Washington and Moscow on Caspian Collision Course In Georgia

DEBKAfile Special Report

3 December:

The strategic partnership forged by Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin for the 2001 Afghanistan war is wearing thin under the conflict of interests in the strategic, oil-rich Caspian region sparked by the bloodless coup that unseated Georgian president Edouard Shevardnadze last month. Instead of developing the region to their mutual advantage, Russia and the United States squared off Tuesday, December 2, at the ministerial meeting of the Organization for Security and cooperation in Europe at Maastricht, the Netherlands, after Moscow refused to withdraw its remaining forces and military equipment from Georgia and Moldova.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell reminded Moscow of its pledge at the 1999 OSCE meeting in Istanbul to completely withdraw its forces from Moldova and Georgia in four years.

He also warned Moscow against supporting separatists in Georgia, a reference to the Kremlin meeting between Russian officials and leaders from South Ossetia and Abkhazia just after the coup in Tbilisi.

The two regions broke free of Georgian control more than a decade ago and want to join Russia. With them in Moscow were also leaders from Adzhara, which is hostile to the new interim Georgian rulers, but does not seek secession.

When Powell’s warning failed to take effect, US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld took a plane to the southern Caucasian for an unannounced trip Wednesday, December 3, to Baku and also possibly Tbilisi.

Since shortly before the Afghan War, the United States has maintained military bases in Azerbaijan under agreements then forged between Washington and Moscow. The deal was for the Americans to withdraw as soon as Russian troops quit Georgia and Moldava.

DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources explain Moscow is now determined not to let post-Shevardnadze Georgia swing into the American sphere of influence. The Russians look to prevent this by promoting the republic’s fragmentation into mini-states. By annexing South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Moscow will gain another military foothold in the Caucasian.

The Americans may counter this move by retaining or even building up its own military presence in the region.

In Baku, Rumsfeld will reportedly open discussions with Azeri president Ilham Aliyev and defense minister Safar Abbiyev on new American bases in the country.

The United States already maintains a small detachment of US troops is in Georgia too under accords for collaboration in fighting international terror.

Also on Wednesday, a high-ranking US delegation landed in Tbilisi to help Georgian interim leaders arrange a new election. It was made up of state, defense, treasury and justice department officials, but it is not clear if they brought financial pledges to the republic which is teetering on the brink of economic collapse.

Also taking an interest in Georgia are world financiers, a group of whom joined the procession of arrivals Wednesday. Among them was the exiled Russian tycoon Boris Beresovsky. Living in London since Putin threw him out of Moscow, he is now after a handy base close to Russia for his opposition campaign against the Russian leader.

He reckons that in Georgia he can buy one relatively cheaply.

The stakes in this scrap between Washington and Moscow are high.

Oil-rich Azerbaijan on the shore of the Caspian Sea is an ideal spot for American bases and airfields because of its location close to the Middle East, Russia and China. Both Azerbaijan and Georgia lie on the route of a pipeline being built by western oil majors which when completed in 2005 will ship Caspian Sea oil to world markets.