The Republic of Georgia’s desirability as an oil and natural-gas transit point has made her a pawn in a game that involves Washington, Moscow, Caspian Sea oil, and the fate of Iraq.  And this game is, in turn, part of the great game going on in Central Asia.

Since September 11, 2001, American policymakers have used the “war on terrorism” as an excuse to step up intervention in Georgian affairs, sending military personnel to Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge region to “train and equip” Georgian military forces to combat terrorists allegedly connected to Osama bin Ladin.  The American presence also appears aimed at propping up the shaky regime of ex-Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.  The Kremlin did not object—at first, anyway.  How could it, when President Vladimir Putin himself had claimed that Afghanistan-trained terrorists were using Georgian territory as a base for operations in Chechnya, a charge Moscow used effectively to end Western attempts to interfere in its war on the Chechen insurgents?  And the United States could simply state that its stepped-up presence in Georgia—a country whose government controls little outside her capital and is faced with Russian-backed independence movements in Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia—is merely one more aspect of the “war on terrorism.”

The Bush administration’s decision to mount a war on Iraq, however, gave Moscow an opening to reassert its influence on Georgia and to bargain over future oil and gas deals with Washington.  President Bush would like Russia’s backing—or, at least, only a muted formal protest—in the event of war.  And Putin would like to preserve Russian oil companies’ position in Iraqi oil production, something that could garner lots of petrodollars for Moscow’s rapidly emptying coffers.  Thus, Moscow chose the month of September, while the White House was busy mounting an extensive p.r. campaign justifying its war on Iraq,  to threaten war with Georgia.  

The warning came in a statement by President Putin on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks: “If the Georgian leadership cannot create a security zone in the regions of the Georgian-Russian border and does not put an end to the bandit sorties and attacks on contiguous regions of Russia,” Putin intoned, then Moscow “reserves the right to act in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter, which enshrines every UN member’s” right to “self defense.”

Kremlin-watchers immediately saw through Putin’s threats: Moscow was awash with rumors that Putin was using the Georgian-Pankisi problem to reassert its influence in Georgia and bargain with the United States over terms for supporting Washington’s war on Iraq.  Some even asserted that Moscow was exaggerating the number of Chechen insurgents in the region, just as Washington was exaggerating the extent of the ties that the insurgents may have to bin Laden’s terrorist network.

Moscow would not like Georgia to fall permanently into Washington’s orbit (there is already talk in Shevardnadze’s capital that Georgia might seek membership in NATO) and would like either to promote a Russian pipeline route for Caspian Sea oil and gas or, failing that, to participate in developing the Georgian route, which U.S.-backed transnationals support.  So Putin has asked a good question: If the United States can mount preemptive strikes on “terrorist states,” then why can’t Russia?  He has also, between the lines, posed a rhetorical question: You need us to help you see through your projects in Iraq and the Caspian, don’t you?  Otherwise, Moscow could make trouble for Washington’s pals in the U.S. “oil patch,” not only in the Caucasus (a disintegrating, war-torn Georgia would not be a good pipeline route) but in Central Asia, where the U.S.-backed Afghan regime is negotiating with Washington’s ally Pakistan over an oil and gas transit route through its territory (bypassing Russia again).  

The United States has already signaled its willingness to bargain with Russia through ex-CIA director and Iraq warhawk James Woolsey, who has made it clear what the United States is ready to do for a cooperative Russia: “France and Russia have oil companies and interests in Iraq,” Woolsey recently stated, and “We have to tell them that if they help push Iraq toward a decent form of government, we will do everything possible to ensure that the new [Iraqi] government, and the US companies, can work side by side [with them].”  And Moscow has responded: In late August, a member of the staff of the Russian embassy in Washington met with representatives of the U.S.-backed Iraqi National Congress, an opposition-in-exile to the current Iraqi regime.

Meanwhile, a kidnapping in Moscow has added a strange twist to the whole hydrocarbon saga: A few days before President Bush’s request to Congress for action against Iraq and a few days after Putin’s threats to Georgia, Sergey Kukura, vice president of Lukoil, one of Russia’s biggest oil companies, was kidnapped.  The Russian media exploded with speculation over who was behind the abduction, with some vaguely hinting that Kukura was the victim of an intra-“clan” struggle: Lukoil chief Vagit Alekperov is one of the country’s most influential oligarchs, and Lukoil is involved in developing Russia’s share of the Caspian Sea oil and gas take as well as Russian concessions in Iraq.  And some of Alekperov’s cronies want him to make certain changes in the company’s policies.  But which policies?

We may now know the answer: A few days after Kukura’s abduction, an article appeared in the influential business paper Vedomosti, which is a partner with the Wall Street Journal and is also, according to Kremlin deep throats, under the influence of certain key players in the Russian oligarchy.  The article blasted Alekperov for not being more pro-American.  According to the unsigned editorial, Lukoil, which is majority state-owned, had not done enough to get involved in the U.S.-backed Georgian pipeline, construction on which had begun that very day.  The article claimed that a route from Baku (on the Caspian) through Tbilisi (Georgia’s capital) to Ceyhan (in NATO member Turkey) could pump much more oil to America than the Russian route.  That, together with the Iraq concessions, would make a deal with the United States a very profitable proposition for certain Russian oil and gas producers.

Some Lukoil executives and their allies, especially the pro-American oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, are encouraging cooperation with the United States: The Moscow “oil barons” are hot to get into the American oil market.  Moreover, Lukoil has already begun buying up gas stations across the United States, while Khodorkovsky’s YUKOS firm has begun selling oil in America.  And rumor has it that Kukura’s kidnapping— which some believe was the work of Russian intelligence services—was merely a warning to Alekperov.