In Whose Orbit?
Interesting to see US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visiting Kazakstan the other day and making security overtures to the Kazak government. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the countries around the Caspian Sea have been seen by some as a sort second Middle East. While the area's proved reserves of oil are still not on the scale of even Kuwait, by itself, it has upside potential and is an increasingly important supplier.
The Secretary's visit is notable for what it signals about the changing nature of US interest and involvement in a region that until recently was under the more-or-less exclusive influence of Russia, their "Near Abroad." Once Western companies began to establish themselves--ChevronTexaco set up operations in Kazakstan in 1993--closer governmental ties were bound to follow.
Russia is likely to view this relationship as unwelcome, and it is important to note that our interests and those of the Russians don't align well in the Caspian. Russia wants a big share of the infrastructure for getting Caspian oil to market, while the US prefers multiple routes involving smaller neighboring countries, such as Georgia, with its new pro-US government. This greatly oversimplifies the complexities of Caspian pipeline issues, about which books could be (and probably are being) written.
All in all, this is an area to watch, particularly as Russia becomes more self-confident and assertive in the wake of the likely landslide re-election of President Putin next month.