself. Secretary of State Colin Powell stated unequivocally in January 2004 that the troops will be pulled out once their training mission has ended, and the American military presence scaled back until no more than a few Marines at the embassy remain. The guy with his shingle hanging there these days, Ambassador Richard Miles, has flatly contradicted his boss and stated their presence is "permanent."

Whom to believe? Normally, you'd take the word of the boss over his subordinate, but Powell has been so out of the loop on so many things lately that all bets are off.

Two of Russia's four permanent foreign bases are located in Georgia, and officials as high as Secretary Powell have concurred with Georgia's leadership in demanding their dismantling. The irony is that, despite its strident tone, Georgia exists at Russia's pleasure, to the degree that it exists at all. More than a million - and some say as many as two million - Georgians work in Russia proper and keep the moribund economy afloat with their remittances. Russia could send them home tomorrow and they wouldn't have a candle to read by. Russian companies with a stake of state ownership are also in charge of gas distribution and electricity, and keep the lamps burning despite overwhelming and probably unrecoverable debt.


Just because they can't pronounce them doesn't mean the vowel-challenged states in Central Asia are unimportant. America has retained a foothold in four of them. Kyrgyzstan, like Tajikistan (see below) is in the strange position of inviting both the Americans and the Russians to maintain a permanent military presence. Originally said to be a "staging ground" for US troops before the fall of the Taleban in Afghanistan, they're still "staging," despite the presence of US troops in the post-war peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan itself.

Near the airport in Bishkek, the tent and plastic containers that American troops live in are being renovated and replaced by solid structures. It's clear to everyone that the "crisis" which brought them here will be permanent, and so will their stay.


The poorest of the former Soviet states, Tajikistan was ripped apart by an especially nasty civil war in the early 1990s. The war is usually characterized as a struggle between "Islamists" and "secularists," but that's putting a bit too much gloss on it. Tajikistan was - and still is - split up between dozens of feuding warlords, many of whom are coalescing, if not entirely dissolving, along the lines of the three main ethnic and regional tribes in the country.

Alone among its neighbors, Tajikistan has few natural resources. What it does have is a border with both China and Russia, which makes it aces in America's books.

Back in May, Tajik president and former employer of Sobaka's Misha Pozhininsky, Imomali Rakhmanov suggested that the Russian troops who patrol the border with Afghanistan and maintain some semblance of peace between the warlords in the rural areas might be leaving. A few weeks later, Rakhmanov, who controls the capital and the ground he walks on during his infrequent forays outside the city gates, reversed himself. There are allegations that some State Department goof wrote a check that his boss wouldn't cash. Whatever the case, the Russians are here to stay. So too, it seems, are the Americans.


Another venal dictator who devoted his country's beloved airspace to the "anti-terrorist coalition" is Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakstan (they dropped the superfluous "h" about ten years ago, along with human rights, the free market and a generally tolerable standard of living). Like Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan, Nazarbayev is paving the way for a dynastic successor - in his case, probably his daughter or, if the patriarchy keeps her down, his son-in-law. With airspace no longer the hot commodity it once was, Kazakstan is now being bribed with officer training and military hardware (with the necessary instructors and technicians, natch) in hopes of wresting it from the Russian orbit.

The jailing of dissidents and general tenor of persecution isn't really the problem here, though, as an overview of the fraternal "anti-terrorist coalition" allies elsewhere in this article would suggest. It's that several American oil company gadflies were implicated in what's referred to whimsically in Washington as "Kazakgate." For passing multi-million dollar bribes to Nazarbayev and his cronies, Mobil (later Exxon Mobil) bagman James Giffin was arrested by the FBI and charged with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. This dates back to the Clinton Administration, of course, so all of those dollars spent by Nazarbayev on Washington lobbyists and other agents of influence to salvage their boss' reputation have been unnecessary. Like Ukraine, Kazakstan will serve two masters for as long as it is profitable. Until the mullahs begin to hurl thunderbolts and fatwas, it always will be.


The human rights lobby's whipping boy, Uzbekistan is probably the weakest link in the chain of American airstrips on Russia's periphery. Unlike the other Central Asian states, Uzbekistan already has not one but two active insurgencies. One is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is often said to have been scattered after their bases in Afghanistan were smashed and their military leader, Djuma Namangani killed in fighting in or around Konduz. The second is... well, no one really knows who the second insurgent movement is, except that they killed at least 50 people in attacks in Tashkent and Bukhara back in March 2004, and that Uzbekistan's Shah Pahlavi act-alike, Islam Karimov, says they're Hizb ut-Tahrir in conjunction with al-Qaeda. That sort of rhetoric is good for Karimov, who has seen the aid and military hardware continue to flow, but bad for Bush, who'd like to say that despite some unforeseen diversions in Iraq, he has Osama's Terrorism, Inc on the ropes.

Just last Friday, the Bush Administration killed about $18 million in aid to Uzbekistan, ostensibly in protest of Karimov contemplating another referendum to extend his term in office, or outlawing more opposition groups, or jailing more Islamic clerics for use as human organ farms, or something. The slap on the wrist changes nothing. The same thing happened last year - after aid had doubled as a reward for Karimov's support for the War on Terror - and the withheld funds were simply reallocated. As in Kyrgyzstan, there are at least 1,000 US troops still left on the ground here from the invasion of Afghanistan back in November 2001. Kept away from the eyes of the population and the carbombs of Karimov's enemies, they're likely to stay for the long-haul.


That's the long and the short of it. Kind of hard to believe, that the War on Terror has had this delightful side effect of giving America a launching pad for World War III, isn't it? That's just what it's done, and the expansion isn't yet over. Ukraine has signed an agreement with NATO to allow the quick deployment of troops there in the future, should al-Qaeda find this overwhelmingly Christian state fertile ground for spreading their message of liberty-hating. Armenia is also in play, with an opposition coalescing around George Soros-supported "civic groups" that are importing their know-how from the Serbian and Georgian youth that played crucial roles in ending the authoritarian regimes there. And the Americans recently raised a ruckus to try to pressure Russia to leave Moldova, where ethnic Russians fought the mostly ethnic Romanian central government in another 1990s civil war.

The only countries not in play are Belarus and Turkmenistan - both fierce dictatorships where dissent is crushed underfoot by rather demented Soviet-era strongmen. In other words, countries like Kazakstan and Uzbekistan.

That leaves us with Russia itself. The spectre of American troops supporting the free market and free press in the motherland of socialism couldn't be more unlikely, though if the Brzezinskis and the neo-cons have their way, that too will be in the cards. Brzezinski has for years made the helpful suggestion that Russia is impossible to rule because it's too large, too unwieldy. It would be the best for all of us - but especially Russians themselves - for their country to be broken up into several states.

Such a scenario might be their fantasy, but it's not likely to happen. Then again, neither was the dream of encircling America's old Cold War adversary in a steel ring of bases on the pretext of the greatest mass murder in American history. It's happened, despite the chaotic state of the region, the visceral hatred of neighbours and authoritarian régimes like Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan probably creating more terrorists for every one they smite with a Godly vengeance. And now we wait for the chickens to come home to roost.

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