TCS Daily


Thinking Like Grandmasters

By Ziba Norman - December 5, 2005 12:00 AM

Vladimir Putin has never been the great embracer of democracy and free markets that many in the West at one time hoped would characterize Russia's future leadership. For those who held any lingering doubts about his deeper beliefs, Putin's comments last April in his yearly speech to the Russian nation made it plain: The death of the Soviet Union, he asserted, was one of the "greatest geopolitical catastrophes of the century."

Even if one does not want to read too much into this -- it was a speech made to the Russian nation and designed, at least in part, to stir some of the nationalism Putin so bemoans in other contexts -- it remains revealing. Putin believes that Russia has more than a minor role to play in the geopolitical game, and that, in his view, stability is not achievable without her.

Developments in Russia in recent weeks give a clear indication of Putin's strategy to project this geopolitical power, in an attempt to re-assert Russia's pre-eminence and to ensure her future security.

November 2005 is destined to be a significant marker for all Russia watchers. On November 14 Putin announced the appointment of two deputy prime ministers: Demitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov. Each appears to have qualities that make him particularly valuable for the furtherance of Putin's vision.

Medvedev is known to be a pragmatic politician, a trusted friend of Putin's whose connection to the leader goes back to their St. Petersburg days, and a keen observer of the West. These qualities -- which would make him a strong contender for Russia's 2008 presidential election, when, in theory, Putin must step down -- pale in comparison with his crowning achievement: he is also chairman of Gazprom, Russia's state-owned natural gas company.

Ivanov, who was most recently defense minister and, as was Putin, a member of the Russian Federal Security Service, is known to have a nationalistic streak, tempered by a holistic view of security issues. He is concerned about Western influence, particularly what can be viewed as the destabilizing effects of "rainbow revolutions" in Russia's backyard.

They are a formidable duo, and coming from different perspectives, could make a devastating team. It seems both will have a subtle approach, not seeking to ruffle feathers with political grandstanding, but will use their influence behind the scenes to shape Russia's future.

In addition to these political appointments, recent weeks have been characterized by events of military and economic significance.

For many years Russia's relations with Uzbekistan have been lukewarm, but Russia saw an opening last spring. An aborted uprising in Andijon prompted a re-think of Uzbek/US relations, which had remained serviceable though occasionally strained. (After all, Uzbekistan was the only one of the central Asian Republics to join the US-led coalition in Iraq.) But now Uzbekistan's President Karimov has turned towards Russia in a big way.

Several weeks after the uprisings, US forces based at Karshi-Khanabad Airbase, known as K2 (operational since October 2001), were given notice to vacate within six months. At roughly midnight, November 22, this evacuation was completed in line with this deadline. The full impact of this for America's operations in the region is not yet known.

The call to vacate K2 should have come as no surprise. After the uprisings in May 2005, Karimov stopped all forms of anti-terrorist cooperation with the US and NATO, apparently a response to what Karimov believed was a Washington-sponsored movement. But will K2 be only the first of the important bases in the region to be asked to cease operations, and how will Russia capitalize on this?

There are growing signs that bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan may also soon disappear. Russia's heightened influence in the region may seal their fate, if not immediately, then sooner than would be ideal for Washington's continued influence.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional treaty organization of which China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikstan, Uzbekistan and Russia are all members, has called for the setting of a deadline by which other US bases in the region should be vacated, ostensibly because they were primarily intended to support coalition operations in Afghanistan.

In another November development, Putin signed a defense treaty with Uzbekistan, representing a clear change in bilateral relations. The possibility of a Russian base to replace the US one has been mooted, no doubt a task that could be ably carried out by Deputy Prime Minister Ivanov, a former defense secretary. Only a few weeks before, US Defense Department funding for coalition support in Uzbekistan (to pay for the use of K2 from January 2003 to March 2005) was suspended for at least one year by Congress.

But what of Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev's contribution to the November revolution? Gazprom signed an agreement with KazMunai Gas, Kazakhstan's state natural gas transit company. This means Gazprom will effectively control all gas exported out of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. For other nations in the region who have been importing central Asian gas this too has important ramifications, now that Ukraine, and even the Baltic nations, will have these commercial dealings filtered via Moscow.

The importance of the military and economic moves made over the last month cannot be sufficiently stressed, and the US may discover that not only have potential opportunities been lost (at least for the foreseeable future) in the central Asian region, but the liberalization of transitional nations, for example the Baltic states and Ukraine, may be threatened.

With Gazprom being used as a tool for foreign policy, it may be difficult for genuine free market forces to make an opening in central Asia. Ethnic tensions that remain suppressed by autocratic governments that Russia has no apparent desire to see change may yet haunt Putin.

Coincidentally, Gary Kasparov, the former international chess champion, is devoting his talents to challenging Putin. He will have a formidable opponent, as Putin and his men are thinking like grandmasters. No doubt they have read Alexander Kotov's advice in his classic Cold War era chess manual "Think Like A Grandmaster": never make a move without thinking.

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