September 25, 2008

Energy Backfires Again As Tool of Foreign Policy

By Tippee, Bob

As Arab oil exporters learned after their targeted embargo of 1973-74, energy has its drawbacks as a tool of foreign policy. The US must take that point now as it reacts to Russia's bloody bullying of Georgia.

No one should forget the maneuvering behind the Baku-Tbilisi- Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline and South Caucasus gas line, which parallels BTC as far west as Erzurum, Turkey.

The BTC route was not the most economical outlet for Caspian production.

But it had a geopolitical advantage: It didn't transit Russia, which controls other Caspian pipelines; Iran, with which the US for long has been at odds; or Armenia, which has longstanding animosities with Azerbaijan and Turkey.

The US government promoted the pipeline aggressively, often touting the benefits of a route that avoided troublesome territory.

By that it meant Iran. The cheerleading occurred in the early years of this decade, when the US thought it had cordial relations with Moscow. From the US perspective, it was easy to see avoidance of Russian transit as an appeal mostly to the Caspian's formerly Soviet, non-Russian producers.

Russia, then still economically wobbly, was powerless to stop the BTC and South Caucasus projects, the strategically significant geography of which is their arc through Georgia.

Today, only Prime Minister Vladimir Putin knows the extent to which the pipelines motivated Russia's march into Georgia.

But BTC has represented a palpable rebuke to Russia since the starts of construction in 2003 and of operations in 2006. Its role as a token of independence by formerly Soviet countries and of US influence in what Russia calls its near-abroad must be a long- festering irritation to the Kremlin.

And if Russia, as many expect it to do, replaces Georgia's West- leaning government with one that will do its bidding, it gains control of pipelines built with something quite different in mind.

None of this excuses Russian brutality. But it would be a mistake to pretend that the Georgian segment of the BTC and parallel gas pipelines didn't work as a provocation to an authoritarian regime newly fortified by oil money-if not an outright prize.

by Bob Tippee, Editor

(Online Aug. 15, 2008; author's e-mail: [email protected], com)

Copyright PennWell Corporation Aug 25, 2008

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