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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

THE GREAT GAME: Washington Now Notices Bold Caucasus




Brzezinski just walked in," whispered my former boss who was chairing our talk. We were in the bowels of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, telling a very high-powered audience what we could about Chechnya.


Zbigniew Brzezinski was silent in the back row near the door but he bought our book afterward and gave us a 10-minute chat. His office, decorated with dark, gleaming leather furniture and framed photos of him making history with various world leaders, made it feel a bit like an official audience.


He, and others in Washington, among them State Department officials, military specialists and even the odd CIA man, are still interested in Chechnya, especially because of its place in the larger picture of the turbulent Caucasus and resource-rich Caspian.


Their questions ranged from what happened to the U.S. aid worker Fred Cuny, to whether Chechen or Wahabbi militants spread unrest further across the region. For their part they dropped a few interesting tidbits during conversations although my general impression was that the region is not significant enough in the grand scheme of things for their leaders to care too much.


But Washington has noticed the growing assertiveness of the Caucasus states of Azerbaijan and Georgia in their relations with Russia since its defeat at the hands of the Chechens.


Washington is responding accordingly and is determined for the main pipeline route for Caspian oil to go through Azerbaijan, Georgia and ultimately Turkey, bypassing the two big powers in the region, Russia and Iran.


Brzezinski told a good story highlighting how Russia's grip on the region is sliding. The bulk of the weapons the Chechens obtained from abroad during the war came from Russian troops based in Georgia and Armenia, he said. The men based in the so-called TransCaucasus loathe their army comrades in southern Russia, who were doing the fighting against the Chechens, and so had no compunction about selling weapons to be used against them.


It makes me think Moscow could count little on its soldiers in the Caucasus if it ever wanted to.


Brzezinski describes the final battle of Grozny in August 1996 as Russia's version of the Tet offensive, the battle that dealt Russian morale a fatal blow. Maybe Chechnya will color Russia's foreign policy for decades just as Vietnam did the United States'.


So as Russian hegemony in the region wanes, is U.S. or Western influence gaining? It still seems relatively unimportant in Washington.


The Caspian is attracting a lot of interest among students, academics and oil consultants. Applications to study Russian at U.S. universities has been dropping for about five years now, but interest in Caspian and Caucasus related studies is growing.


That may be because of the money and grants sponsored by the oil companies. It must be also because the region is one of the least well-known places in the world, and so all the more intriguing.


But one friend in Washington, whose son must be the only six-year-old American who can say "Chechnya," predicts the place will remain on the back burner. The countries are far away, and the oil and gas, however plentiful, is difficult to get out and so expensive.


Yet he, and not a few of his Washington colleagues, cannot wait to get back there.