Moscow issues Trans-Caspian Project warning
By Vladimir Socor
The Soviet art of socialist realism used to be defined as "socialist in
substance, national in form". Threats to prevent the construction of a
trans-Caspian gas pipeline by military force are also a form of Kremlin art:
bluff in their substance, even if brutal in their form.
Pursuant to President Dmitry Medvedev and the Russian Security Council's
October 14 decision to draft proposals on how to resist the European Union's
Third Energy Package as well as the EU's Nabucco and trans-Caspian gas pipeline
projects, Moscow is undertaking diplomatic and political countermeasures to the
EU-planned gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Europe.
Statements by Medvedev and the Russian foreign ministry
claiming that trans-Caspian pipelines would be unlawful without Russian consent
have failed to make that legal case and are seen as purely political.
Officially inspired polemics against that project in the Moscow media have also
left Ashgabat and Brussels unimpressed. In frustration, Moscow has started
hinting at the use of force.
Russian Gas Society president and vice-chairman of the Duma, Valery Yazev
(dubbed "Gazprom's chief lobbyist"), has publicly reminded Turkmenistan that it
lacks military protection in the Caspian Sea, and it risks a "Libyan scenario"
by joining the EU's trans-Caspian project. He dismissed the value of United
Nations General Assembly support for Turkmenistan's neutrality and multivector
Instead of "flirting" with the West, Yazev suggested, Turkmenistan should seek
Russia's and China's protection through the Collective Security Treaty
Organization, Eurasian Economic Union, and Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Outpaced by China in the contest over Turkmen gas resources, Moscow is now
concentrating on blocking Western access to those resources. Russia's
semi-official spokesmen use scare tactics by threatening a Caspian repeat of
the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.
Mikhail Aleksandrov, department chief at the government-sponsored Institute on
the CIS Countries, warns that construction of a trans-Caspian pipeline would
imply de facto recognition of division of the Caspian Sea into sectors.
"This is altogether unacceptable, and Russia would have to act in the manner of
its operation to compel Georgia to peace. This time, Ashgabat and Baku would
have to be forced to comply with international law. It may even be through air
strikes, if they do not understand any other way."
According to him (echoing Yazev), the Libya operation by the North Atlantic
Treaty Organization (NATO) gives Russia a parallel right to use force, in this
case in the Caspian basin. Aleksandrov claims that he issued these warnings
personally to the EU's Special Representative for Central Asia, the French
diplomat Pierre Morel, recently in Moscow.
Konstantin Simonov, head of the government-connected Foundation for Russia's
Energy Security, has similarly warned Turkmenistan, at first via an Azerbaijani
outlet: "Ashgabat understands that the situation [with the trans-Caspian
project] would be the same as it was in Georgia in August 2008. Back then they
promised to protect Georgia, some kind of guarantees. And how did that end...
Does Turkmenistan want the same to happen in the Caspian?"
Simonov went on to warn that "using force is the only possible response" if
diplomacy fails to stop the trans-Caspian project. "Ashgabat has no guarantee
of protection from a Russian military response. And only the experience of the
August war in Georgia is restraining Ashgabat now."
Medvedev himself has set the stage for using the example of Georgia to
intimidate other recalcitrant countries. The outgoing Russian president has
just acknowledged the political calculation behind the decision to invade
Georgia: namely, to block Georgia's and Ukraine's path toward NATO. With this,
Moscow stakes out a claim to use force in pursuit of specific political
objectives against neighboring countries. Practically on the same day when
Medvedev spoke, the Kremlin orchestrated these threats against Turkmenistan
(and against EU interests) directly extrapolating from the Georgia example.
Russia is only the third-largest importer of Turkmen gas at present (it ranked
first until 2008-2009). Moscow makes no objections to Turkmen gas exports
eastward to China or southward to Iran; and it looks favorably at the
Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline project, which Gazprom even
proposes to join as a co-investor. Russia is content to see Turkmen gas heading
in any direction except westward to Europe. There, Russia wants to cement its
Turkmenistan and the European Commission envisage deliveries of 40 billion
cubic meters of Turkmen gas annually, by the second part of this decade,
through the trans-Caspian project and the Southern Corridor to Europe. The
Kremlin, apparently, hopes to intimidate Turkmenistan directly, Kazakhstan and
Azerbaijan indirectly, scare off the EU, and discourage Western investment in
Using semi-official channels to threaten the use of force is a tactic with
limited deniability. It reflects both a sense of impunity and a calculated
bluff by Russia's high-level authorities. It does not deserve a direct response
at the public level; this would unnecessarily dignify the bluff.
The proper Western response at this stage is to make clear in Moscow that the
trans-Caspian project is a shared Western interest; and to demonstrate this
commitment to the Caspian partners.
Vladimir Socor is a Senior Fellow of the Washington-based Jamestown
Foundation and its flagship publication, Eurasia Daily Monitor. An
internationally recognized expert on the former Soviet-ruled countries in
Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia, Mr Socor is a
Romanian-born citizen of the United States based in Munich, Germany.