News & Politics

Dividing Russia

America has been at war with Russia for nearly two decades; a grossly one-sided war in which the U.S. is quietly conquering more and more territory with the kind of tireless efficiency not seen since the days of the Golden Horde.
A lake disappeared in a Russian town east of Moscow this past May. And if the Reuters account of the vanishing lake is to be believed, some local residents blamed the disappearance on the evil Americans. The Western press loves stories like these -- it proves that even God has it in for the Russians. And with good reason: they're anti-American, and they're stubbornly backwards, so therefore, bad things naturally happen to them.

It didn't take long for the smug American sneer-machine to respond. One blogger compiled a list of humorous accounts called, "Memo to Self: Don't Waterski in Bolotnikovo." An article by Matt McClurg on the cleverly named e-zine "Spoof.com," titled, "U.S. Steals Lake-Mocks Russian Village," opens with this ham-fisted side-slapper:
The Russian village of Bolotnikovo, where Stalinist Brainwashing remains the religion of choice, is renowned as a peaceful place... But, the greatest pride of tiny Bolotnikovo, the beaming joy of its happy and well-educated serfs turned scientists, was its lake -- its splendor slightly greater than a mud hole, but not as extravagant as an oil slick rainbow on wet tarmac. Briefly: it was a place that the Americans were monstrously envious of.
The joke, you see, is that America is so wealthy and advanced that it would have no need for a wretched lake in a dying stretch of Middle Russia. Americans find it funny -- the same way that rich bullies get off on sneering at poor, doomed losers. You can almost hear the cheerleader sneer at the unpopular loser girl: "Yeah right, I'm like, soooo jealous that I don't have oily skin and that I don't live in a shack like your family. Gawd, it's like, I'd do anything to trade in my family's five-bedroom home for yours!... Not!"

The real story here should be exactly what McClurg mocks: that in fact, Bolotnikovo, like so many villages in this, the largest country on earth, is literally dying, a depressing, slow extinction that normally goes unnoticed, unless an unbelievably grotesque tragedy strikes it -- in which case the people with the SUVs and speedboats can cite it as witty material to celebrate their own health, wealth and progress.

Why would a cruel act of nature visited upon a poor remote village inspire a seemingly absurd anti-American outburst from its inhabitants, and triumphant bully-humor in response?

The answer, incredibly enough, is because the Americans really did steal that lake.

Although I've been living in Russia for most of the last 10 years, I remember my fellow Americans well enough to know that their reaction to this statement is: the "Oh come on, please!" sneer they give you, which is an argument killer that works every time. But the fact is that America has, by any objective standard, been at war with Russia for nearly two decades, a grossly one-sided war in which the U.S. is quietly conquering more and more territory with the kind of tireless efficiency and success not seen since the days of the Golden Horde.

As crazy as this may sound, the fact is that official Russian media reports on this undeclared war almost every day, and off-screen, American analysts have been gloating about it for quite some time. As the intelligence newsletter Stratfor -- which Time magazine ranked as the nation's top intelligence site in 2003, and which Barron's described as "a private quasi-CIA" -- pointed out a few months ago, with Ukraine now firmly in the West's orbit, America, with NATO and the EU, has managed to succeed exactly where Hitler and Napoleon failed: it has dismantled the Russian empire, leaving the rump state exposed, weakened and essentially at the West's mercy.

Indeed right after last December's successful US-funded revolution in Kiev, Stratfor observed, "Without Ukraine, Russia's political, economic and military survivability are called into question...To say that Russia is at a turning point is a gross understatement. Without Ukraine, Russia is doomed to a painful slide into geopolitical obsolescence and ultimately, perhaps even non-existence."

While most Americans are fed stories about a menacing, resurgent Russia behaving like a mini-version of its evil old Soviet self, the real looming threat according to others is that the Russian state might actually disintegrate. Dmitry Medveev, the Kremlin's chief of staff and the man often mentioned as Putin's potential successor, warned exactly of this danger immediately after the so-called "Tulip Revolution" in Kyrgyzstan.

In a rare interview with the Russian business magazine Expert, Medvedev, a 39-year-old former lawyer, said, "If we don't manage to consolidate elites, Russia may disappear as one state. The disintegration of the Soviet Union would look like a kindergarten party compared to the collapse of the modern Russian state."

He warned that the Russian elites, who have become increasingly divided lately, should unite behind the idea of "preserving an effective state system within the existing boundaries."

It is interesting that Medvedev emphasized preserving Russia's "existing boundaries," since this shows that Russia's biggest worry now is not so much losing its former vast sphere of influence -- that's already pretty much gone -- but rather, it may lose whole chunks of its own territory. Much as Serbia, its one lone ally in Europe, did after it opposed the West.

The Kremlin isn't alone in worrying. Peter Reddaway, the Georgetown professor and Russia specialist, co-wrote an article a few months ago in Newsweek arguing exactly the same point: "What's the main problem in Russia today? Most people have a ready answer: President Vladimir Putin's strangulation of democracy. Yes, but there's a bigger one. That's whether Russia is stable enough to hold together."

During the 1990s, Professor Reddaway was ostracized by his peers for daring to criticize the Yeltsin regime and warn that its insane corruption was bound to end in disaster. After the 1998 crisis, Reddaway became a kind of guru, while all of the neo-liberal think-tank tools and major media hacks who had shamelessly cheered the Yeltsin reforms on quietly changed their tune.

Today, Party Line in the American mainstream media, academia, and its masters in Washington are creating an equally facile and flawed filter through which to judge Russia's problems: Putin's worsening democratic credentials. According to this new Party Line, it is Putin's rollback of democracy which is really the great threat to the region. But is it? Reddaway counters that this mainstream once again ignores the real problem: "Few Russia watchers would suggest the country is on the verge of disintegration. Yet it could be. Certainly, its present boundaries are likely to be altered."

What an incredible statement! For years now, no country has been allowed to change its borders and get away with it -- except of course for Yugoslavia, Russia's former ally, which opposed the West and soon after lost most of its territory. And Indonesia, which also opposed the West after Suharto's fall, losing East Timor in the process.

The threat of Russia's disintegration is real. It is losing territory and power just as Bolotnikovo lost its lake. In the process, the Kremlin has become increasingly paranoid, reflecting not so much inherent Soviet evil as fear and desperation.

This leads to the most important, and dangerous, question: is Russia simply disintegrating, or is America breaking it apart?

In the wake of the Beslan massacre in September, 2004, in which hundreds of children were killed during a Chechen separatist seizure of a school in southern Russia, President Putin went on television and blamed certain foreign powers for supporting the terrorists with the aim of defanging Russia for good, breaking it apart, and seizing its valuable resources. He did not name the United States, but it was clear whom he meant. Shortly after Putin's speech, the state-run TV media picked up where he left off, with some of the most famous news personalities specifically accusing the US of being behind the Chechen raid.

Mikhail Leontyev, the pseudo-scruffy state Channel One commentator and noted Kremlin waterboy, starkly noted, "It is time to name that power which is trying to break Russia apart. It has a name, and that name is the United States."

Stratfor, whose politics could be described as something between patriotic-American and realpolitik, agreed. According to its Kremlin sources, Putin specifically named the U.S. and Great Britain during private meetings. And as Stratfor noted in its April report, there is plenty of evidence to support the Kremlin's claim.

In the first place, while Muslim separatist militants from other conflict zones are shunned and even violently pursued by the U.S., the Chechen separatist representatives are routinely given haven and official voice in both the U.K. and America. Ilyas Akhmadov, the separatist group's "ambassador" to the U.S., was granted asylum just last year, while Akhmed Zakayev was given asylum in the U.K. in late 2003. While the U.S. has moved to crack down on militant Islamic charities that are linked to other areas of the world, it has allowed several foundations to operate in the U.S. which are believed to funnel money to Chechen rebels, including the American Committee for Chechnya, Chechen Relief Expenses, International Relief Association and others.

This is part of the policy shift ushered in by the Bush Administration, when, in February 2001, a ranking State Department official, John Beyrle, met with Akhmadov, the highest ranking U.S. official to ever receive a Chechen separatist. It was deliberate, and the Russians reacted furiously.

One of the unintended consequences of the Bush Administration's coddling of the Chechen separatists was that it could not obtain a proper warrant to search the computer of suspected 9/11 hijack plotter Zacarias Moussaoui, who was detained before September 11th. FBI officials were unable to obtain the proper FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) warrant which would have allowed them to search his computer because at the time, he was only known to have been linked to Chechen separatism (French intelligence warned the U.S. that Moussaoui aspired to become a jihadist in Chechnya). Had U.S. officials categorized Chechen militants the same way as other Islamic separatist movements, the FBI would have been able to secure a special FISA warrant, and Moussaoui's plans might have been uncovered. But that was a price to pay for keeping the Chechen separatist movement warm.

As Stratfor notes, the British connection to the Chechen separatists goes farther back. "During the first Chechen war -- from 1994 to 1996 -- retired U.K. special forces officers trained British Muslim recruits in British territory to fight in Chechnya," Stratfor claims, echoing reports out of Russia. "Some militants who attended that training and were later captured told the Russian government."

After Chechnya gained de facto independence, a scandal apparently erupted in Russia-U.K. relations when de-mining instructors from a private security firm, which included American ex-military personnel, were caught "training Chechen militants how to launch mine and bombing attacks against Russian troops," according to Stratfor.

It was through humanitarian assistance that Fred Cuny, the famous "swashbuckling" American aid worker, became a key figure, and later a martyr, in the first Chechen War. Cuny was killed in Chechnya in 1995. When Russian reports labeled him a spy, it was dismissed in the US media as "conspiracy theory" and "paranoia." But as it turned out, Cuny did indeed have both military and intelligence connections.

Stratfor, along with many in the Kremlin and the Russian elite, believe that the U.S. and Britain have supported Chechen separatism precisely because it weakens Russia, advances U.S. power in the vital Caspian Sea region, and cripples a potential future rival. As Stratfor notes, since Bush's re-election, the West has increased pressure on Putin to come to a peace agreement. Such an agreement, leading to the withdrawal from Chechnya, would represent "complete defeat in Chechnya and the Caucasus."

Meanwhile, the U.S. has massively increased its own military presence in both the Caucuses and Central Asia ... but more on that later.

Sympathy for the Chechen cause in America has, to say the least, very suspicious motives. The main lobbying group pushing for Chechen independence in the U.S. is a group called The American Committee for Peace in Chechnya (ACPC), which describes itself as "The only private, nongovernmental organization in North America exclusively dedicated to promoting the peaceful resolution of the Russo-Chechen war."

That might sound fuzzy and warm, until you look at who sits on its board. It is a Who's Who list of right-wing imperialist warmongers, including Richard Perle, architect of the recent Iraq war; Elliot Abrams, who engineered Reagan's bloodbath in Central America and who served in Bush's National Security Council; and former Carter National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, a leading American imperialist hawk who needs no introduction in Russia.

Normally, these guys hate Islamic militants; but for some strange reason, their maternal instincts suddenly light up for the Chechen cause. This might be excused as a rare case of ogres showing humanity, unless you consider their motives. Many of the ACPC's members also served on the Project for the New American Century, which had also pushed for militant American global hegemony, rolling back Russia and invading Iraq.

In 1997, Brzezinski published a treatise, "The Grand Chessboard," calling on America to seize global hegemony. Perhaps colored by his Polish youth, Brzezinski didn't see the main enemy in China or radical Islam. Rather, he argued, "America's capacity to exercise global primacy" hinged on preventing "the emergence of a dominant and antagonistic Eurasian power." By "Eurasian power," he meant, of course, Russia. "Eurasia is thus the chessboard on which the struggle for global primacy continues to be played."

While serving under President Jimmy Carter, Brzezinski made a name for himself when he went to the border of Afghanistan and was filmed aiming a mujahedeen gun at Soviet forces-symbolically. Through ACPC, Brzezinski is back with the muhajedeen fighting Russian forces.

In the same book, Brzezinski also pushed for ripping Ukraine away from Russia's influence as a way of crippling the "Eurasian power":

"Even without the Baltic states and Poland, a Russia that retained control over Ukraine could still seek to be the leader of an assertive Eurasian empire.... But without Ukraine and its 52 million fellow Slavs, any attempt by Moscow to rebuild the Eurasian empire was likely to leave Russia entangled alone in protracted conflicts with the nationally and religiously aroused non-Slavs, the war with Chechnya perhaps simply being the first example." Indeed, with emerging conflicts in neighboring Caucuses republics Daghestan, Ingushetia, Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Brzezinski was oddly prophetic.

Amazingly enough, it looks like the plan is working. Ukraine is now preparing to join NATO, and Russia is left bleeding, desperately trying to keep a lid on the Caucasus as the separatism and terrorism expands. Russia is now tied down fighting within its own borders, just as the U.S.-backed Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline, carrying crude from Azerbaijan to the Turkish port on the Mediterranean, is going operational. The pipeline was constructed specifically to allow the U.S. and the West to bypass Russia, Iran and China and extract the valuable Caspian reserves into its own network. Thus the pipeline runs from friendly Azerbaijan through friendly Georgia and out of NATO member Turkey, and into NATO-controlled seas.

This is what the current undeclared war is all about. What drives Brzezinski, what drives the support of regime change on Russia's borders, and within its borders, isn't just Old School Russophobia. It's oilophilia. The Caspian Sea basin holds the world's biggest untapped fossil fuel resources. Estimates range from 85 to 190 billion barrels of oil, worth up to $5 trillion. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan alone might hold over 130 billion barrels, more than three times the US reserves. As Vice President Dick Cheney said in a speech in 1998, when he was CEO of Halliburton, "I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian." In 2001, Cheney, who sat on the Kazakhstan's Oil Advisory Board, advised President Bush to "deepen [our] commercial dialogue with Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and other Caspian states."

While Cheney was working Kazakhstan, Brzezinski was one of just seven men who sat on the board of the USACC: The United States Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce, considered the key power center in the region for years now. The other six board members were, again, Dick Cheney, Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, John Sununu and Lloyd Bensten. Richard Perle sat on USACC's board of trustees. Richard Armitage served as the USACC's Board President until 2001, while Cheney's daughter, Elizabeth, left Armitage Associates around the same time in order to take the post as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs for regional economic issues. Cheney's wife, Lynne, sat on the board of Lockheed Martin, which funded space launches in Kazakhstan's Baikhonur space port.

In the summer of 2003, James Baker, representing both American oil interests in Azerbaijan and President Bush's political wishes, was sent to Georgia to tell then-President Edward Shevardnadze, who had shown increasing signs of independence from his American sponsors and was suspected of cozying up to Russia, that he must hold "free and fair elections" that autumn or else. When the elections turned out to be predictably flawed (no less flawed than previous Georgian elections which the US had backed, and no less flawed than the elections in neighboring Azerbaijan that very same autumn which the Bush Administration warmly received), Shevardnadze was ousted in the U.S.-orchestrated "Rose Revolution," and pro-U.S. President Mikhail Saakashvili seized power, securing America's position in the Caucasus. Saakashvili's first major act as president was to throw out the Russian-backed leader of Georgia's autonomous Adjaria region, the same region which coincidentally serves as Georgia's transit point for the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, and he installed his own pro-American people instead. Now American forces and friendly regimes secure the Caspian oil pipeline route from pumping station to port.

To really appreciate how much Russia has lost over the past 15 years, take a map and color-code Russia's territorial retreat, and America's advance, in the same way that school textbook maps coded the advance and retreat of conquering European armies.

On the eve of the Soviet Union's collapse, its defined borders encompassed the much of the old Russian empire, including the Baltic republics, the Caucasus and Central Asia, as well as Ukraine. Beyond that, its direct control over proxy regimes extended deeper than at any point in Russia's history, slicing halfway through Central Europe, until the end of the 1980s. The U.S. was able to help pull the Warsaw Pact countries out of the Soviet Union's orbit by a combination of plying Gorbachev along with promises of becoming accepted into the West and assurances that he had nothing to fear. As Strobe Talbott noted in his book "Russia Hand," then-Secretary of State James Baker assured Gorbachev in 1990, "If we maintain a presence in Germany that is part of NATO, there would be no extension of NATO's jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east."

In 1999, when NATO expanded into Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright publicly assured the Russians that eastward expansion of NATO "posed no threat to Russia." The NATO invitation to the three countries was extended while NATO was bombing Russia's ally, Serbia, in the war over Kosovo, a war which Russia strongly objected to.

By June of 1999, NATO forces occupied Kosovo, and a year later, Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic was ousted in the first of the "color-coded" revolutions which have since been repeated with varying degrees of success throughout the former Soviet Union. The highly-staged, marketing-mad revolution in Serbia in 2000 was the culmination of years of planning and preparation which was overseen in large part by Richard Miles, who served as chief of mission in Yugoslavia in the mid-late 90s. In 2002, Miles was appointed ambassador of Georgia. He arrived -- along with a contingent of U.S. Green Berets, who were brought to Georgia ostensibly to help that country fight terrorism. Instead, U.S.-trained Georgian forces have been on the front lines fighting Russian-backed South Ossetians since last year. A year after Miles arrived in Georgia, the "Rose Revolution," the second of these "color-coded revolutions," threw out an unreliable leader and installed a friendly one. Now, Georgia is angling to enter NATO by the end of the decade.

Miles also served in Azerbaijan, whose ambassador today is Reno Harnish, who had previously served as the Chief of Mission in Kosovo. Over the past year, Azeri authorities have accused Harnish of helping to foment another potential color-coded" revolution there this November. Azerbaijan, which spun out of Russia's orbit years ago, has been a key member of NATO's "Partnership for Peace" program and regularly hosts Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In late 2003, Russia was so concerned that Azerbaijan was about to host a major U.S. base that its ambassador there told reporters, "There has not been and there will not be any kind of American presence in the Caspian. We will not allow it." There are many theories as to why the US is clearly preparing another "color-coded" revolution for Azerbaijan this year, but the biggest reason is thought to be that officials and oil magnates are unhappy with the grotesque levels of corruption in the current regime. In other words, they're not reliable, and it's not easy to make a good buck - so the democracy advocates are being wound up and ready for revolution.

In March of last year, NATO announced a massive expansion into former Russian proxy governments and territory, taking the former Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. The latter two countries may soon host major U.S. bases.

Central Asia has all but fallen too. The U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan is its largest in Central Asia, and, coincidentally, Kyrgyzstan was the first former Soviet state in Central Asia to experience a color-coded revolution, albeit one which didn't go exactly according to script. Uzbekistan hosts the other large U.S. base in that region, in Khanabad. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan both train with NATO forces, and Russia's influence in Turkmenistan is practically nil. As the Eurasia Journal noted earlier this year in its article "Kazakhstan Inches Towards NATO," this year has been a turning point in terms of Kazakhstan moving closer towards joining the alliance.

All that is left, really, is Belarus, Tajikistan, and the breakaway regions in Georgia and Moldova, but they won't last long. In April of this year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice openly called for revolution in Belarus, which America's new allies in Ukraine and Georgia have openly pledged to support. "If [revolution] brings about democratic progress, why is it a bad thing for people to throw off the yoke of tyranny and decide they want to control their own futures?" Rice said about Belarus. A failed attempt to start a color-coded uprising in Minsk last month ended with several arrests, including several Ukrainian pro-democracy activists.

There's a lot of officially-manufactured anti-American paranoia in the Russian media these days. But the depressing fact is that in the larger picture, Russia is right. In fact, it's obvious, yet like so many obvious things, you'll never hear it admitted in the mainstream American media. Conquest is rewritten as liberation; military expansion as security.

While it's true that Russia's state-controlled television is filled with paranoid anti-American conspiracy theories and ranting, the depressing fact is that much of the parnoia is grounded in fact. The current power-mad American elite saw an opportunity as the Soviet Union teetered, and it seized it. They wanted oil, and hegemony, and the only thing standing in the way of it was Russia -- both the current crippled Russia, and the future possibility of a resurgent Russia. The prize is the oil and gas reserves in the Caspian Sea. In order to control the oil, Russia had to be diverted, particularly after the less-friendly Putin came to power.

This is why normally bloodthirsty, anti-Islamic hawks like Richard Perle, Elliot Abrams and Zbigniew Brzezinski all found time to squirt a few for the Chechen cause. It has served as the perfect crippling diversion while America gained control over the Caspian Sea oil, and at the same time, having Russia bogged down in Chechnya allowed the West to pry away key states, particularly Ukraine, from Russia's orbit, ensuring that it will likely never challenge America's position -- or its dominance of Caspian oil -- in our lifetime.

This is what Stratfor meant when it said that America succeeded where Hitler and Stalin had failed. The only question is, how long will the strategy work, and how will it eventually end up. But that question won't be asked, because for whatever bizarre reason, America still thinks it's not out to conquer Russia and the Caspian. In fact, your average Joe, fed by the mainstream media's facile and wildly misleading accounts, thinks that all that's happening over there in the former Soviet Union is that all the countries around Russia love us because we're just so damn good, and that the Russians, for some reason (jealousy, lack of positive thinking, dead-ender mentality), just won't get with the program. That's why God himself is draining their lakes. And that's why smug suburban jesters like Matt McClurg are laughing.
Mark Ames is editor of the Moscow English alt weekly, The eXile.