BACKGROUND: General Tommy L. Franks, commander of the American forces in Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Persian Gulf, paid official visits to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in late August. In his meeting with Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Tashkent, the General confirmed the suspicion of many regional states, including Iran, Russia and China, when he stated that American forces in Afghanistan would stay there longer than expected. He also announced that the American military presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia would increase, while American military relations with the Central Asian countries would expand. His statements were repeated by an American Congressional delegation visiting Tashkent that day. Against a background of emerging disagreements between Russia and the United States added to Russia's vulnerability caused by its political, economic and military problems, a growing American military presence close to the Russian borders could accelerate a schism between Russia and the United States. American military presence in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan since October 2001 has been a source of concern for countries having grievances with the United States, such as China, Iran and Russia. These regional powers, which share long borders with Afghanistan and/or Central Asia, were suspicious of the long-term objectives of the American military in their region, a region of interest to the Americans not least for its fossil energy resources. Strategic considerations, i.e., its potential to offer to the U.S. a regional presence to keep Iran, China and Russia in check, also add to American interests in the region. Russia's opposition to the deployment of American troops in its neighbouring Central Asia and the Caucasus as part of the American operation in Afghanistan made Central Asians wary to such deployment shortly after September 11. After a while, Russia's position changed. This was due to Russia's interest in ending the Taliban regime, in improving ties and expanding economic relations with the United States, and concern about the possibility of Central Asian states hosting American forces without Russian consent. The American government emphasized on many occasions that the American military presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia would be short-term, a means to address Russian concerns. It also stressed its troops would be withdrawn at the end of their military operation in Afghanistan. Despite such assurances, Russia, like China and Iran, appreciated the probability of a long-term American presence in the region, now that the U.S. was present and had the opportunity to stay.
IMPLICATIONS: About a year after the deployment of American forces in the region, there is little doubt that they are meant to also serve purposes other than the declared one. In fact, this became evident short after the military deployment began, as it was inconsistent with a limited war in Afghanistan. While operating from an airbase in Uzbekistan neighbouring Afghanistan, the U.S. secured the use of an airbase in Kyrgyzstan. Lacking common borders with Afghanistan, the latter's usefulness was not apparent. The U.S. failed to receive an airbase in Kazakhstan, which also lacks borders with Afghanistan, but they secured overflight and emergency landing rights there, an addition to their overflight rights from Turkmenistan. Moreover, the U.S. stationed large contingents of naval and air forces in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, although their suitability for the operation in landlocked Afghanistan separated from the Arabian Sea by Pakistan was questionable. Already having bases in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. also acquired new bases in Oman and Qatar, received overflight rights from the UAE, and expanded their forces in Kuwait and Bahrain. It seems clear that the American military deployment is not proportional to the declared objective of neutralising the remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Given this situation, the recent statements of General Franks should not come as a surprise to the three regional powers, including Russia, although they contradicted the American government's previous statements. Yet the announcement of long-term American military presence and the future growth of the U.S. forces in the region is likely to worsen Russian-American relations. The American military build-up reflects an emerging assertive American regional foreign policy that is aimed also at Russia, China, and Iran. Given growing American military ties with Azerbaijan and the deployment of American military "advisers" in Georgia, Russia will have every reason for concern about the long-term American military presence in Central Asia. Logically, Russia's fear about its encirclement by hostile countries will make it closer to its neighbouring Iran, which also shares that fear. Russia's friendly relations with Iran are not new, but its efforts to expand relations with Iraq and North Korea signify a new trend. Not only does it reflect its aim to regain its lost markets, but it also indicates its determination to pursue its national interests despite American disapproval. In expanding ties with the members of the "axis of evil", Moscow wants to demonstrate its strategic differences with the U.S. over a whole set of international issues, as a necessity for re-establishing their lost international status. This logically requires building a new Russian foreign policy not associated with the American one. Unsurprisingly, the Russian government announced in August plans for major economic contracts with Iran, Iraq and North Korea. The planned contracts for Iran envisaged the expansion of their annual trade to $5 billion and the sale of $5 billion worth of arms. Russia also expressed readiness to sell six more nuclear power reactors to Iran. Regarding Iraq, it announced preparing a plan for a 40 billion-dollar mainly oil-related contract. As for North Korea, President Vladimir Putin emphasized the Russian interest in connecting South Korean railways to the Russian ones via North Korea and China during his August meeting with President Kim Jong-Il in Russia.
CONCLUSIONS: After a decade of cooperation with the United States, the U.S. pursuit of regional interests in Central Eurasia and Russia's pursuit of its national interests are gradually creating grounds for conflict and tension in Russian-American relations. Despite the predictable disapproval and anger of the U.S., the Russian bid in August to expand relations with the members of the "axis of evil" symbolically ended their policy of extensive cooperation with the Americans and may signal the beginning of a period of conflict in their relations.
AUTHOR BIO: Dr. Hooman Peimani works as an independent consultant with international organizations in Geneva and does research in International Relations.
Copyright 2001 The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst. All rights reserved.