A HUGE POLITICAL scandal in Moscow involving secret military shipments of $1 billion worth of arms to Armenia has ripple effects that reach all the way to America's shores. But so far the Clinton administration is shortsightedly looking the other way.
The story has all the ingredients of a Cold War spy thriller, except that the Cold War has been replaced by a new U.S.-Russian competition over the world's most important source of new oil. The oil is located in the Caspian basin, which sits above Iran and just northeast of Turkey.
Most of the basin used to be controlled by the Soviet Union. But now the Caspian Sea is ringed with newly independent states carved out of former Soviet republics, including Azerbaijan, which may have as much oil as Kuwait. American oil firms have invested billions in a consortium seeking to tap Azeri oil. But getting it to market depends on Russian good will.
The reason why becomes apparent as soon as you look at a map. The Caspian Sea is landlocked, which means that the oil must be piped north through Russia or west across the Caucasus, through Georgia or Armenia, to Turkey. The northern route is tricky, both because the Russians have not been cooperative and because the existing pipeline runs through war-torn Chechnya.
Trouble in Armenia
So the logical choice would be a westward route via Armenia or Georgia, and, in fact, the consortium has started building a Georgia pipeline. But here is where the juicy Moscow scandal comes in.
To build and operate an oil pipeline requires a certain amount of political stability. But Moscow -- which has a history of meddling in the Caucasus -- has been busy stirring up ethnic warfare within Georgia, and between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
In Armenia, the Russians have found fertile ground for troublemaking. Armenia and Azerbaijan battled for years over control of an Armenian ethnic enclave known as Nagorno-Karabakh, which once sat inside Azerbaijan's borders. By 1994, Armenia had captured and occupied 20 percent of Azeri territory, including Nagorno-Karabakh, creating a million Azeri refugees.
But, with American concurrence, Russia was anointed as the main player in European peacemaking efforts between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Not surprisingly, those efforts have gone nowhere.
Now we learn why.
Lev Rokhlin, chairman of the Defense Committee of the Russian Duma, or parliament, told a closed session on April 2 that Moscow had secretly shipped $1 billion worth of weapons to the Armenian government, both during the fighting and long after the ceasefire.
The weaponry included 84 T-72 tanks, 50 infantry fighting vehicles, and missiles that can carry conventional, chemical or nuclear warheads. Western intelligence sources say the weapons were crucial to Armenian territorial gains.
The Russians also signed a treaty with Armenia that assures Moscow it can keep its two military bases and three Russian border-troop camps on Armenian soil. The treaty was signed ''after'' the nationalist and increasingly undemocratic Armenian president, Levon Ter-Petrosian, appointed as prime minister the hard-line leader of Nagorno-Karabakh.
This gentleman, Robert Kocharian, had indicated before taking office that he was ready to use military force to prevent Azerbaijan from exporting its Caspian oil, stating that ''not one drop of Azeri oil will flow from the Caspian to international markets.'' Kocharian now has weapons that can reach oil fields and storage facilities near the Azeri capital, Baku.
Why would Moscow risk sparking such an explosion?
The arms shipments were no doubt meant to force Caucasus leaders to make concessions to Moscow. Russian military forces helped foment an uprising in the Georgian ethnic enclave of Abkhazia to compel reluctant Georgian President Eduard Shevardnazde to let them base Russian troops on his soil.
So far, Azeri President Haidar Aliyev has held out against Russian demands to base troops in his country and has further angered the Russians by strongly backing the Georgia pipeline route. But so long as the conflict between his country and Armenia remains unresolved, Azeri oil shipments remain at risk.
Meantime, the Armenians, traumatized by memories of their holocaust under Turkish rule, and of recent pogroms during the DTC war with Azerbaijan, cling to Moscow, even though this self-defeating alliance ensures that their troubles will never end.
The Clinton team cannot afford to consign the Caucasus to Russia's sphere of influence. Nor can it afford to give Russia the green light to move more troops and equipment into the Caucasus as a reward for Russian agreement to the expansion of NATO.
It's long past time for a much higher-profile administration effort to find a settlement for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Congress could help by dropping legislation that rules out most humanitarian aid and technical assistance to Azerbaijan.
Russia should not be permitted to use European ''peacekeeping'' efforts any longer as a cover for restoring their empire. The Russian arms scandal should be a wake-up call.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Pub Date: 5/06/97