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|A Line in the Sand|
Georgia's disastrous attack on South Ossetia has given Russia a perfect excuse to roll back US control of Azerbaijan's oil supply, argues Dilip Hiro.
By using force to bring back the breakaway region of South Ossetia under central control, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili has inadvertently gifted the Kremlin a chance to retrieve the influence it had lost in the Caucasus to the United States.
Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has watched with growing alarm how the successive US administrations have violated the promise made by President George HW Bush to respect the status quo existing at the time of the end of the cold war in 1990. The eastward expansion of Nato, which started during the Bill Clinton presidency, has covered not only the Baltic states, but also all of the east European members of the now-defunct Moscow-led Warsaw Pact. As if this were not enough, plans are being made to expand Nato to admit Ukraine, a former European constituent of the Soviet Union, and Georgia, a former Caucasian constituent of the Soviet Union.
Already, the Pentagon had established its presence in Georgia and Azerbaijan. It posted its officers to these Caucasian republics to train Georgian and Azeri forces to guard the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline – connecting Baku, the source of oil, with the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, in Turkey. Moreover, under guise of waging "war on terror", the Azeri government allowed the Pentagon to upgrade the Nasosnaya military airfield north of Baku. As I have discussed in my book Blood of the Earth, that gave the US greater flexibility in transporting troops and deploying its air power in the region.
The Pentagon's continuing intrusion into Russia's backyard has been worrisome to the military leaders in Moscow. They see it as part of Washington's overarching policy of encircling Russia. Now, Saakashvili's ill-conceived move has provided them with a rationale to flex their muscles and claw back some of the influence the Kremlin has been wont to exercise in the Caucasus over the past two centuries.
On the American side, intent on monopolising the exploitation of the hydrocarbon resources of the Caspian Basin, the Clinton administration resolved to exclude Russian and Iranian oil companies from exploration and extraction. It succeeded. Yet, there was the task of delivering the crude oil to where it was needed – Europe. With their already-established pipelines leading to maritime terminals, Russia and Iran were well-placed to provide the transit facilities.
To exclude Russia and Iran even from this phase, Washington favoured the construction of the 1,090-mile Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, even though it was twice as long as the alternative route of Baku-Tbilisi-Suspa, the Russian port on the Black Sea, and passes through a highly seismic landscape. The US government went on to grant $823m to Turkey for this project, amounting to more than a fifth of the total cost.
Although the presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Turkey signed (under pressure from Washington) a document in 1998 favouring the BTC pipeline, it was not until 2006 that it was built. During the present conflict, the Russian air force has tried to hit this pipeline – so far without success. By attempting to do so, the Kremlin is sending a message to Nato member states: the BTC pipeline, built at great cost in order to circumvent Russia, is now vulnerable.
Of course, any damage to the pipeline can be repaired. And the events of the past few days will enable Washington to convince its allies that, despite the odds, it had pursued the right policy of excluding Russia from the ventures of the western oil corporations in the Caspian Basin.
On the other hand, with Europe importing 25% of its natural gas needs from Russia, there is no prospect of it ensuring its energy security by excluding the Russian behemoth, Gazprom, from its list of hydrocarbon suppliers. All that western capitals can now hope is that the popular backlash in Georgia, which is bound to follow Saakashvili's blunder, does not lead to his overthrow and replacement by a leader who is not as determinedly anti-Russian as he is.
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