The last time we heard from Russell Zanca, a Central Asia expert at Northeastern Illinois University, he was reporting on the failures of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Here Zanca suggests where the United States should go from here.
-- Steve LeVine
For some two years, U.S. diplomatic efforts in Uzbekistan have been oriented toward ensuring that the Uzbeks allow the U.S. military to transport all manner of supplies to Afghanistan safely and cheaply, an alternative to poorly safeguarded routes through Pakistan. As a result, the United States is loath to complain of the Uzbek regime's continued cruel behavior toward its population -- if it does, the risk is that President Islam Karimov, as he did in 2005, asks the United States to leave his country.
If the United States were expelled, would we completely compromise our effectiveness in Afghanistan? Alternative supply routes are few: Turkmenistan has the most to offer in terms of geography and terrain, but the United States has never enjoyed ideal relations with the Turkmen, who make matters difficult with their official policy of "neutrality." Tajikistan is also impractical -- infrastructure such as railroads and roads are undeveloped, its mountains are in the way, and it has too many Russian troops on its soil. With Uzbekistan, the U.S. trades one tyranny for another -- liberating the Afghans while leaving the Uzbeks at the mercy of Karimov -- but it also gets an excellent road-and-railroad network between Termez and Mazar-i-Sharif, along with friendly relations with the Uzbeks of northern Afghanistan.
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One of our most prevalent current canards is the mantra that we must "get off foreign oil," by which we invariably mean Saudi Arabian crude -- and that we must generally distance ourselves from the kingdom and its leaders. Here is a rare issue that finds bipartisan traction. Last summer, for example, the comedian Jon Stewart looked and found that eight consecutive U.S. presidents starting with Richard Nixon, rolling through Ronald Reagan, both George Bushes, and finally Barack Obama have used the phrase in more or less the same formulation. Usually, the mantra is stated in the context of either the environment -- promotion of green industries -- or national security, meaning a way to confound terrorists who, it is said, are largely financed by Saudi and other Middle Eastern oil receipts. But ultimately they mean the same thing -- Saudi Arabia is bad, bad, bad.
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I become suspicious of phrases that roll off the tongue and get me riled up, because often they are intended to accomplish just that outcome. Such is the case with the get-off-foreign-oil sloganeering, as I write in the latest issue of Foreign Policy. News from the Middle East and elsewhere exhorts the United States not to distance itself from Saudi Arabia, but in fact to more fully embrace this definitively central relationship. The reasons include top-tier U.S. strategic priorities regarding Iran, terrorism, Afghanistan, and of course oil.
WikiLeaks showed that the Saudis, unsurprisingly, have been in lock step with Western policy on containing Iran's nuclear program. The most dramatic recent example of the Saudi alliance paying off came in October, in the form of abortive terrorist attacks that were halted in Europe before they could reach the United States. Last summer and fall, U.S. intelligence agencies received three progressively more unnerving warnings from Saudi Arabia, all suggesting that al Qaeda was preparing to set off bombs in either Europe or the United States. The final alert, sent Oct. 28, was the most explicit, providing tracking numbers for two suspected explosives-laden packages on their way to Chicago from Yemen. A day later, police intercepted the packages at FedEx and UPS facilities in Dubai and Britain and defused bombs containing enough of the explosive PETN to take down the cargo planes on which they were to be shipped. Al Qaeda's Yemen affiliate claimed responsibility and warned of more such attempts. The take-away: Short of Saudi Arabia's insistent calls to the Central Intelligence Agency, there is almost certainly no chance that the bombs would have been detected.
What about the other main theater of current U.S. strategic interest, Afghanistan and Pakistan? With its long close ties to all parties in the region -- Pakistan, including the Army's jihadi-linked Inter-Services Intelligence directorate; Afghanistan; and the Taliban -- Saudi Arabia was asked early last year by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to help mediate a political settlement with the Taliban. In February, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, agreed to receive a delegation of former Taliban, but in November he froze contacts after the Taliban refused to repudiate Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Riyadh's position is not new: The Saudis adopted a similar posture position prior to 9/11, when they severed ties with the Taliban after its leader, Mullah Omar, refused to force bin Laden out of Afghanistan. Yet it is yet another example of crucial alignment in U.S.-Saudi policy.
All the while there is oil, although many people seem to suggest that as a source of strategic importance it is a temporary artifice. What are the facts? Not only will Saudi Arabia's predominant oil market position not shrink over the coming decades -- it will grow. Consider the current activities of Chevron, the original developer of Saudi oil, in the partition zone that the kingdom shares with Kuwait. Vice Chairman George Kirkland told me about Chevron's findings in the Wafra field, a reservoir of highly viscous, heavy oil in which the company is using a method of steam-injection drilling to recover an expected 10 billion to 15 billion barrels of petroleum. (For perspective, the industry regards a 1 billion-barrel field as a supergiant.) Saudi Arabia, Kirkland says correctly, is "at the top of the mountain as it is. [Wafra] reinforces a longer future delivering liquid hydrocarbons to the world economy." Meaning probably far into the second half of this century, adding up to another pinion of U.S. strategic interest. Here, Bloomberg's Wael Mahdi reports on Chevron's current progress at Wafra.
Those who suggest getting off Saudi oil are violating the basics of economics. As the pithy Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies expressed it to me: "What is the benefit for the U.S. of 'deplete America first'?"
Vladimir Putin had a relaxing "year of adventure," as my colleagues call it, impressing Russia and entertaining the rest of the world with populism -- motorcycle riding, whale harpooning, fire-fighting -- and coquettish flutters of the eyelids regarding his political intentions or lack thereof in 2012. But the most telling events happened in the closing days and weeks of the year, in which the Russian prime minister revealed his more familiar dark side.
I don't necessarily mean today's harsh prison sentence of 13.5 years against oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky -- enough to keep him in jail until 2017, factoring in the time he's already served -- which reflects hard-nosed Putin re-election strategy rather than unadulterated venality on his part. Rather, the more instructive event of 2010 is his embrace this month of racist hoods with chilling power on the street, a thread of extremism that Putin himself kindled and now is racing to get ahead of. Putin's December suggests that, for the moment at least, Russia prefers to remain an unnerving outsider.
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Today we're running a guest column by Russell Zanca, whom I regard as one of the keenest observers out there of Uzbekistan affairs. I met Russell in Tashkent in 1992, when he was a graduate student in Uzbek anthropology, and he went on to live for two years in the Fergana Valley. He is currently a professor of anthropology at Northeastern Illinois University.
Maybe failure is too harsh a judgment -- I am pretty sure that folks I know among the diplomatic corps who have been involved in U.S.-Uzbekistan affairs for the past two decades would disagree. But the reason our ties to Uzbekistan have largely fallen short, let's say, has everything to do with our inability to develop a reliable strategic partner in Central Asia who shares our values on human and civil rights, the respect for law, and democratic transparency.
It is not only Uzbekistan -- none of the five Central Asian states has achieved the democratic order and steady integration into global capitalism that we hoped for when they became independent in the Soviet collapse almost two decades ago. But Uzbekistan is something different -- it hasn't simply become a bit undemocratic, corrupt, nepotistic, and oligarchic. It has become superlatively dictatorial and cruel -- it is a vicious state. Its treatment of its citizens is neo-Stalinist to the core.
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As the debate in the United States' foreign-policy community rages over how long the war in Afghanistan should last, one inescapable question baffles both sides of the argument: What to do about Pakistan? Long derided as the "true epicenter" of global terror, Pakistan is discussed mostly in the realm of rumor and stereotype, and very little fact, history, or knowledge.
Understanding how Pakistan became the incubator for so many terror groups -- an exciting alphabet soup of acronyms like the QST, the TNSM, LeT, JeM, HN, TTP, and many others -- requires understanding Pakistan's evolution not just as an Islamic society, but as a fractured state determined to use Islam to secure and protect its own legitimacy. This is a phenomenon that seems to emerge regardless of who runs the government -- military or civilian, male or female, liberal or conservative, all the leaders of Pakistan have felt they could only rule through differing interpretations of Islam.
In The Scorpion's Tail: The Relentless Rise of Islamic Militants in Pakistan-And How It Threatens America, the Wall Street Journal correspondent Zahid Hussain charts a sobering history of the Pakistani state's relationship to Islam, Islamism, and Islamic radicalism. While the radicalist form of Islam -- the kind America really cares about -- didn't take root in Pakistan until the 1980s during the war between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, it was, Hussain argues, the result of decades of Pakistan's elites politicizing Islam to shore up their rule of the country. Starting with the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, and moving through the tumultuous history of coups, countercoups, and new constitutions, Hussain walks the reader through Pakistan's steady Islamization.
In my archive of all-time great oil pieces is a 2002 opus by Norimitsu Onishi in the New York Times which, in addition to taking us deep into the Niger Delta, noted the country's rise from backwater to crucial U.S. strategic interest. Following 9/11, the Bush administration had launched a systematic effort to shift U.S. oil dependence from the Persian Gulf to Africa. From 15 percent of the U.S. supply, the Bush administration aimed for Africa to supply a full quarter of U.S. oil by 2012. Nigeria would be the biggest component, adding a million barrels a day to its production of 2 million barrels a day of among the lightest, most valuable petroleum on the market.
Today, the United States is nowhere near that target. Africa supplies about 18 percent of total U.S. oil imports, or just 11 percent of total consumption. Of that, Nigeria supplies only about 960,000 barrels a day, equivalent to 10 percent of U.S. imports, or 5 percent of total daily consumption.
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Some Russia specialists in the Obama Administration and leading think tanks are upset with Bush-era U.S. policy towards Moscow, and are trying to correct this misguided past. Case in point: "Reset," the National Security Council-led Russian policy which has smoothed relations and produced some serious achievements, among them a new arms treaty (if it can survive Washington's poisonous political atmosphere) and Russian realignment on Iran strategy.
I have differed with the Reset group when it comes to the Near Abroad, as the Russians prefer to call their former Soviet colonies. The main reason is its revised understanding of the history. Prior thinkers found grounds to push back at what they regarded as Russian excesses, but the Reset group rejects this as "Great Game" brinksmanship; Russia was somehow boxed into a corner, mislabeled, manhandled, and generally misunderstood.
What brings this to mind at the moment is a recent conference championing the Reset thinking at the Center for American Progress, which plays the same intellectual promotional role for the Obama Administration as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation did for Republican presidents. The conference was led by two active purveyors of this new thinking, Samuel Charap and Alexandros Petersen, the authors of a Foreign Affairs piece outlining their views.
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Are we surprised at the latest report of corruption out of the former Soviet Union, released days before local elections in Ukraine, which alleges that the country's past government -- like the 12 Ukrainian governments that preceded it -- had some possible problems with dishonesty?
We are not.
Ukraine's current government, led by President Viktor Yanukovich, released a hefty report earlier this month alleging far-ranging corruption under Yanukovich's predecessor, Yulia Tymoshenko, who served as prime minister (her second stint in the job) from 2007 to 2010. The allegations involve $480 million worth of commodity deals, shell companies, tax havens, padded contracts, and other sundry hallmarks of official corruption. "The investigation revealed evidence of misapplication of state funds and apparent fraud involving the highest levels of the previous administration, specific ministries, and private corporations," the report says. Yanukovich's government has filed lawsuits based on some of the findings already.
By far the largest of six cases of alleged misappropriation cited involves siphoning off some $280 million in carbon credit sales from Ukraine's participation in a climate-change program. According to the investigators, Ukraine received the money from Japanese and Spanish electric companies as part of the Kyoto Protocol, which allows pollution emitters to offset excessive carbon dioxide output by paying for "credit" from companies or countries that have reduced their own emissions. The Tymoshenko government violated the terms of the program contracts by not using the money for clean-energy purposes, as required, but rather to shore up the finances of the country's pension fund, the investigators say. (The probe does not allege that Tymoshenko or any other Ukrainian politician personally pocketed the carbon credit money, and doesn't accuse Tymoshenko herself of any wrongdoing.)
Why aren't we aghast? Consider Transparency International's annual Corruption Perceptions Index, released Tuesday. For the 13th straight year, Ukraine was named one of the most corrupt countries on the planet; this time it ranked 134 out of 178, with 178 being the most corrupt. In my experience, U.S. businessmen, diplomats, and journalists who work in the region have long described the Ukraine as the most corrupt of the former Soviet republics. In 2006 -- a year after Tymoshenko began her on-again, off-again tenure in government -- an 84-page report by the U.S. Agency for International Development concluded that this deep-seated corruption began "immediately after independence" in 1991-92. What always happens in Ukraine, the report said, is that "[t]op political and business figures collude behind a facade of political competition and colonize both the state apparatus and sections of the economy."
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Add another country to the short list of former Soviet nations holding free and fair elections. Yesterday, Kyrgyzstan held a parliamentary election, and by all accounts there was little if any rigging from the top. (The neighbors in the same club are Georgia and Ukraine, in addition to the Baltics. Russia held a local election yesterday, too, with the traditional results: The pro-Putin bloc won.)
But it's also a perhaps more important first for the former Soviet space: Kyrgyzstan jettisoned the strong president model, and shifted to a parliamentary system. The United States may lose its military base, but, if successful, Kyrgyzstan will demonstrate that autocracy isn't the only workable ruling model in the region.
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As the saying goes, people gravitate to public service to do good, and stay on to do well. In any case, that apparently is Peter Galbraith's motto. In the 1980s, this foreign policy maven (and son of economist John Kenneth Galbraith) became known for his part in exposing Saddam Hussain's gassing of the Kurds, and for being one of Benazir Bhutto's best allies in America; in the 1990s, he was a key diplomat in the Balkans; and most recently, he was fired as deputy United Nations envoy in Afghanistan, then accused the Kabul government of massive fraud in the 2009 presidential election.
Late last year, we learned from the work of journalists at the Norwegian newspaper Dagens Naeringsliv (Galbraith's wife is from Norway) and the New York Times that Galbraith also has cashed in on his long work in Kurdistan. After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Galbraith was instrumental in Kurdistan gaining as much independence from the central government in Baghdad as it did. Now we know fairly well how much Galbraith's work was worth -- between $55 million and $75 million, as established yesterday by a British court presiding over a commercial lawsuit.
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In February 1989, Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan after a decade-long U.S.-backed rebellion in the country. But already the United States was greatly reducing spending in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the staging ground for the arming of mujahideen guerrillas. President George H.W. Bush ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to stop sending agents into Afghanistan. Even as the Taliban was born in 1994, taking power in Kabul two years later, the United States remained aloof. We know what happened next.
Today, my FP colleague Dan Drezner in effect suggests a similar U.S. path in former Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus. Responding to an essay I wrote for the New Republic, Drezner argues that the region was perhaps once a U.S. strategic interest, but that those days are over. The United States should not fight for its place: "There are a lot of regions in the world where I think a robust U.S. presence is a good idea. Central Asia is no longer one of them," he writes.
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Today, the Taliban set 22 NATO fuel tankers ablaze in the southern Pakistani border city of Quetta. That's a day after a fuel tanker was blown up at Torkham, the border post leading into Afghanistan. On Monday, the Taliban set 20 NATO oil tankers afire in Rawalpindi, outside the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.
In all, the Taliban's oil war has gone on for a week straight. This is a page straight out of the histories of the two world wars, in which access to -- and the absence of -- oil was the deciding factor in both making and breaking enemies.
Until now, the attacks have been explained as the Taliban capitalizing on a standoff between the United States and Pakistan over Pakistani casualties in drone attacks, to which Pakistan has responded by closing the border at Torkham, and leaving the fuel trucks exposed. But that doesn't explain today's attack in Quetta.
In fact, as the U.S. military has clearly documented, long fuel convoys have been among the main sources of American casualties in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The Taliban are Exhibit No. 1 as to why the military is working to untether itself from fossil fuels.
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Some of the big U.S. newspapers -- the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post -- are unhappy with how ambassador-designates are being treated in the vetting process for posts in the oil- and geopolitics-soaked lands of Eurasia.
U.S. designees to this region are, in fact, experiencing unusual turbulence. In the midst of the turmoil that has engulfed Kyrgyzstan over the last few months, Tatiana Gfoeller will be replaced as U.S. ambassador by Pamela Spratlen, currently the deputy chief of mission in Kazakhstan. An unexplained bureaucratic snafu is preventing Douglas Hengel, a deputy assistant secretary of state, from occupying the long-vacant slot in Turkmenistan. And Frank Ricciardone's move to the embassy in Ankara is being held up in the Senate, as my colleague Josh Rogin has written.
Yet the main reason for these newspapers' angst is the ambassador's post in Azerbaijan, which has been empty for some 14 months now. Perhaps not since the kitty-cat John Bolton was nominated to the United Nations has a designee attracted at turns such adoration and venom as Matthew Bryza, the choice of the George W. Bush and now the Obama administrations for the Baku post, as Laura Rozen has reported at Politico.
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As you may have heard, mastering clean energy is a big deal these days. Just this week, we see a decent series at the Financial Times, and a fresh cover story in Wired magazine (not online yet) devoted to the transformative potential of the industry, not just for technology and the environment but for the global economy. This is where things get complicated: Every major country wants the prize in order to revive its own flagging economy, and not all of them will necessarily get it.
Car companies themselves can't be expected to bear automatic allegiance to any country -- a point that Carlos Ghosn (above) made clear this week. Ghosn suggested that in order to get into China's market, his company, Nissan, is prepared to hand over any proprietary electric-car technology that Beijing wishes -- a big deal, considering that intellectual property is the Chinese juggernaut's Achilles heel.
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In a number of his shorter works, the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy refers to the Terek River in the North Caucasus as a terrifying border separating the known civilization to the north from the wild and dangerous realms to the south. Below the river, leading 19th Century figures in the region like Georgia's Ilya Chavchavadze were named tergdaleulni because they had "tasted the waters of the Terek," and ventured north to frigid St. Petersburg in pursuit of Western learning.
Today, the exoticism ascribed to the Caucasus by Russians a century ago has given way to more prosaic geopolitical concerns. But the vitality and importance of this former Soviet region is not much better understood today than it was in Tolstoy's day -- and even when it is, the Caucasus is usually dismissed as too internecine and complicated to merit wide geopolitical attention. In his modestly titled new book, Thomas de Waal seeks to fix this problem with a balanced, assiduously researched and lucid primer.
As the Soviet Union crumbled, flashes of nationalism helped to create the three states of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, which jointly make up the South Caucasus. What are now called "frozen conflicts" flared in Nagorno-Karabakh -- on which de Waal wrote his last book, Black Garden -- South Ossetia, and Abkhazia, pitted two of the states -- Armenia and Azerbaijan -- against one another, and placed Georgia in a line of confrontation with Russia. Together with these national aspirations, energy politics, super-charged lobbying in major world capitals and a unique juxtaposition of East and West have driven separate but inter-related narratives that, each on its own, deserves many volumes.
This is turning out to be a grim week here at O&G -- yesterday Matthew Simmons, today, former Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, who died Monday night after his plane crashed in Alaska's Bristol Bay region.
Stevens was a gruff politician of the old school, of a generation of senators whose other members -- Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, Robert Byrd of West Virginia -- have nearly all retired or passed on. It's hard to overstate the stature he enjoyed among Alaskans, who routinely referred to him as Uncle Ted, and who kept him in office for all but one decade of Alaska's half-century of statehood. In the view of his constituents he was less Alaska's senator than its patriarch, the leader who guided Alaska's transformation from a territorial outpost to a modern petrostate.
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Next Wednesday, James Giffen will make what Bloomberg tallies as at least his 20th court appearance in what was, at the time of his arrest, the largest foreign bribery case in American history. Giffen, you may recall, was arrested at JFK Airport in 2003 and charged with channeling some $78 million in oil company payments to the president of Kazakhstan and his associates and family. Seven years later, Giffen now holds another distinction: He's the defendant in the longest-running foreign bribery case in U.S. history. What's going on?
The case involves payments from oil companies that no longer exist -- Mobil, Amoco, Philips -- to a country that once was one of the hottest oil frontiers on the planet, and an exemplar of the charismatic middlemen who get between the two parties, make a deal work, and get paid for this service.
Prosecutors allege that in order to get a deal done in Kazakhstan in the late 1990s one had to go through Giffen, who fashioned himself as counselor to the president of Kazakhstan. According to the charges, he was passing on millions of dollars from the oil companies to his boss, along with gifts like a really neat speedboat.
The main issue in the delay in the case is Giffen's defense -- he says that the whole time he was arranging those payments, he was effectively an asset of the Central Intelligence Agency, which knew or should have known precisely what he was doing. But coming by the evidence to support that defense isn't easy, and the court has ruled that Giffen's right to a fair trial requires the federal government to cough up documents that may help his case.
The CIA still hasn't produce all the requested documents, and Giffen's strategy is to stretch out the time as far as possible in hopes that some or all the charges get dropped. Meanwhile, the court has spent a great deal of time in a farcical discussion about whether Giffen can examine the documents himself once they are produced, or whether they can be viewed only by his lawyer, William Schwartz. (What is the possible difference between Giffen and Schwartz looking at the documents? Does Schwartz have a security clearance?) Meanwhile, Giffen has already blown through five trial dates, and no one seems to know what is taking so long.
O&G's readers include several Giffen experts, and out of curiosity I emailed them for their learned (and anonymous) explanations for the delay. After the jump, the top 10:
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Boris Volodarsky was trained as an officer in the GRU Spetsnaz, the Soviet military's intelligence arm. When I met him while on book research in London in 2007, he was writing The KGB's Poison Factory, his own book on Moscow's fascination with murder-by-poison. With his encyclopedic knowledge and understanding of the KGB and its history, he is finishing a new book called The Orlov KGB File. I asked whether Volodarsky would reply to a few questions about last week's arrest of 10 Russian "illegals," sleeper agents planted without diplomatic cover, in the United States. His answers after the jump:
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Life as an "illegal" is almost never like a spy novel, Nikolai Khokhlov told me during our conversations and email exchanges a few years ago. It's all about looking normal, fitting in, and waiting for a mission from Moscow, which might or might not ever come.
Nikolai was a Russian sleeper agent, an undercover spy of a type that is in the news again, thanks to the arrest of 10 of them in the United States this week. Many people are mystified as to just what these folks were doing here, if, as appears to be in the case in their indictments, they never carried out any actual espionage.
Illegals -- the term of art for the class of spies whom Moscow has trained and planted in western countries since at least the 1940s -- are among the elite of Russia’s intelligence corps, first in the KGB and today in its successor, the FSB. Aside from assassins, they have the hardest work, and are often the most valued. Here is how Nikolai's handler, Pavel Sudoplatov, described what an illegal does (from his book Special Tasks):
Illegals operate without diplomatic cover under false identity. There are two types of illegal operations. One is to live undercover in the West awaiting assignment from the Center (security service headquarters) and building a network of agents. This is a long-term assignment and can last from five to fifteen years. Another, more dangerous, illegal role is to penetrate hostile intelligence services, posing as a sympathizer coming from the Soviet Union.
I met Nikolai in 2007 while researching a book on Russian spies and murder. In his 80s and living in retirement in San Bernardino, Ca., the KGB defector was happy to relate the old tales of tradecraft. He had landed in the West in the 1950s after refusing to carry out an assigned murder, and survived a subsequent assassination attempt by the KGB with radioactive thallium. Later, he wrote about his life in In the Name of Conscience.
Nikolai's German was near-native, a skill tested when he posed as a Nazi soldier in Moscow's wartime plot to assassinate SS officer Wilhelm Kube in Minsk. But in 1945, with World War II still not yet over, he was dispatched to Romania as an illegal. Because of his accent, and total absence of Romanian, Nikolai was to pose as a Polish émigré named Stanislaw Levandowski. As professional cover, Nikolai was provided cash to open a small electronic goods shop.
As instructed, Nikolai acted normally. He got a Romanian woman to marry him, explaining that it was necessary for him to get Romanian citizenship so as not to lose his store and perhaps his freedom if he had to go back to Poland. But there was no spycraft, no indication from Moscow of any coming mission. In a word, it was boring. Four years later, he insisted that he be brought home to Moscow.
After his defection to the West, Nikolai went on to study psychology, and became a professor at California State University in San Bernardino. He left a son behind in Moscow, marrying again in the United States and raising three more children with his wife Tatjana. Just a few months after we met, Nikolai died at the age of 84. I attended his funeral.
To the end, Nikolai insisted he was never an assassin, and he detested the mentality of the intelligence men who had once been his peers. But he remained proud of the one active illegal mission he did carry out: the Kube assassination. He never stopped talking about that.
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The U.S. military is studying a plan to solve Afghanistan's problems by turning it into a superhighway of roads, railroads, electricity lines and energy pipelines connected to the entire Eurasian landmass. According to a piece in the National Journal by Sydney Freedberg, the proposal has the ear of Gen. David Petraeus, whose confirmation hearings to be the new U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan start today in the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The plan is heavy on ringing optimism. I have my doubts. They are rooted in the last time this was tried, in the 1990s, when Unocal -- now part of Chevron -- sought to build an $8 billion oil-and-natural gas pipeline network from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. The plan -- which Unocal saw as so potentially lucrative that it could catapult the company into the big leagues of the industry -- attracted much attention, hoopla and hopes for peace after years of war and chaos in the country.
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The Obama administration's "reset" policy towards Russia is in full swing with today's visit to Washington by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. It is a repudiation of what Obama foreign policy hands dub the Great Game mentality of recent U.S.-Russia relations, but it is also an echo of an early Clinton administration debate on Russia policy.
In those days, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott's belief was that Boris Yeltsin's Russia was ripe for western-style reform -- democracy, an open market, and so on -- and that the United States should do everything possible to make sure that that transformation took place. Talbott's critics derided his strategy as "Russia First," saying it left former Soviet colonies such as Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan badly exposed. In the end, Talbott changed his mind, and the Clinton administration launched into a full embrace of the eight republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia.
With the current reset, Talbott's original ideas get the road test that they never really had. But it won't be an easy one. The current flare-up in Kyrgyzstan is a case in point.
About two weeks ago, hundreds of people, mostly Uzbeks, were killed in inter-ethnic attacks in southern Kyrgyzstan, which the government blames on ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva, asserting that Kyrgyz troops aren't capable of controlling the upheaval, pleaded for foreign peacekeepers -- first for U.S. troops, then Russian troops. Both requests were unsuccessful. Now she is asking for a police force organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Throughout, the Obama administration has said that it has been in intense discussions with both Russia and the Kyrgyz government about resolving Kyrgyzstan's crisis. Today, President Barack Obama said the U.S. and Russia are coordinating humanitarian aid to the country. But in the meantime, no one has managed to organize a deployment of even a few hundred international military observers or peacekeepers, such as the eastern Europeans who were dispatched by the OSCE to help keep the peace in Azerbaijan's disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region during the 1990s.
In the Moscow Times, James Lough argues that reactions to the Kyrgyzstan conflict may reflect an acknowledgement of a division of labor in the region: From the Russian side, an acceptance of the U.S.-controlled Manas Air Base; from the U.S. side, respect for Russian leadership's ability to resolve key issues.
But in the Caucasus and Central Asia, it's seen by some nervous officials and experts as relegation of the region to a vacuum into which Russia is stepping after a decade and a half of Washington's East-West strategy. They say the United States now has no tangible policy in the region. "Georgia can't be part of a grand western strategy, because there is no grand western strategy," said Ghia Nodia, a Georgian professor and political analyst whom I've known for more than 15 years, who was speaking at a conference today on the Caspian Sea region at the Center for Security and International Studies in Washington. "Georgia needs to rely on itself for its security."
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When the Obama administration's foreign policy team talks about Russia, they do it exuberantly. After almost two decades of on-and-off tension, the U.S. and Russia are on the way to a "normalization" of relations, says Ben Rhodes, deputy National Security Adviser for strategic communications. Michael McFaul, President Barack Obama's special advisor on Russia, says that what's going on is historic in scope. The relationship has gotten the West and Russia away from "the 19th Century Great Game, and the 20th Century Cold War," said McFaul, who along with Rhodes briefed reporters last night by telephone.
The high-fiving was prompted most recently by an impending state visit from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to Washington tomorrow. At a time when foreign policy successes are hard to come by, the administration appears intent on parading Medvedev as an unqualified triumph of signal importance, involving advances in areas of "core U.S. strategic interests," McFaul said.
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Kyrgyzstan is in an unfamiliar, lonely position for a state on the much-fought-over southern rim of the former Soviet Union. The country has issued a call for the help of a superpower, any superpower, in implicit exchange for all the influence a savior can handle -- and there are no takers. A reasonable amount of humanitarian aid has arrived from both the U.S. and Russia, but not the muscle necessary to end Kyrgyzstan's current crisis, in which President Roza Otunbayeva says as many as 2,000 people have been slaughtered in the south of the country.
This is strange: Kyrgyzstan has never before had much trouble attracting the attention of great powers. In his 1938 classic Alone in the Forbidden Land, former Austrian prisoner of war Gustav Krist describes a winter spent in yurts with what he calls the Free Kyrgyz before they flee on horseback over the Chinese border in front of the Red Army. Fifty-five years later, the International Monetary Fund got the Kyrgyz to lead the way toward post-Soviet independence by dumping the ruble -- and hence Russia -- and creating Central Asia's first independent currency.
That was the first salvo in an almost two-decade rumble between the United States and Russia over influence in the oil-drenched Caucasus and Central Asia, pipeline politicking that still goes on today. Most recently, the two countries have been tussling over whose military base will endure in Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. Manas Air Base or Russia's Kant. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal's Greg White published today, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev offered his view that Kant will prevail, diplomatically stating that Manas should not be considered a "permanent" installation. (Next week, Medvedev travels to Washington for his first state visit to the United States, although Kyrgyzstan no doubt won't occupy much of his face time with President Barack Obama.)
But since the ethnic clashes began last weekend, the playing ground for the fabled Great Game seems to have suddenly fallen off everyone's map. In a meeting with the U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Tatiana Gfoeller, Otunbayeva asked directly for U.S. military assistance. But the United States signaled that it wasn't in the cards. Otunbayeva then turned to Moscow, a development that I initially viewed as the United States explicitly ceding Kyrgyz turf to Russia after years of implicitly suggesting that Kyrgyzstan and the rest of Central Asia was safely in American hands. But Russia gave her the cold shoulder, too.
The dual U.S. and Russian rejections say something different from the traditional zero-sum understanding of Great Power calculus, not just to Kyrgyzstan but to the rest of the region: They say that the Great Game is ultimately one of convenience, and nothing more. It's a harsh message, but probably a useful one for the Central Asians, and all resource-rich nations that are targets of foreign courtship.
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What do you do when large-scale ethnic violence breaks out in a country where you have a key military base, but the local government can do nothing to stop it? When that country is situated in a region on which you have spent untold hours of diplomatic effort and hundreds of millions of dollars over an 18-year period, and staked a claim to a primary seat at the table of influence? Where matters like oil, the Taliban, narcotics and nuclear trafficking intersect? But all this happens while your military is stretched to the breaking point elsewhere, and, to be blunt, you have other fish to fry?
You phone the Russians.
That call -- as this blog reported yesterday, the Obama administration rejected an informal request for military assistance by Kyrgyzstan, and has been helping to coordinate an international response that, if it happens, will be led by Moscow -- is the latest example of a dramatic reversal of U.S. policy. Since 1991, U.S. policy in Central Asia and the Caucasus had centered on helping the eight-nation southern belt of the former Soviet Union achieve relative political independence from Russia.
Critics already have accused Washington of selling out Georgia by pulling back from the George W. Bush administration's support of the country's eventual membership in NATO (here is an old Facebook page devoted to the topic). In general, such critics, including my Foreign Policy colleagues at Shadow Government, heap an old bromide on the latest administration in Washington: President Obama, they say, is soft on Russia. The openness to an active Russian military deployment on Kyrgyz soil -- Russia has a base in Kyrgyzstan, called Kant, but it doesn't carry out local operations -- is sure to invite a new round of table-pounding.
But is the administration soft on Russia, or is it following a realistic new course given the geopolitical landscape, and the result of previous policies toward Vladimir Putin's entrenched government?
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Steve LeVine is the author of The Oil and the Glory and a longtime foreign correspondent.