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    Central Asia
     Dec 22, 2007
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Russia, Iran tighten the energy noose
By M K Bhadrakumar

Foreign ministers are busy people - especially energetic, creative diplomats like Russia's Sergei Lavrov and Iran's Manouchehr Mottaki, representing capitals that by tradition place great store on international diplomacy.

Therefore, the very fact that Lavrov and Mottaki have met no less than four times in as many months suggests a great deal about the high importance attached by the two capitals to their mutual understanding at the bilateral and regional level.

Moscow and Tehran have worked hard in recent months to successfully put behind them their squabble over the construction

schedule of the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran. The first consignment of nuclear fuel for Bushehr from Russia under the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards finally arrived in Tehran on Monday. "We have agreed with our Iranian colleagues a timeframe for completing the plant and we will make an announcement at the end of December," said Sergei Shmatko, president of Atomstroiexport, which is building Bushehr.

At a minimum, the gateway opens for Russia's deeper involvement in Iran's ambitious program for civil nuclear energy. But nuclear energy is not the be-all and end-all of Russo-Iranian cooperation. Iran is a crucially important interlocutor for Russia in the field of energy. The Bushehr settlement is a necessary prerequisite if the trust and mutual confidence essential for fuller Russo-Iranian cooperation is to become reality. Evidently, Moscow is hastily positioning itself for the big event on the energy scene in 2008 - Iran's entry as a gas-exporting country.

Russia consolidates in 2007
In fact, how Moscow proceeds with the reconfiguration of Russo-Iranian relations could well form the centerpiece of the geopolitics of energy security in Eurasia during 2008. The dynamics on this front will doubtless play out on a vast theater stretching well beyond the Eurasian space, all the way to China and Japan in the east and to the very heart of Europe in the west where the Rhine River flows.

What places Russia in an early lead in the upcoming scramble is its fantastic win in the Eurasian energy sweepstakes in 2007. But 2007 as such began on an acrimonious note for Moscow when two minutes before the clock struck midnight on December 31, Russia signed a gas deal with Belarus whereby the latter would have to pay for Russian gas supplies at full market prices on a graduated scale stretched over the next five-year period. President Vladimir Putin's critics seized the moment with alacrity to portray him as a whimsical megalomaniac.

Moscow-based critic Pavel Felgenhauer rushed to condemn Putin's "highly aggressive, unscrupulous and revengeful" mindset as a dictator, and prophesied that the "pressure on Belarus will most likely misfire ... This may undermine the Kremlin's authority ... and provoke internal high-level acrimony [within the Kremlin]". Other Western critics warned European countries not to count on Russia's dependability as an energy supplier.

Much of the vicious criticism might seem in retrospect to be either prejudiced and self-interested, or downright laughable, but that didn't prevent the acrimony from setting the tone for the geopolitics of energy during 2007. Prima facie, Russia was making a transition to market prices for its energy exports, which was quite the proper thing to do if it were to integrate with the world economy in a manner consistent with the broad orientations of its liberal economic policies.

Indeed, the Kremlin had no reason to continue with the Soviet-era subsidies to former Soviet republics like the Ukraine or Belarus. Efficiency demanded that Russia allowed market forces to prevail. Actually, that was also the capitalist world's advice to the Kremlin.

What incensed Western critics was that combined with the state control of oil and gas (and indeed the pipelines), the Kremlin was also maneuvering its way to a commanding position on the energy map of Europe. From its own viewpoint, Russia could claim it was merely pursuing a coordinated strategy aimed at integrating itself with European economies.

But the United States viewed the implications of the Russian strategy to be very severe for trans-Atlantic relations on the whole, as it cast a shadow on the entire range of goals, strategic objectives and security policies that Washington has been pushing within the framework of the Euro-Atlantic alliance in the post-Cold War years. Plainly put, Washington fears that Europe's strategic drift may become a reality unless Russia is stopped in its tracks.

Europe's dependence on Russian energy
After much US prodding for a coordinated European energy security policy, European Union (EU) members adopted at their spring summit in Brussels an action plan for energy security for 2007-2009, which emphasized the need to diversify Europe's energy sources and transport routes. But the ground reality continues to be that Europe's dependence on Russian energy supplies is growing. In 2006, Europe imported from Russia 290.8 million tonnes of oil and 130 billion cubic meters of gas.

With Europe's energy consumption rapidly rising, its import dependency on Russia is also set to increase. Europe, which imported around 330 billion cubic meters of gas in 2005, will require an additional 200 billion cubic meters per year by 2015. And Russia has the world's largest natural gas reserves, estimated to be 1,688 trillion cubic feet, apart from the seventh largest proven oil reserves, exceeding 70 billion barrels (while vast regions of eastern Siberia and the Arctic remain unexplored).

On the other hand, Europe's self-sufficiency in energy is sharply declining. By 2030, the production of oil and gas is expected to decline by 73% and 59% respectively. The result is that by 2030, two-thirds of Europe's energy requirements will have to be met through imports. In Europe's energy mix, the dependence on oil imports by 2030 will be as high as 94% of its needs, and on natural gas as high as 84%.

As supply becomes concentrated in Russian hands, the Kremlin will find itself in a position to dictate oil and gas prices. There is also the possibility that the supply and demand situation itself might become less elastic - Russia's own demand for gas, for instance, is growing by over 2% annually.

Clearly, the economics of energy supply to Europe are getting highly politicized. Ariel Cohen, a prominent Russia specialist at the US think-tank, Heritage Foundation, who is closely connected with the George W Bush administration, wrote recently, "It is in the US's strategic interests to mitigate Europe's dependence on Russian energy. The Kremlin will likely use Europe's dependence to promote its largely anti-American foreign policy agenda. This would significantly limit the maneuvering space available to America's European allies, forcing them to choose between an affordable and stable energy supply and siding with the US on some key issues."

Cohen warned, "If current trends prevail, the Kremlin could translate its energy monopoly into untenable foreign and security policy influence in Europe to the detriment of European-American relations. In particular, Russia is seeking recognition of its predominant role in the post-Soviet space and Eastern Europe ... This will affect the geopolitical issues important to the US, such as NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] expansion to Ukraine and Georgia, ballistic missile defense, Kosovo, and US and European influence in the post-Soviet space."

US-Russia rivalries escalate
Thus, through the past 12-month period, the Bush administration has been pressing for the development of new energy transit lines from the Caspian and Central Asia that bypass Russia. Washington has robustly worked for advancing its proposals for the construction of oil and gas pipelines linking Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to Europe across the Caspian Sea; new pipelines that would connect the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline with the Baku-Erzurum gas pipeline (making Turkey an energy hub for Europe); and the so-called Nabucco pipeline that proposes to link Azerbaijan and Central Asian countries with southern European markets.

However, as the year draws to a close, it becomes clear that the Kremlin has either nipped in the bud or frustrated one way or another the various US attempts to bypass Russia's role as the key energy supplier for Europe. Indeed, Moscow's counter-strategy aims at augmenting even further Russia's profile and capacity to be Europe's dependable energy supplier and thereby forcing the European consumer countries to negotiate with Russia as a partner with shared or equal interests.

The month of May stood out as the watershed when the geopolitics of energy in Eurasia decisively turned in Russia's favor. At a tripartite summit meeting in the city of Turkemenbashi (Turkmenistan) on May 12, Putin and his Kazakh and Turkmen counterparts signed a declaration of intent for upgrading and expanding gas pipelines from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan along the Caspian Sea coast directly to Russia. The president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, also signed up separately on May 9 for a modernization of the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan-Russia pipeline. Both pipelines are components of the Soviet-era Central Asia-Center pipeline system bound for Russia. The quadripartite project essentially aims at the transportation of Turkmenistan's gas output, which almost in its entirety would be bought up by Russia for a 25-year period.

Subsequently, the US and EU have made herculean efforts to get Ashgabat to resile from the commitment to the project with Russia, but have failed. During the past year, 16 high-level delegations from Washington visited Ashgabat in this regard. Thus, when Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov finally signed the agreement relating to the Caspian littoral pipeline on December 12 with his Kazakh and Turkmen counterparts, the curtain came down on one of the grimmest struggles of the great game in the post-Soviet era. Moscow came out the winner by far, reasserting its pre-eminent position in the Caspian.

The commitment of Turkmen gas to Russia has broader implications. For one thing, the fate of the US-supported proposals for a trans-Caspian pipeline and the Nabucco pipeline depended significantly on the availability of Turkmen and Kazakh gas. Their future is now up in the air. That, in turn, means Europe is increasingly left with only one serious option for diversifying its gas imports - Iran.

In May, Putin struck a second time when he visited Vienna and in a dramatic breakthrough drew Austria into a key energy partnership, placing that country as a base for Gazprom's future expansion into EU territory. The agreements signed in Vienna on May 23 outlined Gazprom's plans to build a Central European gas hub and gas transit management center, the largest in continental Europe, at Baumgarten near Vienna; expansion of Gazprom's market share in Austria; delivery of gas directly by Gazprom to Austrian consumers - for the first time in Europe; and plans to use Austria as a transit corridor for Russian gas exports aspiring to capture new EU markets. 

Continued 1 2

The birth of Russia's new energy class
Dec 6

Russia attacks the West's Achilles' heel
Nov 22

Attack Iran and you attack Russia
Oct 26

Ahmadinejad, Iran's Putin?
Oct 25



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