Page 1 of 2 THE ROVING EYE Playing chess in Eurasia
By Pepe Escobar
Bets are off on which is the great story of 2011. Is it the Arab Spring(s)? Is
it the Arab counter-revolution, unleashed by the House of Saud? Is it the
"birth pangs" of the Greater Middle East remixed as serial regime changes? Is
it R2P ("responsibility to protect") legitimizing "humanitarian" bombing? Is it
the freeze out of the "reset" between the US and Russia? Is it the death of
al-Qaeda? Is it the euro disaster? Is it the US announcing a Pacific century
cum New Cold War against China? Is it the build up towards an attack on Iran?
(well, this one started with Dubya, Dick and Rummy ages ago ...)
Underneath all these interlinked plots - and the accompanying hysteria of Cold
War-style headlines - there's a never-ending thriller floating downstream:
Pipelineistan. That's the chessboard
where the half-hidden twin of the Pentagon's "long war" is played out.
Virtually all current geopolitical developments are energy-related. So fasten
your seat belts, it's time to revisit Dr Zbigniew Brzezinski's "grand
chessboard" in Eurasia to find out who's winning the Pipelineistan wars.
Got tickets to the opera?
Let's start with Nabucco (the gas opera). Nabucco is above all a key, strategic
Western powerplay; how to deliver Caspian Sea gas to Europe. Energy execs call
it "opening the Southern Corridor" (of gas). The problem is this Open Sesame
will only deliver if supplied by a tsunami of gas from two key "stans" -
Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan.
The 3,900-kilometer Nabucco will hit five transit countries - Austria,
Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Turkey - and it may end costing a staggering 26
billion euros (US$33.7 billion) .
Construction - endlessly delayed - might start by 2013. Essentially, everything
is still a bloody mess. Nobody knows about prices, or the details of transit
rights. Turkey is also eager to resell the gas on its own. Moreover, if Baku
and Ankara decide to develop in tandem the Shah Deniz phase II  fields in
Azerbaijan to feed the pipeline, they will need an extra $20 billion in
Turkmenistan's president, the spectacularly named Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov,
sticks to his trademark wobbly script (Check him out singing his original hit "For
You, My White Flower" ). He always says the European Union's myriad
proposals "would be studied" and cooperation with the Europeans is "a strategic
priority" of his foreign policy. But the EU's Holy Grail - an ironclad
agreement to get the gas - is ever more elusive. The Russians and even the
Azeris bet this will never happen.
Our man Gurbanguly, savvy operator that he is, would prefer to hatch his eggs
in a Chinese basket - rather than in those far-away euro-messy lands. That's
why he wobbles - feigning he's open to any offer. He knows better than anybody
that for the Europeans Nabucco is the key to be released (a bit) from the grip
of Russia's Gazprom. At the same time he keeps in mind how to maximize his
Chinese profits while not antagonizing Russia.
Every European bureaucracy (not) worth its name is behind Nabucco , and most
of all an eager European Commission (EC), the EU's fat salary-infested
executive branch. The EC's do-or-die strategic priority is to link the Turkmen
port of Turkmenbashi to the Absheron Peninsula in Azerbaijan via a
Trans-Caspian Gas pipeline (TCGP) . It's a breeze; I did the trip on a
vodka-infested Azeri cargo ship and it took me only 12 hours.
But how to pull it off? Moscow locked up all Azeri gas. Gazprom locked up all
the surplus gas from Turkmenistan. The only option would be Iran. Now tell that
to the US Senate - who has declared economic war  against Iran.
Let's go TAPI!
A detour to AfPak is in order. Not even the deities who lord over the Hindu
Kush know if the $7.6 billion (and counting), 1,735-kilometer TAPI
(Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) pipeline will ever be built.
For Turkmenistan's Oil and Gas Minister Bayramgeldy Nedirov, "There are no
doubts that this [TAPI] project will be realized."  Pakistan and India -
after infinite haggling - have finally agreed on pricing. Roughly a third of
the pipeline's cost will be financed by the Philippines-based Asian Development
Bank - since both Afghanistan and Pakistan are essentially broke.
Imagine a steel serpent entering western Afghanistan towards Herat, going south
underground (to prevent terrorist bombing) parallel to the Herat-Kandahar road,
then taking a detour via Quetta - home of Taliban supremo Mullah Omar - to
Multan in Pakistan and finally reaching Fazilka, on the Indian border.
To quote Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, "This is the stuff dreams are made
of," since the Bill Clinton administration, way before 9/11 and the now
virtually extinct GWOT ("global war on terror"). Cynics may read this as gas
republic Turkmenistan - holder of the fourth-largest reserves in the world -
doing better to promote economic development and security in Afghanistan than
100,000 US troops.
The gas for TAPI will come from the new South Yolotan-Osman field - which
already supplies China (according to British auditor Gaffney, Cline &
Associates this is the world's second-largest  gas field, after South Pars
in Iran). Our man Gurbanguly, by the way, issued a decree changing the gas
field's name to Galkynys - Turkmen for "Renaissance"; after all, Gurbanguly's
reign has been baptized as "The Epoch of New Renaissance and Great
Transformations". These "transformations" have nothing to do with the Arab
Here we find yet another clever gambit by our man Gurbanguly. He keeps an open
door to Nabucco by freeing the gas from Dauletabad field in southeast
Turkmenistan to flow via a domestic pipeline to the Caspian, and then to the oh
so elusive TCGP. Even the (delicious) sturgeons in the Caspian know that
without a TCGP, Nabucco is DOA.
At least for a year now our man Gurbanguly has been telling every diplomat and
top oil exec in sight that he rejects Russia's interference over Turkmenistan's
gas strategy.  But apparently he didn't inform the Russians.
Russian President Dmitri Medvedev did visit Ashgabat - the Las Vegas of Central
Asia - to talk business . And then, in a daring plot twist, suddenly Gazprom
proclaimed its love of TAPI! Just imagine; the Americans have been dreaming of
TAPI since 1996, just for rival Gazprom to barge in at overtime. No one knew
what Medvedev offered to Gurbanguly so he wouldn't keep entertaining fancy
Louis Vuitton ideas. Perhaps nothing. We'll come to that in a minute.
Ask the babushkas
TAPI's direct competition is IPI - the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline (India,
pressured by the US, has virtually dropped out; China is ready to pounce and
turn it into IPC). Well, who else but Gazprom now wants to get into the IP
groove as well , alongside China's CNPC? The Iranian stretch of the
pipeline is virtually ready. The Pakistani stretch begins in early 2012. Still
another Russian chess move - and Washington never saw it coming.
Even a wooden babushka knows what Moscow does not want; the Afghan
chapter of the US Empire of Bases never going away. Then there's regime change
in Syria (with the implicit end of the Russian Black Sea fleet using the port
of Tartus). The North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO's) advances in the
Black Sea. The ever-expanding (at least rhetorically) US missile defense and
the US's "New Silk Road" gambit to re-penetrate Central Asia .
It was Russia that authorized the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) to supply
US and NATO troops in Afghanistan , an endless trek across Eurasia,
including Uzbekistan - whose ghastly dictatorship US Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton praised for its political "progress" - and Tajikistan. Pushing Moscow
too far is not exactly a winning strategy.
Moscow also sees how Washington has antagonized virtually everyone in Pakistan
- with the non-stop "war of the drones", the non-stop violations of territorial
sovereignty, the non-stop threats to barge in and "take over your nuclear
arsenal". Washington's priority is for Islamabad to attack the Pakistani
Taliban in Balochistan and thus be dragged into a civil war against not only
Pashtuns but also Balochis. As Moscow - and Beijing - survey the battlefield,
all they have to do is bide their time while sipping green tea.
When former reds see red
The Russian-Chinese entente is not always a Bolshoi dance.
Russia wants to sell gas to China for $400 per 1,000 cubic meters (cm), the
same price it charges Europe. The wily Turkmen charge the Chinese only $250.
Beijing already spent $4 billion in South Yolotan (and counting); they want all
the gas they can get to supply the hugely successful
Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan-China pipeline (which they built), online
for two years now . Beijing is insatiable; oil major CNPC wants to import
no less than 500% more gas from Central Asia by 2015 .