Cheney Starts New Cold War Over Oil
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
[Editor's note: Mark Ames' essay is a lucid overview of what the Bush administration has been up to in Central Asia and former Soviet republics since 9/11. No, not fighting "terror" -- they've been working on a long-term oil grab by supporting dictators and gaming democratic elections in their favor, all while publicly bemoaning Russia's "slide" back to a dictatorship. Ames' lively writing style turns a heavy story into one of the best articles you'll read this month.]
One of the oddest reactions to Vice President Cheney's now-infamous speech in Lithuania, the one which many Russians believe officially heralded the start of a new Cold War, came from the mainstream American media. What was so strange? They actually did their job.
Instead of simply parroting the Administration's latest pieties, they actually allowed themselves to smell a rat. And what a putrid, bloated, rotting-in-a-flooded-Manila-gutter rat odor it was! You'd have to have been literally brain dead not to have smelled it.
The rat of course was the insane hypocrisy of a foaming fascist like Dick Cheney suddenly getting all Amnesty International righteous over a bad regime that does bad things. The fact that Cheney flew straight to Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan right after squirting over Russia's human rights problems turned the rank hypocrisy into a bad black comedy routine, barely fit for even a Tom Green. Kazakhstan is a country where opposition politicians and media aren't merely jailed, exiled or cowed as they are in Russia, but are shot and dumped in forests, Miller's Crossing-style, on behalf of a despot whose family runs the country like its own fiefdom.
Azerbaijan is even worse, if such a thing can be imagined not only because the Azeri authorities brutally suppress pro-democracy protests, but because it is the first and only post-Soviet state to officially create a despotic family dynasty. After former leader Heydar Aliyev died in office, he passes power (along with control over the country's vast oil wealth) to his son, Ilham Aliyev, in 2003, a dynastic transfer that was then "legimitized" by rigged elections that the Bush administration somehow manages each time to view as a democracy cup 1/100 full rather than 99/100 empty.
Incredibly enough, a few members of the mainstream American press were shocked into action by Cheney's crackpipe hypocrisy. On May 9th, the normally anti-Putin New York Times published an editorial titled, "Cheney as Pot, Putin as Kettle," tepidly calling into question Cheney's bizarre meta-irony act: "spearing Russia while flirting with its even more undemocratic neighbors confuses the message, especially when done by a vice president identified with oil interests." Tepid, but at least a rare acknowledgement of Cheney's insane logic.
The hypocrisy was so bizarre and brazen that even bland newswire agency AP got in on the outting bandwagon, with a May 8th article, "Analysis: Cheney promotes democratic reform everywhere but oil-rich Kazakhstan." You'd almost think that the American media actually questions its leaders' motives!
Even the pro-Cheney Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Andrew Kuchins, although in a clever ruse he tried to diffuse it by pointing out how obvious it was: "Alert the media: We've identified double standards in U.S. foreign policy!" he sneered, before moving on to the "real" issues raised. As if obvious evil is somehow less pernicious than the kind of evil you have to look for.
Cheney's speech raised a lot of questions and a lot of debate, but no one asked one of the most obvious questions of all: Why did Cheney choose to flaunt his hypocrisy in everyone's faces? Why not try faking it, the way most Western leaders operate when they mix righteous words with rapacious policies? Why didn't Cheney choose to put a bit of space in between his speech attacking Russia's record on democracy and his visits to the despotic Central Asian states?
Or put another way, what if it wasn't a mistake. What if the blatant, insane hypocrisy was the real message... and always has been all along?
The best way to answer this is to go back and retrace how Russia and America wound up in this once-unimaginable situation. It would seem to be a massive policy failure, allowing Russia to become a Cold War enemy again, perhaps the greatest American foreign policy failure of our time. Unless, of course, you put all the blame on Putin's evil little authoritarian shoulders, which is the natural tendency of nearly every American commentator.
They say Americans' memories are short, but that's like saying a Nazi's sense of compassion was fleeting. Americans literally rewrite their memories over and over. Case in point: Just four-and-a-half years ago, Vladimir Putin was treated as a rock star in America. You probably forgot about it, so I'm going to remind you because it's not a pretty memory.
After 9/11, Putin became our biggest, bestest friend in the world when he made his famous first-to-the-phone call to Bush and green-lighted American forces entering Central Asia for the war against the Taliban. I was in America at the time, and I remember all too well how happy Americans were to have the mysterious, morally ambiguous yet effective evil guy joining our side.
In fact, I can say that I've never, ever in my lifetime seen a foreign leader more adored than Putin was in that brief period, from September through December of 2001. Articles like the November 21st "To a Russian, with Lust," by Boston Globe staffer Joanna Weiss, capture the rather embarrassing Pootiemania: she described the man who had shut down the formerly independent TV station NTV, quashed the free media and consolidated power as "Compact and athletic, with a Mona Lisa smile," "visibly buff," "balding, in a cute Jean-Luc Picard sort of way... or maybe a Thorn Yorke sort of way." Even heavyweights like the Los Angeles Times , which now tries to out-anti-Putin its rivals, wore out their kneepads fawning over Putin.
In its November 24th editorial, "In a Word, Zdorovo," the L.A. Times concluded, with full Spielberg happy ending and John Williams score accompaniment, "Never mind for now the remaining political and policy differences between the two countries and the savvy public relations. ... If Americans could feel real terror at times about an opponent's evil 50 years ago, then there's nothing wrong with reveling for a warm moment in the changes today. 'Wow' is one word for it. 'Zdorovo' is another."
Ah, it's so vile it's is fun. For me anyway. God, I hope whoever wrote that has to read it again. Read it and weep, folks.
Yes, Putin had literally charmed the socks of America, because, well, let's admit the shameful truth we were scared shitless then. We had a big yella stripe running up our backs. We didn't know if we'd actually win in Afghanistan, or if we'd be plunted into a new Dark Age of fire and plague. In that sense of insecurity and existential crisis, a man like Putin was exactly what Americans, even liberals, felt they needed. Strange, but Russians, who experienced total collapse over the past 20 years, are called savages for supporting Putin for the same reasons. But at least Russians support him without that sphincter-twisting sentimentality found in that L.A. Times Op-Ed.
When Putin reached out to Bush and gave him everything he asked for post-9/11, his base was furious. Particularly the Siloviki -- the Russian officials from the old Soviet intelligence and military services who came into power in the late Yeltsin and Putin years -- who saw it as yet another in a series of betrayals, a repeat of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, whom they believed had betrayed Russia's interests in order to earn a pat on the head from America. They argued that Putin was being naive and foolish just as his predecessors were; and that in the end, the Americans would fuck him like they fucked Gorby and Yeltsin. Russia would get nothing for helping, neither would Putin; nothing but problems, just like what happened in the '90s.
The argument wasn't simply a matter of pride. The Gorbachev-Yeltsin years were among the most catastrophic of any nation in peace time. Russia was literally dying off -- its economy plunged by over 60 percent, and its death rate soared to unheard of levels. Another repeat of that could destroy Russia for good, they argued.
So it was a huge risk for Putin to cozy up so closely to America post-9/11. He went out on a limb, made a bold move against his own powerful base, in the hope that the benefits of a mutually-supportive relationship with America would in the end prove him right and make him, and Russia, stronger. And at first it looked like he might be right, as America was undergoing Pootimania.
But then America won the war in Afghanistan much more easily and quickly than we or anyone else thought. And that war victory went to our heads. Suddenly, we decided we didn't need Putin's help anymore.
In fact, as the Newsweeks triumphantly declared, we didn't need anyone's help anymore. America was not just a superpower, it was a hyperpower, perhaps the most powerful (and benign) empire that the world had ever seen. We were finally the true "Number One!" That kind of thinking went to our heads and turned us into assholes. Really Stupid assholes. Overnight, America became what can only be described as "If the Death Star were piloted by Gary Coleman."
And here is where the Timeline for a New Cold War really begins. On December 13th, 2001 after it was clear that Afghanistan had fallen to our allies, Bush announced that America was unilaterally withdrawing from the ABM Treaty.
Putin went on national television, clearly stunned and weakened, calling Bush's move a "mistake." It was a painful broadcast, egg dripping from his face. I've never seen Putin so clearly pimp-slapped before or since.
I remember being shocked at what assholes we'd turned out to be. I couldn't understand why Bush didn't wait even, say, two or three months, at least for the victory dancing to settle down in Afghanistan, maybe throw Russia a bone or two. What was behind the timing?
I contacted a good friend of mine in the Defense Department to ask him why we chose to withdraw from the ABM treaty in such a time and manner as to maximally embarrass Putin for having sided with us. Why didn't we wait?
My Pentagon friend seemed surprised. "We didn't even consider the effect on Putin," he answered. "We only considered what's in our own interest, which is to withdraw now. Besides, we got rid of the Taliban, that was a favor enough for the Russians in our opinion." At the time, Russian anger over Bush's decision to start building a missile shield was dismissed as old Russian paranoia, a holdover of Cold War thinking. Russia had "nothing to worry about," we said.
In fact, the Russians were entirely right to be shocked and paranoid. As Professor Kier Lieber, one of the authors of the recent controversial Foreign Affairs article " The Rise of US Nuclear Primacy," admits that the shield is offensive in nature and only makes sense as a weapon aimed at an enemy like Russia or China. With the sole aim of allowing America to launch a first strike against Russia... and win it. Otherwise, it makes no sense.
"The missile defenses that the United States might plausibly deploy would be valuable primarily in an offensive context. If the United States launched a nuclear attack against Russia (or China), the targeted country would be left with a tiny surviving arsenal if any at all." As for deterring North Korea, Dr. Lieber told me, "You wouldn't have a shield for them, you'd put AEGIS ships all around the Korean peninsula and hit the missiles upon launch." This is where the bad blood started. At America's darkest hour, we reached out to Russia and got full cooperation and trust. And literally the second we felt tough again, we announced our intention to build a weapons system that targeted Russia for total annihilation.
A couple of months later, in early 2002, Bush announced that he was sending Green Berets into Georgia to fight against alleged Al Qaeda terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge. I visited Georgia then, and literally no one on the ground believed that there was a real Al Qaeda threat. What it had everything to do with was training up a strong pro-American Georgian army to secure a planned Caspian Sea oil pipeline, which was due to be constructed through southern Georgia's territory on its way to Turkey, a route chosen to bypass Russia and stay Western (i.e., American).
When the Green Berets were first announced, the Russians, particularly the Siloviki base that first warned Putin against trusting America, went ape shit. First America took East Europe, the Baltics and its former wealth; now the Americans were moving in on what was left, working through the Caucasus and Central Asia, while Russia still couldn't even pacify Chechnya (a conflict which America would now be in an even better position to manipulate).
Just like with the ABM treaty, Putin kept a low profile for the first few days after the Green Berets-in-Georgia announcement, then said that there was no reason to get hysterical. His hand was weak, and he saw no gain in reacting hysterically.
As time went on, it was becoming clear that Bush really didn't plan to leave the military bases he was setting up in Central Asia. I remember working on an Op-Ed piece at the time for the San Jose Mercury News about this, and when I suggested to my editor that the thinking in Russia was that Bush was planning to stay in Central Asia and take what he could, Russia be damned, she was horrified: "No, we couldn't do that," she said. "That would be so wrong of us."
"Yeah, but what can Russia do about it? Nothing," I said.
"But... we're just not like that," she argued. "We're not that ungrateful. The American people would not be happy." Well, we did it. And as usual, the American people didn't care.
The rest of 2002 was about the lead up to the war in Iraq. This is when neocons were genuinely outraged, feeling a sense that they were getting stabbed in the back by a merely-spiteful Russia for not supporting the war. Of course, the fact that Russia stood to lose potential tens of billions in oil contracts and that America stood to gain those tens of billions also played a roll. But most Americans dismissed Russian (and French) objections to the war as mere jealousy and spite.
From Russia, however, America looked like it had literally gone insane, with no limits to its war aggression; part Wermacht, part Napolean's Army. And now America was building up its military capability all around Russia's southern flank in Central Asia and Georgia, and expanding further.
It was at this time that the real battle in this new "Cold War" that the Yukos struggle was coming to a head. Yukos was fast becoming one of top three or four oil companies in the world. Its chairman, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was feted by the very top elite circles of American/Western power, regularly hobnobbing with Bill Gates and Dick Cheney among others.
What we didn't know until later was that Khodorkovsky already deep in a high-stakes struggle with Putin over control of Russia's pipeline network. Owning pipelines was the Kremlin's one stick it wielded over the oil oligarchs.
Khodorkovsky understood that for Yukos to further boost its position, it would need to at the very least wrest control of the pipeline network away from the Kremlin. Khodorkovsky wanted to build up Yukos' value quickly to sell a huge chunk of it to one of Cheney's Texas oil buddies, reportedly either Exxon or Chevron. The reason this was so important for Khodorkovsky was that, since he essentially stole the company during the loans-for-shares privatization scheme in the 1990s, it meant that his hold on the asset was tenuous. The Kremlin could just steal it back any time, as it later did. But the Kremlin would be loathe to steal a massive asset from Exxon or Chevron.
At the same time, Cheney was formulating a worldwide oil grab which he had been working on going back to the 1990s at least. In a speech in 1998, then-CEO of Halliburton Cheney said, "I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian." The reason is simple: The Caspian Sea basin, particularly Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan's shares, holds upwards of $5-10 trillion worth of oil, perhaps more given today's prices.
Meanwhile, Russia emerged as the world's second-largest oil producer, but not much of that was getting to the US. At an Russia-American oil summit held in Houston in late 2002, an agreement was signed to build a pipeline from the rich oil fields in western Siberia to Murmansk, where it could be easily shipped to the US. The pipeline was to be Russia's first private consortium, and Yukos was essentially going to lead it. This was it, the first big play to free up Russian oil from Kremlin control, and get it to the US.
But there was a hitch. Putin and the Siloviki saw this pipeline as an American oil grab. Putin was no longer inclined to like or trust the US after the ABM disaster and the Green Berets in Georgia scandal. No more illusions.
Now you can see where the chips were lining up. Both Cheney and Khodorkovsky had a serious interest in seeing control of the pipelines taken away from the Kremlin and handed to the "free market," where the US would have an advantage; and both of them wanted to see Yukos get bought by a US major, and both wanted to secure that US stake in Russia's oil wealth by every means possible, including political means. Khodorkovsky was transforming both Yukos and himself into a model Westernerizer, and he was becoming increasingly critical of the Kremlin's role in holding Russia back. If Khodorkovsky really was able to transform Russia into a pro-American state, it would obviously be better for Cheney and the oil companies than if the FSB controlled the state, and the oil.
This is what led to Khodorkovsky to allegedly try to buy off and retool the Russian political system. Without political control, he might not keep and grow his assets. While the Kremlin kept the oil companies from becoming even bigger and richer simply so that the Kremlin wouldn't lose control of them.
The Siloviki saw it as a struggle for Russia's survival and independence (and their own too). If Khodorkovsky, working with the most powerful people in the US (the Cheneys and the Houston oil oligarchs), took control of Russia's resources and its power, it would become little more than an appendage of American capitalism, they believed.
In March 2003, America invaded Iraq, turning Russian public opinion decidedly against America as a nation of Huns. That same month, Khodorkovsky was allegedly working with Duma parties he had paid off in order to change the Constitution and weaken the powers of the President in favor of parliament. It was a kind of constitutional coup in the works, a coup which would serve his and the Bush people's mutual interests.
It all ended in July 2003 when Putin jailed Khodorkovsky's business partner, Platon Lebedev, and Yukos was finished. With its destruction went Cheney's hope of getting control of Russian oil.
It's odd now to look back and consider how quietly Bush people reacted to it. My sense is that they didn't expect it -- and that they were too busy with their oil grab in Iraq. I did see the significance of Lebedev's arrest in my column " Russia Thaws" in July, 2003, when I predicted that everything had completely changed after Lebedev's arrest. I'm gloating now because, well, that's what you do when you're right. But I think Cheney and his goons were too busy mired in the unfolding debacle in Iraq that summer, when the dead-enders were first getting their insurgency on, to react to Russia.
Today most of Yukos is in Kremlin hands; Putin's power is uncontested; and Khodorkovsky is in jail. The Murmansk pipeline was canceled. Now the Siberian pipelines, secure in Kremlin hands, are taking oil to Asia.
You could see why a guy like Dick Cheney wouldn't like Putin.
That is the real story behind this mini Cold War. The other part of it is, of course Cheney's longstanding desire to get ahold of Caspian Sea oil. With Russia seemingly lost, this meant that the fight for Central Asia took on more importance. Indeed in 2001, Cheney advised President Bush to "deepen [our] commercial dialogue with Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and other Caspian states." Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan: the two countries he visited right after his Cold War speech last week.
In 1994, Cheney was a member of Kazakhstan's Oil Advisory Board.
He helped broker a deal between Kazakhstan and Chevron, a company where Secretary Condoleeza Rice served on the Board. Today, US oil companies have large stakes in Kazakhstan's oil fields. But most of the oil being pumped goes through Transneft lines out of the Russian port in Novorossiisk. America has been battling with Russia to get Kazakhstan to pump its oil through an alternate pipeline, the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, that goes through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.
In order to secure that pipeline, powerful American oil/politics figures, led by Bush family consigliore James Baker, ingratiated themselves into oil-rich Azerbaijan. Despite that nation's atrocious record on democracy and human rights, in 1996 oil majors like Exxon, Chevron and Amoco, set up the powerful United States Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce (USACC). Its board members include or included Cheney, Baker, top figures in the oil majors, and top figures in Azerbaijan's government (even crazed war-monger Richard Perle had a place on the board of trustees!).
The task was to get Azerbaijan to agree to the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, whose stated goal was to ship Caspian oil out of Russia's reach and into the Mediterranean for Western consumption. It worked the pipeline is now operational. And a big event in late 2003 was the key to securing it: Georgia's Rose Revolution.
This was the first of the "color revolutions," and it quickly became apparent that, although it was rooted in genuine dissatisfaction, it was accomplished with massive American aid.
To recap: then-President Shevardnadze was showing signs of drifting away from the US and towards Russia in the summer of 2003. Suddenly, Bush became concerned with Georgia's "backsliding" on democracy, and he sent Baker of all people to tell Shevardnadze that he'd better hold "free and fair elections" or else. The elections were rigged; a carefully coordinated revolution (in fact a coup) was staged to overthrow Shevardnadze; and a pro-Western, US-educated president, Saakashvili, was installed. Shortly afterwards, control over a region of Georgia where the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline passes was taken out of a pro-Russian leader's hands, and given to a pro-American.
The Russians were oddly slow in reacting to the Rose Revolution. They were taken by surprise: in the Siloviks' paranoid way of thinking, the "people" are irrelevant, and everything is manipulated by a tiny elite and outside interests. To them, the entire Rose Revolution was nothing but an American-manufactured coup, which was only partly true.
The same month that Bush and the US denounced the rigged elections in Georgia, they praised even worse-run elections in next-door Azerbaijan, and kept mum over the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protestors. Why? Because Azerbaijan was giving Cheney what he wanted: oil. Both for his favored oil companies, his friends, and for the West.
In other words, in classic Cold War maneuvering, Aliyev became "our bastard."
If Putin's first real counterstrike in Cold War II was against Khodorkovsky, then his second major counterstrike took place in mid-2004, when Georgia tried to start asserting its control over two Russian-backed breakaway ethnic regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Putin drew a line in South Ossetia, where war started to break out again in the summer of 2004 when Saakashvili tried to assert federal control over it.
It was strange how that war's coverage evolved: in the big Western press, article after article dismissed the notion that there is any legitimate Ossetian grievance, calling it an entirely manufactured Russian ploy to maintain control over Georgia and keep it weak (oddly similar to Russian belief that the Rose/Orange Revolutions were entirely manufactured by cynical American interests). But I happen to know some Ossetians.
Believe me, they exist, and the tensions with the Georgians are very real, and very deep. And valid. The West bleeds for oppressed minorities in literally every corner of the world, even every corner of the Caucasus, except for the Ossetians and the Abkhaz. Why?
Could it be... because they're aligned with Russia?
When Saakashvili tried retaking South Ossetia, Russian-backed troops repelled them. Putin was not going to lose anything else to pro-American interests.
In the summer of 2004, the Georgians realized that the US wasn't going to support a hot war against Russia, so they stood down... and then in September, Chechen terrorists seized a school in North Ossetia, leading to the massacre of hundreds of children. Connected?
If you recall, at the time Putin essentially blamed the West, and specifically, the US, for helping make the Beslan attack happen. He said it was funded with the goal of "weakening Russia" in order to seize and control the region's resources.
It seemed crazy at the time, but looking at the big picture... is it? Putin was widely criticized for post-Beslan moves to cancel gubernatorial elections. But put in this context, it seems like a genuine wartime move to consolidate power in the face of an attack. Not Chechen attacks. But American Cold War-II attacks.
The last great American victory in this Cold War-II was certainly the Orange Revolution. But it was a hollow victory, shocking the Russians into action. Since then, Ukraine has turned into a political, ideological, and geopolitical swamp. The fight is still on; neither side has won yet.
The Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan was the first one to go bad. Since then, it's been nothing but setbacks for the US as it lost its huge military base and its influence in formerly-anti-Russian Uzbekistan, now Putin's bestest buddy in the region. Kyrgyzstan is also showing signs of moving closer to Moscow. Bush's people recently made incredible claims about democracy moving forward in Tajikistan, but it's unlikely that the whitewashing will do much good since the country is under pretty solid Russian control.
Meanwhile, Putin, now completely and forever disabused of any illusions that he would ever be anything to Bush and Cheney but an obstacle standing between Siberian oil wells and Houston oil oligarch bank accounts, has seen his country become wealthier and bolder. He's fighting back, not just in Russia and its neighbors, but also for example by selling weapons to Venezuela and nuclear plants to Iran. Cheney lost out in his bid to secure Russia's oil, but the Caspian oil is still being fought over, especially as Kazakhstan hasn't started pumping yet most of its upcoming oil streams.
That's what this Cold War hype is about and the bleating about democracy, and the seemingly clumsy display of hypocrisy. It's not a Cold War, it's an oil grab gone bad.
I don't think a jackal like Cheney is capable of recognizing hypocrisy. I think he meant everything he said, with a straight face, and that he saw it as both rationally and morally right to chastise Russia's record on democracy while praising Kazakhstan's and Azerbaijan's in the same trip.
Democracy isn't about voting. It's about serving America's interests.
And serving America's interests is more tightly defined a serving the interests of the oil oligarchs in Houston, where Cheney spent the previous 10 years. In fact, it's even more simple than that. It's personal. America's interests are Cheney's interests. Il est l'etat . In that sense, Putin is indeed a genuine menace.
And that's what makes this Cold War so different: Whereas the last one was a mortal struggle over two different systems, this is a struggle between two short, balding, bloodless men, and the oil -- other people's oil -- that made them as powerful as they are today.
Mark Ames is editor of the Moscow English alt weekly, The eXile . He is the author of " Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion--From Reagan's Workplaces to Clinton's Columbine and Beyond " (Soft Skull, 2005).