The United States and Azerbaijan:
Why the New Great Game is a Loser

January 31, 1999

Comment: #229


[1] STEPHEN KINZER, "Azerbaijan Asks U.S. To Establish Military Base," New York Times, January 31, 1999.

The referenced report in today's New York Times describes an effort by Azerbaijan to lure the U.S. and Turkey into establishing military bases or a troop presence on Azeri soil.

Being seduced into an alliance with corrupt dictatorship like Azerbaijan would be a classic example of how the United States gets maneuvered into sowing the seeds for future conflicts. We would be getting involved in a cultural competition which is unrelated to our national interests, about which we know very little, and where the U.S. military has no business, because it could not be supported logistically without the cooperation or acquiescence of the Russians, who would probably be on the other side, if war broke out.

The United States got along fine without being involved in Azerbaijan or its oil during the Cold War, and prior to that, we did not play a role in the Great Game between Britain and Russia. But the collapse of the Soviet Union opened up a power vacuum in the great swath of territory, formerly known as Turkistan, ranging from Turkey in the West to the Sinkiang Province of China in the East. Now the lure of oil and natural gas in the Caspian Basin is a magnet attracting U.S. economic interests right into the middle of this strategic vacuum.

Establishing a U.S base or stationing troops in Azerbaijan needs to be understood in the cultural and historical context of greater Turkistan and the interests of its Turkic peoples. If the U.S. gets mixed up with Turkey (a country that I happen to admire) in Azerbaijan, we could create a witches brew of inflamed reactions in Armenia, Georgia, and particularly Russia, but maybe also China and Iran, or perhaps even India, each of which has their own problems with Turkic discontent, Turkic expansionism, or what is perceived as an out-of-control U.S. hegemon.

But the impact on Russia is by far the most important factor affecting U.S. security. For better or worse, Russia regards this region as its legitimate sphere of interest. A U.S - Turkish - Azeri alliance will be perceived by Russians as another opportunistic attempt by the U.S to weaken or humiliate Russia while it is down. Remember, when viewed through Russian eyes, such an action will not be interpreted isolation. It will be viewed in the larger context of other U.S. policies, most of which seem aimed at weakening Russia, such as the tacit support of criminal capitalism by using of shock therapy and the IMF to loot the Russian economy, the NATO expansion eastward , the tilt against Serbia, the unilateral decision to bomb Iraq without going through the Security Council where Russia has a veto, or the ongoing attempt to cut Russia out of a possible oil bonanza in the Caspian basin.

Bear in mind Russia is a great nation in deep trouble. Its economy lies in ruins. Social controls and traditional cultural values are breaking down, and Russia is awash in fissile materials. Now it is clearly in the interest of the United States to keep these fissile materials out of the hands of terrorists and rogue nations. That can only be done through a cooperative strategy with the Russians based on an appreciation of mutual interests, empathy, and trust. [See Comment #s 216, 218, 219, 220, 222, 224, and 226].

The fact that a hair-brained scheme like basing U.S. troops in Azerbaijan could even get into the New York Times without vigorous opposition or denunciation by the U.S. government says something about the short-sighted blindness that is creating a deteriorating state of relations with Russia, a country that is far more important to our national security than the oil of Azerbaijan.

If oil is so important that we are willing to put Russian democracy at greater risk to get it, would make more sense to trade thugs and patch up our differences with Saddam Hussein. Saddam has more oil than the Azeris, U.S. forces stationed in Iraq would be easier to support, he would have less incentive to unleash nuclear terror on the U.S., and by reducing tensions with Russia, we might be able to build toward a cooperative working relationship to rid the world of loose nucs.

One thing is clear, however. Since no one is talking about reducing oil consumption or promoting democracy, and imperialism has a bad name, future poets will have a harder time glorifying the new Great Game.

Chuck Spinney

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