Meaningful Giants in ‘Eurasian Balkan’

Posted in Asia | 28-Feb-06 | Author: Muhammad Aslam Khan

Introduction

Five newly independent Central Asian Republics (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan) and three South Caucasus countries (Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan) have been termed as ‘Eurasian Balkan’. Two possible candidates to join the arena are Turkey and Iran. The sensitivity of the area could not have been spelt out better with a single term what Mr. Brzezinski did about a decade ago. As is evident from the map, Azerbaijan is South Caucasus country as well as a Caspian littoral. Similarly Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan besides being Central Asian countries are also Caspian littorals for having direct coast on the Caspian Sea. Iran is a Middle Eastern country as well as a Caspian littoral. Russia gains added significance when it is a Caspian littoral and a Caucasus as well as a European country simultaneously. Uzbekistan is not a Caspian littoral but is considered a part of Caspian Region, only in the hydrocarbon geological context.

Titans in the Arena with Responsibility?

Scholars see geo-strategic and economic interests of US and Europe inseparable; yet through some variants in the interpretation, particularly in the backdrop of oil depletion scenario by mid of the century. Whatever the emphasis to prove whether economic interests are contingent upon the geo-strategic constraints of ‘Eurasian Balkan’, a focal point has emerged that geo-economic rivalry in the region is helping geo-strategic competition to flourish as the New Great Game. But there are some exceptions like Stephen Sestanovich who testified otherwise in 1998, maintaining that US policy does not begin from an assessment of our economic interests, but rather from geo-strategic stand point. Shall one assume that by asserting his country’s geo-strategic stance; and being a US Govt functionary, he was by implication conducting a counter maneuver 58 years later as a response to, what Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler had conspired in November 1940 against USA to keep it out of Eurasia for geo-strategic implications? Yet the world knows US economic interests’ priority is far higher than any other consideration because of the Caspian Region that constitutes the nucleus of ‘Eurasian Balkan.’ The Region’s petroleum geology holds tremendous potentials; with 4 to 5% proved reserves of the world total proved reserves each in oil and natural gas. US involvement in and across Caucasus has picked up distinct momentum since mid nineties. For the Persian Gulf, an instrument of energy security in form of Carter Doctrine was already in place but debate heated up on the desirability of extending umbrella to Caspian-Caucasus Region as well. That meant additional task for US CENTCOM, which, in the event of simultaneous engagements could run out of breath. Therefore another military alliance, NATO, was to roll over the region of interest with expanded scope and tasks. US Govt thus made her fractured energy policy rather conspicuous. Some pertinent questions can be raised. Why did US resort to a sort of knee-jerk action in this regard when ‘energy security’ concerns could be addressed even through the instrument of ‘diplomacy’ in Eurasian Balkan? Did US conceive the ramifications of trampling over Caspian-Caucasus sensitivities particularly when the region is skirted around by four regional powers, Turkey to the west, Russia to the north, Iran to the south and China to the east? Partial answer to these questions is available through Douglas Blum comments, saying, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that America’s Caspian Policy has been predicated on the illusion of a unipolar moment: the notion that Washington can orchestrate and subsequently can maintain a convivial alignment of international forces. The implication is that it is possible to fashion relations in the region so as to constrain Russian decision making with little or no blowback from Moscow. When such is the frank confession as well as approach, other actors in the ‘game’ would not like to take it lying low. In fact US struggle can be viewed even beyond the boundaries of ‘New Great Game’ when it is now seen struggling to construct an energy order in Middle East and Africa as well. Therefore as a part of grand energy strategy, US would perhaps never shy to foster ‘the West’ friendly integration of Mediterranean as well Caspian-Caucasus countries that would, of necessity need force projection and hence at least in the first stage the emerging proof is in sight: the expansion of NATO. Steve Levine has apt remarks to make that the new approach, coordinated by the US National Security Council is designed to break Russia’s grip on Central Asian oil export. The objective is to protect the survival of independent states in the region and to protect US corporate interests. Completion of Baku-Tbillisi-Ceyhan Pipeline, being celebrated by the Western camp as a unique marvel and a feat of engineering, has certainly the potentials to divert oil flow from north (Russia) or south (Iran) to the Western’s west. In over all perception when policy appreciations of the Western think tanks clearly point to the need of engaging Russia and other actors, such perceived blow to a fragile balance of power in ‘Eurasian Balkan’ though credible achievement for the West, introduces an element of dichotomy of their acts and facts. At least in oil and gas context: it amounts to blowing hot and cold in a single breath. Carter Page’s admission sounds realistic that current US Govt policy towards Caspian Region could come under increased pressure in the years to come. He is of the view that the proximity to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the possibility of sustained high-energy prices could potentially sharpen the US public’s attention on this region at some stage. As regards Iran, US till recently had been caught up with ambivalence. Iran Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) in place since 1996 has emerged as haunting US tool for Iran. There had been tense diplomatic war moments when each contrived a crooked title for the other. US fears about Iran abetting terrorism, push for WMDs and scuttling Middle East process have stayed green though occasionally streaks of reconciliation were also visible. However the mistrust has grown to a degree that it would take Herculean effort for both the Govts to garnish public mood to any compromise. Therefore in immediate scenario, Iran is compelled to react, the only trump card in Iran’s hands. On the US part, increased commitment of forces in the region may be perceived as a ‘stabilizer’ but suspicions get even more intensified with these two countries (Russia, Iran) and recently China joining their stance. Stephen Blank quoting Washington Post, comments that the Pentagon also recently allocated areas of responsibility…US European Command got the Caucasus and the Central Command received Central Asia. Although this is as much an administrative device to supervise the ongoing programme of military cooperation…it also represents a major step for contingency planning, and Moscow knows it. It is rather simple to include Iran and China in the ‘know-list’ as well. Since Clinton era, Caspian Region has been assumed as a back up source for oil and gas to the Middle East. In fact, gradually the bellicosity is exaggerating that shapes the aggressive mood of the US Administration. Some US analysts call on the United States not only to take the lead in pacifying the entire area now, arranging peace in Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh, North Caucasus, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and perhaps Kurdish war with Turkey, but also to over throw the government of Iran or to orchestrate a grand coalition advocated by Brzezinski. While the larger portion of such a prescription sounds merit, Iran centric part violates all norms of international relations, forgetting that Iran is doing comfortable business with the whole comity of nations with a few exceptions. The scrutiny of the revealing events suggests that US have neither met any considerable success nor are likely to: courtesy; the Iranian intransigence and the play of power politics of other actors conceived with a stretch of imagination to any limit possible. Searching the soul of US role; two prominent thrust lines emerge; first that US genuinely desires to bring an elements of peace, stability and pluralism in Caspian-Caucasus region at terms pliant to her interests. Secondly, any threat emerging to energy security scenario shall outweigh all the other considerations to stem out that threat. This recipe of US specific orientation; call it a grand strategy or New Great Game is bound to work with certain trepidation till such time other actors also assert their role in the arena to challenge her. In a desperate setting Russia, Iran and China have wherewithal to target her Eurasian interests because none other in the region is potent enough to even care about itself. In a lingering stalemate scenario, present honeymoon between US and some Caspian-Caucasus states may be encroached upon by the time factor (Uzbekistan is an example). In that eventuality, Russia, Iran or China could emerge as acceptable hegemons. By dint of US presence, hopes are on the extreme. One; that the energy resources, the region harbors, are ordained to raise the Caspian littoral societies to the Western level and second is, what Michael Mandelbaum said it, like a metaphor of a pressure cooker, what comes out of pressure cooker is always a matter of taste but on one point all cooks agree: the least desirable outcome, the one to be avoided at all cost, is an explosion. While whole world including Europe may agree, does the US, the leader too?

Recommendation

When the world is getting hoarse on the sight of ‘pressure cooker’, unfortunately no platform at the Eurasian Balkan level is being evolved for the dialogue among the Titans that may be long drawn process to test the guts of their energy wizards and the diplomats. Consequently international relationing remains prone to tremendous stress, yet none is inclined to admit the presence of such malady lest it may be labeled for the loathsome game. In an Asian dialect, they say that if pigeon closed its eyes, not willing to recognize the impending danger, the cat would devour it anyway. Waiting for the cat would not certainly be a prudent option. Onus to avert such a scenario lies on the leader (US), as a command responsibility that it has taken up so willingly!

Author
Brig Gen (ret) Muhammad Aslam Khan Niazi has military experience of about 32 years in Regiment of Artillery. Recipient of sitara-e-imtiaz (military) he served on various command, staff, instruction, administration, operational, research and evaluation appointments during his career. Holds first class Masters’ degree in International Relations from University Of Peshawar. Has appeared as defense analyst on PTV World channel for a couple of times. During the service and after retirement in September 2001, has contributed several articles and brief research papers in Army Defense Journal, Pakistan Army Green Book, other national/international English journals and the dailies. Currently, he is pursuing his doctorate at advance stages since 2002 in Area Study Center (Russia,China and Central Asia) University of Peshawar, Pakistan. ([email protected]).

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