Putin's Ruthless Gambit
The Bush Administration Falters
in a Geopolitical Chess Match
by Michael T. Klare
TomDispatch, September 2, 2008
Many Western analysts have chosen to interpret
the recent fighting in the Caucasus as the onset of a new Cold
War, with a small pro-Western democracy bravely resisting a brutal
reincarnation of Stalin's jack-booted Soviet Union. Others have
viewed it a throwback to the age-old ethnic politics of southeastern
Europe, with assorted minorities using contemporary border disputes
to settle ancient scores.
Neither of these explanations is accurate.
To fully grasp the recent upheavals in the Caucasus, it is necessary
to view the conflict as but a minor skirmish in a far more significant
geopolitical struggle between Moscow and Washington over the energy
riches of the Caspian Sea basin -- with former Russian President
(now Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin emerging as the reigning Grand
Master of geostrategic chess and the Bush team turning out to
be middling amateurs, at best.
The ultimate prize in this contest is
control over the flow of oil and natural gas from the energy-rich
Caspian basin to eager markets in Europe and Asia. According to
the most recent tally by oil giant BP, the Caspian's leading energy
producers, all former "socialist republics" of the Soviet
Union -- notably Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan
-- together possess approximately 48 billion barrels in proven
oil reserves (roughly equivalent to those left in the U.S. and
Canada) and 268 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (essentially
equivalent to what Saudi Arabia possesses).
During the Soviet era, the oil and gas
output of these nations was, of course, controlled by officials
in Moscow and largely allocated to Russia and other Soviet republics.
After the breakup of the USSR in 1991, however, Western oil companies
began to participate in the hydrocarbon equivalent of a gold rush
to exploit Caspian energy reservoirs, while plans were being made
to channel the region's oil and gas to markets across the world._
Rush to the Caspian
In the 1990s, the Caspian Sea basin was
viewed as the world's most promising new source of oil and gas,
and so the major Western energy firms -- Chevron, BP, Shell, and
Exxon Mobil, among others -- rushed into the region to take advantage
of what seemed a golden opportunity. For these firms, persuading
the governments of the newly independent Caspian states to sign
deals proved to be no great hassle. They were eager to attract
Western investment -- and the bribes that often came with it --
and to free themselves from Moscow's economic domination.
But there turned out to be a major catch:
It was neither obvious nor easy to figure out how to move all
the new oil and gas to markets in the West. After all, the Caspian
is landlocked, so tankers cannot get near it, while all existing
pipelines passed through Russia and were hooked into Soviet-era
supply systems. While many in Washington were eager to assist
U.S. firms in their drive to gain access to Caspian energy, they
did not want to see the resulting oil and gas flow through Russia
-- until recently, the country's leading adversary -- before reaching
What, then, to do? Looking at the Caspian
chessboard in the mid-1990s, President Bill Clinton conceived
the striking notion of converting the newly independent, energy-poor
Republic of Georgia into an "energy corridor" for the
export of Caspian basin oil and gas to the West, thereby bypassing
Russia altogether. An initial, "early-oil" pipeline
was built to carry petroleum from newly-developed fields in Azerbaijan's
sector of the Caspian Sea to Supsa on Georgia's Black Sea coast,
where it was loaded onto tankers for delivery to international
markets. This would be followed by a far more audacious scheme:
the construction of the 1,000-mile BTC pipeline from Baku in Azerbaijan
to Tbilisi in Georgia and then on to Ceyhan on Turkey's Mediterranean
coast. Again, the idea was to exclude Russia -- which had, in
the intervening years, been transformed into a struggling, increasingly
impoverished former superpower -- from the Caspian Sea energy
Clinton presided over every stage of the
BTC line's initial development, from its early conception to the
formal arrangements imposed by Washington on the three nations
involved in its corporate structuring. (Final work on the pipeline
was not completed until 2006, two years into George W. Bush's
second term.) For Clinton and his advisors, this was geopolitics,
pure and simple -- a calculated effort to enhance Western energy
security while diminishing Moscow's control over the global flow
of oil and gas. The administration's efforts to promote the construction
of new pipelines through Azerbaijan and Georgia were intended
"to break Russia's monopoly of control over the transportation
of oil from the region," Sheila Heslin of the National Security
Council bluntly told a Senate investigating committee in 1997.
Clinton understood that this strategy
entailed significant risks, particularly because Washington's
favored "energy corridor" passed through or near several
major conflict zones -- including the Russian-backed breakaway
enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. With this in mind, Clinton
made a secondary decision -- to convert the new Georgian army
into a military proxy of the United States, quipped and trained
by the Department of Defense. From 1998 to 2000 alone, Georgia
was awarded $302 million in U.S. military and economic aid --
more than any other Caspian country -- and top U.S. military officials
started making regular trips to its capital, Tbilisi, to demonstrate
support for then-president Eduard Shevardnadze.
In those years, Clinton was the top chess
player in the Caspian region, while his Russian presidential counterpart,
Boris Yeltsin, was far too preoccupied with domestic troubles
and a bitter, costly, ongoing guerrilla war in Chechnya to match
his moves. It was clear, however, that senior Russian officials
were deeply concerned by the growing U.S. presence in their southern
backyard -- what they called their "near abroad" --
and had already had begun planning for an eventual comeback. "It
hasn't been left unnoticed in Russia that certain outside interests
are trying to weaken our position in the Caspian basin,"
Andrei Y. Urnov of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared
in May 2000. "No one should be perplexed that Russia is determined
to resist the attempts to encroach on her interests."
At this critical moment, a far more capable
player took over on Russia's side of the geopolitical chessboard.
On December 31, 1999, Vladimir V. Putin was appointed president
by Yeltsin and then, on March 26, 2000, elected to a full four-year
term in office. Politics in the Caucasus and the Caspian region
have never been the same.
Even before assuming the presidency, Putin
indicated that he believed state control over energy resources
should be the basis for Russia's return to great-power status.
In his doctoral dissertation, a summary of which was published
in 1999, he had written that "[t]he state has the right to
regulate the process of the acquisition and the use of natural
resources, and particularly mineral resources [including oil and
natural gas], independent of on whose property they are located."
On this basis, Putin presided over the re-nationalization of many
of the energy companies that had been privatized by Yeltsin and
the virtual confiscation of Yukos -- once Russia's richest private
energy firm -- by Russian state authorities. He also brought Gazprom,
the world's largest natural gas supplier, back under state control
and placed a protégé, Dmitri Medvedev -- now president
of Russia -- at its helm.
Once he had restored state control over
the lion's share of Russia's oil and gas resources, Putin turned
his attention to the next obvious place -- the Caspian Sea basin.
Here, his intent was not so much to gain ownership of its energy
resources -- although Russian firms have in recent years acquired
an equity share in some Caspian oil and gas fields -- but rather
to dominate the export conduits used to transport its energy to
Europe and Asia.
Russia already enjoyed a considerable
advantage since much of Kazakhstan's oil already flowed to the
West via the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC), which passes through
Russia before terminating on the Black Sea; moreover, much of
Central Asia's natural gas continued to flow to Russia through
pipelines built during the Soviet era. But Putin's gambit in the
Caspian region evidently was meant to capture a far more ambitious
prize. He wanted to ensure that most oil and gas from newly developed
fields in the Caspian basin would travel west via Russia.
The first part of this drive entailed
frenzied diplomacy by Putin and Medvedev (still in his role as
board chairman of Gazprom) to persuade the presidents of Kazakhstan,
Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan to ship their future output of gas
through Russia. Success was achieved when, in December 2007, Putin
signed an agreement with the leaders of these countries to supply
20 billion cubic meters of gas per year through a new conduit
along the Caspian's eastern shore to southern Russia -- for ultimate
delivery to Europe via Gazprom's existing pipeline network.
Meanwhile, Putin moved to undermine international
confidence in Georgia as a reliable future corridor for energy
delivery. This became a strategic priority for Moscow because
the European Union announced plans to build a $10 billion natural-gas
pipeline from the Caspian, dubbed Nabucco" after the opera
by Verdi. It would run from Turkey to Austria, while linking up
to an expanded South Caucasus gas pipeline that now extends from
Azerbaijan through Georgia to Erzurum in Turkey. The Nabucco pipeline
was intended as a dramatic move to reduce Europe's reliance on
Russian natural gas -- and so has enjoyed strong support from
the Bush administration.
It is against this backdrop that the recent
events in Georgia unfolded.
Checkmate in Georgia
Obviously, the more oil and gas passing
through Georgia on its way to the West, the greater that country's
geostrategic significance in the U.S.-Russian struggle over the
distribution of Caspian energy. Certainly, the Bush administration
recognized this and responded by providing hundreds of millions
of dollars in military aid to the Georgian military and helping
to train specialized forces for protection of the new pipelines.
But the administration's partner in Tbilisi, President Mikheil
Saakashvili, was not content to play the relatively modest role
of pipeline protector. Instead, he sought to pursue a megalomaniacal
fantasy of recapturing the breakaway regions of Abhkazia and South
Ossetia with American help. As it happened, the Bush team -- blindsided
by their own neoconservative fantasies -- saw in Saakashvili a
useful pawn in their pursuit of a long smoldering anti-Russian
agenda. Together, they walked into a trap cleverly set by Putin.
It is hard not to conclude that Russian
prime minister goaded the rash Saakashvili into invading South
Ossetia by encouraging Abkhazian and South Ossetian irregulars
to attack Georgian outposts and villages on the peripheries of
the two enclaves. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reportedly
told Saakashvili not to respond to such provocations when she
met with him in July. Apparently her advice fell on deaf ears.
Far more enticing, it seems, was her promise of strong U.S. backing
for Georgia's rapid entry into NATO. Other American leaders, including
Senator John McCain, assured Saakashvili of unwavering U.S. support.
Whatever was said in these private conversations, the Georgian
president seems to have interpreted them as a green light for
his adventuristic impulses. On August 7th, by all accounts, his
forces invaded South Ossetia and attacked its capital city of
Tskhinvali, giving Putin what he long craved -- a seemingly legitimate
excuse to invade Georgia and demonstrate the complete vulnerability
of Clinton's (and now Bush's) vaunted energy corridor.
Today, the Georgian army is in shambles,
the BTC and South Caucasus gas pipelines are within range of Russian
firepower, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia have declared their
independence, quickly receiving Russian recognition. In response
to these developments, the Bush administration has, along with
some friendly leaders in Europe, mounted a media and diplomatic
counterattack, accusing Moscow of barbaric behavior and assorted
violations of international law. Threats have also been made to
exclude Russia from various international forums and institutions,
such as the G-8 club of governments and the World Trade Organization.
It is possible, then, that Moscow will suffer some isolation and
inconvenience as a result of its incursion into Georgia.
None of this, so far as can be determined,
will alter the picture in the Caucasus: Putin has moved his most
powerful pieces onto this corner of the chessboard, America's
pawn has been decisively defeated, and there's not much of a practical
nature that Washington (or London or Paris or Berlin) can do to
alter the outcome.
There will, of course, be more rounds
to come, and it is impossible to predict how they will play out.
Putin prevailed this time around because he focused on geopolitical
objectives, while his opponents were blindly driven by fantasy
and ideology; so long as this pattern persists, he or his successors
are likely to come out on top. Only if American leaders assume
a more realistic approach to Russia's resurgent power or, alternatively,
choose to collaborate with Moscow in the exploitation of Caspian
energy, will the risk of further strategic setbacks in the region
Michael T. Klare is professor of peace
and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author,
most recently, of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics
of Energy (Metropolitan Books).