Friday, September 5, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Wins a Major Victory on Pipelines

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 5 – With Iran’s declaration that it opposes the construction of any undersea pipelines in the Caspian on “ecological grounds” and thus will block any delimitation of the seabed that allows for them and Baku’s decision not to back the West’s push NABUCCO project, Moscow can claim its first major political victory from its invasion of Georgia.
These actions mean that the Russian government will now have full and uncontested control over pipelines between the Caspian basin and the West which pass through Russian territory and will be able either directly or through its clients like the PKK to disrupt the only routes such as Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan that bypass the Russian Federation.
That does not mean, of course, that Moscow now has effectively reestablished its control over the states of this region – all of them have other interests besides oil and gas – but it does mean that Russia has won a major victory and the West, which all too often in recent years has focused on oil and gas alone, has suffered a major defeat.
Yesterday, Mehti Safari, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, told journalists that Tehran opposes the construction of any undersea pipelines in the Caspian because “this can bring harm to the ecology of the sea.” He noted that exporting countries can send their gas out via either the Russian Federation or Iran (
Given the existence of “such possibilities,” the Iranian diplomat said, “why harm” the delicate eco-system of the Caspian? But in making this statement, Tehran was underscoring its willingness to destroy any chance for the completion of the NABUCCO gas pipeline in the near term that the United States and some Western European countries have been pushing for.
And because Washington opposes the flow of hydrocarbons from the Caspian basin out through Iran, Tehran’s action in fact makes it likely that many of the oil and gas exporting countries in the region will now choose to send more or even all of their gas and oil through the Russian Federation, a longstanding geopolitical goal of Moscow’s.
The geo-economic and geo-political shifts in the Caucasus as a result of Russian actions in Georgia were even more in evidence during US Vice President Dick Cheney’s brief visit to the Azerbaijani capital. According to Russian media reports, it did not go well from either a protocol or a substantive perspective (
First, Cheney was not met at the airport by either President Ilham Aliyev or Prime Minister Artur Rasi-zade. Instead, he was met by the first vice premier and the foreign minister. After that, he was not immediately received by the president but rather had meetings with officials of the BP-Azerbaijan oil company and the American embassy.
Then, officials in the office of the Azerbaijani president told Moscow’s “Kommersant,” Cheney was sufficiently displeased with his conversation with President Aliyev that “as a result he even refused to visit the ceremonial dinner in his honor” that the Azerbaijan leader had organized.
On the one hand, Aliyev indicated that he was not prepared to talk about going ahead with NABUCCO until Baku completes its negotiations with Russia’s Gazprom or indeed do anything else to ”support Washington and [thus] get into an argument with Moscow” given what has happened in Georgia.
And on the other, immediately after the Aliyev-Cheney meeting, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev telephoned the Azerbaijani president, an action which Kremlin sources told the Moscow paper provided Medvedev with the opportunity to explain Russia’s policies and to discuss the possibilities for the Russian and Azerbaijani presidents to meet “in the near future.”
At one level, of course, all this reflects the continuation of President Aliyev’s commitment to what he and his government call “a balanced foreign policy,” one that seeks to navigate between Moscow and the West by avoiding offending either and seeking to develop strong ties with both.
But at another, the way in which the media have covered Vice President Cheney’s visit suggests that if Baku’s policy remains a balanced one, the balance is rather different than it was before Moscow demonstrated with its invasion of Georgia and its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that the game has changed.
Indeed, in reporting this visit, one Baku newspaper used as its headline today words that show just how much has changed over the last month. “It is not accidental,” the paper pointed out that just after the American vice president left Aliyev’s office the Russian president called (

UPDATE on September 6: A source at the US Embassy in Baku told that a report in Moscow’s “Kommersant” yesterday on the visit of Vice President Dick Cheney to Baku was factually incorrect. The American official did take part in a dinner and left the Azerbaijani capital “very satisfied,” the souce added. “ I understand,” the unnamed official said, “that Russian mass media want to give what they would like to have seen happen for what really did, but nothing that ‘Kommersant’ wrote occurred” (

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