One of the few places in the Caspian region where Moscow has given ground to US interests is Azerbaijan. There, the Kremlin acknowledges the prevalence of US influence and the strong ties President Ilham Aliyev has forged with Washington.
Even so, high-placed quarters in Baku warn that this may be no more than a tactical retreat and the Russians may suddenly leap into the fray. They are therefore keeping a watchful eye on how events develop around the new gas pipeline linking the gas networks of Turkey and Greece, which was inaugurated at Ipsala, Turkey on Nov. 17.
Present at the ceremony were Aliyev, the prime ministers of Turkey and Greece, Tayyep Recep Erdogan and Costas Karamanlis, Georgia’s energy minister Nika Gilauri and the US secretary of energy Samuel Bodman.
This pipeline makes it possible to export Azerbaijani gas from the Caspian Sea’s Shahdeniz deposit to Greece, a European Union member. Its extension in 2010 will bring natural gas from Azerbaijan up to Greece and on to Italy.
This project is vital because it brings gas to Europe by an alternative to the Russian route. Azeri officials are wondering if they will get away with this breach of the Russian monopoly over the export of Caspian gas.
For the moment, Moscow has let it happen, conscious that it can shut the pipeline down at will by activating Georgian opposition elements whose leader, the Georgian tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili, is in the Kremlin’s pocket.
All the pipelines bypassing the Russian network from the Caspian to Europe must transit Georgia. Moscow is keeping the pro-Western government of Mikheil Saakashvili on the boil and therefore a potentially weak link in the alternative energy chain feeding Europe. Patarkatsishvili can be ordered to stage anti-government riots in Tiblisi and the Georgian section of the pipeline may be mysteriously sabotaged. European energy consumers would then have to resort to Moscow pipelines for their energy.
Tehran joins quest for alternatives to Russian energy routes to Europe
A foretaste of the Kremlin’s power to destabilize the Tbilisi government was provided when Saakashvili was forced to call snap elections following a brief state of emergency declared to subdue unrest in the capital fomented by the pro-Moscow opposition.
The emergency was lifted on Nov. 16, marking the most serious political crisis the former Soviet republic has faced since its bloodless revolution four years ago. Saakashvili accused Moscow’s intelligence services of stirring the unrest.
At the same time, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report the Kremlin may have decided, for the time being, to keep its hands off the Azerbaijan pipeline to Europe in order to foster the new understanding unfolding between Putin and George W, Bush (first revealed in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 325 of Nov. 9)
Bush for his part is backing away from vying with Moscow over military and economic footholds in the Caucasian, Caspian and Central Asian regions.
The Kremlin is also facing a challenge on another front; DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Moscow sources report that Tehran, which accuses Moscow of seizing control over 90 percent of the Caspian region’s oil and gas exports and robbing Iran of its share, is getting its own back. The Iranians have embarked on a project which too aims at breaking the Russian grip on energy exports to Europe, while also gaining a lever of their own on the continent.
They have therefore propositioned the European Union with an offer of large quantities of natural gas to be carried through the projected Nabucco pipeline, which is planned to run from Azerbaijan to Austria via Turkey.
Construction by an Austrian-led consortium will start next year and be completed by 2011, with an investment of some five million euros.
Moscow is furious over the Iranian initiative.
Its implementation would reduce Europe’s dependence on Russia for its natural gas needs. Germany, in particular, relies on Russia for a third of its gas requirements and consumption will increase. Russia’s European clients have felt deeply insecure since Moscow cut off energy supplies to Ukraine and Belarus, and have been casting about for alternative energy sources and supply routes.
Looking at these developments from another angle, the Moscow-Tehran energy duel can be seen running parallel to the ascending Washington-Tehran showdown over Iran’s banned nuclear activities. Given their common adversary, Washington and Moscow have good reason to cooperate on major global issues, provided that the Bush administration respects Russia’s interests in its immediate neighborhood.