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Analysis: Bush-Putin Summit And Its Implications For The Caucasus

(file photo) As the summit meeting of the U.S. and Russian presidents approaches, much of the focus has centered on the rise of a newly authoritarian Russia. Although several of Russian President Putin's recent measures have led to calls for a more confrontational U.S. challenge, the scope and scale of this new Russian authoritarianism have been largely domestic and internal in nature. The real challenge of this summit lies well beyond the borders of the Russian Federation, however.

The core issue involves neither an expansion of Putin's presidential power at the expense of democratic institutions nor a re-nationalization of resources at the expense of oligarchic networks. The underlying problem is the steady reassertion and consolidation of Russian power and influence throughout the former Soviet space. For the infant states along the Russian periphery, the threat is not from internal Russian authoritarianism but from external Russian activism.

Energy As Leverage

This is most evident in the states of the Caucasus, whose independence is impeded by a combination of internal weakness, structural vulnerability, and regional discord. The region has also been particularly vulnerable to the success of a more sophisticated Russian tactic of utilizing energy as leverage. This has involved a pattern of the Russian Gazprom and Unified Energy System (EES) firms actively targeting and acquiring key elements of the energy sectors of its smaller, vulnerable neighboring states. The strategy, as articulated by Anatolii Chubais, is one of forging a new "liberal empire" using the Russian control over nearby energy sectors as platforms for exporting electricity and projecting power in new ways. It is from this perspective that Russia seeks to supply power to Iran, Turkey, and China.

There is also a broader geopolitical asset from this energy policy. Aside from the obvious importance of high oil revenues for the Russian state budget, energy is a key component of Russian relations with both the United States and Europe. In fact, Russian natural-gas exports account for one-third of the European Union's gas needs and almost 90 percent of the energy needs for the new EU member states from the former Soviet bloc.

For Moscow, the manipulation of energy dependence has largely supplanted the more traditional use of military power to maintain its influence and, as part of its broader strategy, has bolstered its effort to forge a deeper integration of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Russian energy policy has followed this pattern from the Baltic states to Central Asia. But nowhere has it been more evident than in the energy sectors of Georgia and Armenia.

For Armenia, it has led to outright Russian ownership of much of the country's natural-gas- and electricity-distribution networks and management of the sole nuclear power plant. For Georgia, the already troubled electricity distribution network is now Russian-owned, ironically, after the pullout of the previous owner, a U.S. firm.

'Bigger Issues'

Against this backdrop of a more sophisticated Russian policy of control, there are two important trends that only threaten to prolong a pronounced erosion of statehood and sovereignty among the states of the Caucasus.

First, as demonstrated in the pre-summit agenda, attention to the needs of the Caucasus will most likely be eclipsed by larger issues. This trend of prioritizing the bigger issues, albeit significant in and of themselves, does nothing to curb a the deeper rise of Russian power over its former Soviet neighbors and does everything to foster a frustration and disappointment with the United States among these fragile democracies.

For the United States, a discussion beyond issues of democracy and the rule of law within Russia will be limited to broader geopolitical challenges. These include the need for Russian help in containing Iran to an agreement controlling the spread of portable surface-to-air missiles, or Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS).
There are signs that the defeat of Russian interests in the recent Ukrainian Orange Revolution has affected Russian policy toward its neighbors.

Moreover, the tendency of bilateral relations to be dominated by a shared emphasis on security, as seen in the parallel U.S. and Russian views on the war on terrorism, is a fundamental Russian advantage. The brutality of the Chechen conflict, for example, has been accepted far too readily as a blanket justification for ever harsher Russian security policies, rather than revealing the dangers of the conflict's spillover into Ingushetia, Daghestan, and, most recently, Kabardino-Balkaria. And it has mostly served as a foil to deflect any intrusive examination of Russian policy in the region.

The second trend affecting the Caucasus stems from a new modification in the course of Russian policy. Specifically, there are signs that the defeat of Russian interests in the recent Ukrainian Orange Revolution has affected Russian policy toward its neighbors. The significance of the Ukrainian case for Russia is unique, however, and more profound from Moscow's perspective, for two reasons.

First, unlike Georgia's Rose Revolution, Russia played no role in mediating or managing events in the case of the Ukrainian drama. Throughout the period of dramatic but peaceful change in Georgia, Russia played a fairly active role, culminating in the downfall of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. It was also Russia that mediated a calm restoration of Georgian central control over the Ajarian fiefdom of Aslan Abashidze, even to the point of providing him with a protected escape into Russia.

A Region At Risk

Yet the Russian role in the Ukrainian case was profoundly lacking. It found itself divorced from the reality of Ukrainian politics and devoid of any real leverage as the crisis escalated.

The second reason for the significance of the Ukrainian lesson for Russia stems from the realization that no amount of leverage or intimidation can overcome an empowered citizenry mobilizing behind the appeal of an effective alternative figure. This belated recognition of the potency of a combination of an engaged civil society with an engaging opposition candidate raises serious doubts over the future of the remaining authoritarian states.

This Russian apprehension is driven in large part by an already pronounced loss of state power and status, and is exacerbated by the inherent fragility of such strongman states. For Moscow, it is one thing to lose ground to the West in terms of NATO expansion or U.S. basing rights in Central Asia and the Caucasus, but it is quite another thing to have CIS members spin out of the Russian orbit from their own independent velocity.

Thus, the imperative for Russian policy is now one of preemption, to consolidate existing control while moving to prevent, or at least forestall, the rise of a "rainbow of revolutions" well beyond the case of the rose or the orange. The most recent example is in Moldova. With general elections set for early March, Moldovan security forces have already detained or expelled more than 20 Russian intelligence operatives in the past three weeks alone.

Yet Moscow can be consoled by two reassuring factors. For one, it seems unlikely that the coming presidential summit will even recognize the significance of the Ukrainian lesson. And second, for the Russian position in the Caucasus, the lack of a serious or even united opposition in either Armenia or Azerbaijan removes the threat of another abrupt change of government, at least in the near term. But both factors will merely spur greater Russian efforts to impede deeper democratization and immobilize potential political opposition.

Aside from a failure to grasp the true issues of importance, however, the true challenge for the United States in handling its summitry with its Russian partner is in forging a balance between the broader geopolitical needs of Russian cooperation with the imperatives for securing the statehood and sovereignty of the weak states of the Caucasus.

But until that balance is found, the Caucasus will most likely remain very much a region at risk.

See RFE/RL's special "Bush-Putin Summit" webpage for on-the-ground reports and keen insight and analysis of the 24 February meeting between U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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