Page 1 of 2 US standing in Caspian drips away
By M K Bhadrakumar
On Sunday, en route to Astana, Kazakhstan, after a "very nice trip to India",
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters accompanying her, "I just
wish I could have stayed longer in India". New Delhi must be one of a handful
of capitals where officials from the George W Bush administration receive an
expectant welcome, and the doomsday warnings emitted from New York and
Washington do not seem to matter.
But there was another reason for Rice's trepidation as her jet descended to
Astana - US influence and prestige in Central Asia and the Caspian region has
again plummeted. Rice realizes there is hardly any time left to retrieve lost
ground, and the Bill Clinton administration's legacy in the Caspian and Central
Asia has largely dissipated. Central to this has been the failure of the Bush
administration to handle relations with Russia. The stocktaking has already
Writing in The Washington Post on Wednesday, former secretaries of state Henry
Kissinger and George Shultz rebuked the Bush administration for its "drift
towards confrontation with Russia" and pointed out that "isolating Russia is
not a sustainable long-range policy". They said much of Europe is "uneasy".
Their target was Rice, a self-styled "Sovietologist", and her inexcusably
vitriolic attack on the Kremlin in a speech at the Marshall Fund of Germany in
Washington on September 18.
Kissinger and Shutlz particularly cautioned the Bush administration against
encouraging confrontational diplomacy towards Russia by its neighbors, which
would be counter-productive. Most certainly, there is already a backlash in the
region. Azerbaijan, which the Bush administration once regarded as close
regional ally, snubbed Vice President Dick Cheney during his visit to the
capital, Baku, last month. Washington pretended not to notice, and deputed to
Baku last week yet another top official - Deputy Secretary of State John
Negroponte - whom the State Department's website describes as Rice's "alter
On arrival on October 2, Negroponte forthwith said he was carrying a "simple
message" - that the US has "deep and abiding interests" in Azerbaijan and these
are "important interests" which hold implications for regional and
international security. He implied Washington that was not going to roll over
and give way to Moscow in the southern Caucasus.
Against the backdrop of the conflict in the Caucasus in August, the Caspian Sea
basin has become a focal point. This was inevitable. At the core lies
Washington's determination to avoid Russian participation in the European
energy-supply chain. To quote Ariel Cohen of US conservative think-tank the
Heritage Foundation, "Since August, US diplomats have been busy trying to shore
up Washington's geopolitical position all around the Caspian, including Baku,
[Turkmenistan capital] Ashgabat and Astana."
Russia is gaining the upper hand in the region. Despite robust US diplomacy in
Ashgabat - over 15 American delegations arrived there in the past year -
Turkmenistan, which already exports around 50 billion cubic meters of its gas
through Russia, has responded well to Moscow's overtures. It has decided to
stick to the terms of an April 2003 deal whereby virtually all its exports are
handled by Russia "up through 2025", and Turkmen gas exports to Russia are
expected to rise to 60-70 billion cubic-meters by 2009, leaving hardly any
surplus for Western companies. Ashgabat has also committed to the construction
of a pipeline to Russia via Kazakhstan along the eastern coast of the Caspian
The clincher was Russia's offer to buy Turkmen gas at "European prices" - the
same approach that Moscow adopted for securing control of Kazakh and Uzbek gas
exports. Russia has since made a similar offer to Azerbaijan, which Baku is
considering. Azerbaijan was the true success story of US oil diplomacy in the
post-Soviet era. Clinton literally snatched it from Russia's orbit in the 1990s
by pushing through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan [BTC] oil pipeline against seemingly
impossible odds. Azerbaijan is now edging back toward Moscow.
It is negotiating with Russia an increase in the
annual capacity of the Baku-Novorossiisk pipeline. Azerbaijan reducing its commitment to
the US-supported Baku-Supsa and BTC pipelines, which have a massive capacity of
60 million tonnes annually and could easily handle Azeri oil exports, is a
breakthrough for Russia.
Russia's resolute stance in the Caucasus has caught Baku's attention. Baku
understands Russia's resurgence in the southern Caucasus, and President of
Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev dislikes the mercurial personality of Georgian
President Mikheil Saakashvili. Azerbaijan might have lost $500 million in
revenues due to the suspension of oil transportation via the Baku-Supsa and
Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipelines in August due to the conflict, and Baku's new
interest in the Russian pipeline stems from a desire to protect its
relationship with Moscow.
The implications are quite serious for Washington. Any reduction in the Azeri
exports via BTC could impact the viability of the pipeline, which has been a
cornerstone of US oil diplomacy in the Caspian, pumping early 1 million barrels
of oil per day from Azerbaijan to Turkey's Mediterranean coast, where most of
the supply is then shipped to Europe. The BTC pipeline looks secure for now,
but has come under the increased watch of Russia.
Again, question marks have appeared regarding the future of the Nabucco gas
pipeline, which, if constructed, would bypass Russian territory and bring
Caspian gas from Azerbaijan via Georgia and Turkey to the European market. What
if Azerbaijan accepts the Russian offer to buy gas at "European prices"? Has
the Caucasus conflict fatally hurt Nabucco's prospects?
Russia comes out on top
There is indeed a new ambivalence in the geopolitics of the region. All across
Western Europe, Eurasia and China countries are assimilating what happened in
the Caucasus in August and are assessing their stakes vis-a-vis a resurgent
Russia. They seek accommodation with Russia. Moscow has come out very much on
The war in Georgia has somewhat clouded the relations between Russia and the
European Union. The final declaration of the EU summit on September 1
underscored the need to reduce energy dependence on Russia. But the EU's
options, too, are limited. Europe has pinned its hopes on Nabucco, but it can
only be implemented with Russian participation. Claude Mandil, former head of
the International Energy Agency, said recently in an interview with the Russian
daily Kommersant, "There is much oil and gas in Central Asia, but still less
than in Russia or Iran."
Mandil, who advises French President Nicolas Sarkozy on energy issues, was
critical of the US pressure on Europe to isolate Russia, calling it
"counter-productive". He said, "The EU alone should decide the issue of energy
security. The US itself is highly dependent on oil imports from Venezuela, but
no EU members tell Washington that it's time to attend to that problem".
China also recognizes the Russian consolidation in the Caspian-Central Asian
region. A commentary in the People's Daily in early September took note that
Russia's Central Asia diplomacy has been "crowned with great success". It noted
that visits by Russian leaders to Central Asian capitals in August helped
"consolidate and strengthen" Moscow's ties with the region and achieved
"substantial outcomes" in energy cooperation.
The Chinese commentary concluded: "Against a global backdrop of Russia's
growing contradictions with the West � the high-level shuttle diplomacy
of Russian leaders will further enhance Russia's strategic position in Central
Asia, beef up the control of oil and gas resources and help coordinate the
positions of Russia and these Central Asia nations on the Transcaucasia issue".
Beijing has obviously made a realistic assessment of its own options in Central
In fact, during Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's visit to