At first glance, all may seem quiet on the U.S.-Russian front. But a new era of confrontation is quietly unfolding in the Caspian and Caucasus, where recent political developments -- and expanding strategic agendas in Moscow and Washington -- have heightened the competition over a number of pivotal regional states.
Georgia is one such battleground. U.S.-Russian jockeying there has accelerated in recent weeks, in the wake of Tbilisi's unexpected late November "velvet revolution." In the run-up to presidential elections earlier this month, American officials have taken the opportunity to stress the country's potential for NATO membership, provided a pro-Western political transformation takes place. Washington has also stepped up its military engagement, emphasizing plans for both greater U.S.-Georgian defense cooperation and expanded aid to the former Soviet republic.
Russia, meanwhile, has capitalized on Georgia's post-coup instability by initiating discussions with the leadership of the autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia regarding their possible integration into the Russian Federation. Banking on their pro-Russian orientation, the Kremlin has reportedly offered "protectorate" status to both regions -- a move that would effectively integrate them into the territory of Russia. As for breakaway Ajaria, the Kremlin could be contemplating an outright territorial grab; with legal status for the region still governed by a decades-old Soviet treaty with Turkey, and with the Turkish government currently disinterested in the area, all Moscow has to do to accomplish Ajaria's de facto annexation is to provide it with security guarantees against Tbilisi.
At the same time, Russia has been working to undercut Georgia's strategic role as a conduit for Caspian energy. Recent revelations suggest that Moscow has been sponsoring a covert campaign aimed at derailing construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.
A geopolitical tug-of-war is also taking place between Moscow and Washington over Azerbaijan. On his recent visit to the oil-rich republic, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dubbed Baku a "strategic partner" of the United States -- a reflection of Azerbaijan's growing importance to U.S. military planning, now focused on redeploying forces from current bases in Europe further east.
The secretary's visit also marked a major step forward for the "Caspian Guard Initiative," a new bilateral strategic program aimed at assisting Baku in battling terrorism, drug trafficking and proliferation. As part of this effort, the United States is poised to dramatically expand its military profile in the region through activities ranging from closer naval cooperation to a greater aerial surveillance.
Russia, for its part, has taken a different tack. In recent weeks, it has proffered an array of diplomatic carrots and sticks to Azerbaijan's new president, Ilham Aliyev. These range from promises of stepped-up trade and military cooperation to thinly-veiled threats that the Kremlin might move militarily to counter a foreign presence in the region.
Simultaneously, Russia has been busy beefing up its presence in neighboring Armenia. As a result of agreements signed in November, Moscow has solidified basing rights at the 102nd military base in Gyumri, tightened defense-industrial ties with Yerevan, and pledged to provide high-tech weapons systems to the Armenian government at reduced prices. Together, these moves have confronted Azeri politicians with an expanded military threat from their chief regional rival, courtesy of the Kremlin.
Moscow has even gone so far as to propose a new settlement plan for the long-running Nagorno-Karabagh conflict -- one that could make it a virtual guarantor of regional stability between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Policymakers in Baku are understandably uneasy about the Kremlin's overture, which they fear is simply a pretext for Moscow to extend its military presence into their country.
Both Russia and the U.S. have also intensified their efforts to influence Kazakhstan's political direction. On the heels of the establishment of a U.S.-funded Kazakh military base in the Caspian coastal city of Atyrau this fall, U.S. and NATO representatives have opened discussions with Astana about the formation of a Kazakh Naval Fleet to safeguard the Central Asian republic's maritime energy interests. Not to be outdone, the Kremlin has also made a bid for a role in the creation of a Kazakh navy, and has laid out an ambitious agenda for expanded military coordination between Moscow and Astana.
These moves, indicative of the growing friction between U.S. and Russian regional ambitions, are only the beginning. In Washington, the Pentagon's focus on force transformation, and corresponding plans for dramatic military redeployments, are steadily making Central Asia an area of vital American strategic interest. Russia's recent parliamentary elections, meanwhile, have handed the Kremlin an even broader mandate to pursue its neo-imperial aspirations in the "post-Soviet space."
To be sure, the ultimate outcome of the competition in the Caspian and Caucasus is still far from certain. But one thing is clear: The victor will play a decisive role in molding the political future of both regions.