Thursday, September 04, 2008

Last month's geopolitical chess match between Bush and Putin

Global energy policy expert Michael Klare has penned what is probably the most comprehensive and strongly supported analysis of the historical context and geopolitical implications of last month's military flare-up between Russia, Georgia and the independent states in the Caucasus region.

Klare begins his article by getting straight to his main point - most of the analysis (from the West) of the complex situation and the root causes thereof is based upon an misunderstanding of the geopolitical context, mistaken assumptions and deeply misguided logic:
Many Western analysts have chosen to interpret the recent fighting in the Caucasus as the onset of a new Cold War, with a small pro-Western democracy bravely resisting a brutal reincarnation of Stalin's jack-booted Soviet Union. Others have viewed it a throwback to the age-old ethnic politics of southeastern Europe, with assorted minorities using contemporary border disputes to settle ancient scores.

Neither of these explanations is accurate. To fully grasp the recent upheavals in the Caucasus, it is necessary to view the conflict as but a minor skirmish in a far more significant geopolitical struggle between Moscow and Washington over the energy riches of the Caspian Sea basin -- with former Russian President (now Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin emerging as the reigning Grand Master of geostrategic chess and the Bush team turning out to be middling amateurs, at best.

In other words, it is simply not as straightforward as Russia representing the aggressor while Georgia played the role of innocent victim here, despite the protestations of Dick Cheney and the usual Neoconservative suspects. Klare explains that what this conflict is actually about is "control over the flow of oil and natural gas from the energy-rich Caspian basin to eager markets in Europe and Asia." He notes that according to the most recent estimates mde by BP, the Caspian's leading energy producers, all former "socialist republics" of the Soviet Union -- notably Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- together possess approximately 48 billion barrels in proven oil reserves (ror approximately the amount still remaining in the US and Canada) and 268 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (essentially equivalent to what Saudi Arabia possesses).

While Moscow controlled access to these massive energy resources before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, in the aftermath Western oil companies such as Chevron, BP, Shell, and Exxon Mobil began to participate in the "hydrocarbon equivalent of a gold rush to exploit Caspian energy reservoirs, while plans were being made to channel the region's oil and gas to markets across the world."

It turned out that convincing the political leaderships of the newly-established independent Caspian states to sign exploraton and access agreements ended up being relatively straightforward since the governments were all-too-happy to attract investment capital from these multinational energy corporations. The bribes that these firms offered up to the local political elite made the proposition even more attractive, as did the prospect of these independent states being able to further free themselves from Moscow's iron economic grip.

Enter President Bill Clinton in 1992, who made the calculated decision to create an "energy corridor" through the newly-independent Republic of Georgia to make possible the export of Caspian basin oil and gas to the West, completely bypassing Russia in the process. Klare details how an initial, "early-oil" pipeline was subsequently constructed in order to carry petroleum from the newly-developed fields in Azerbaijan's section of the Caspian Sea all the way to the port city of Supsa on the Black Sea coast of Georgia. From there, it was loaded onto tankers for delivery to international markets. He goes on to note that this development would be followed by a far more "audacious" scheme: the construction of the 1,000-mile BTC pipeline from Baku in Azerbaijan to Tbilisi in Georgia and then on to Ceyhan on Turkey's Mediterranean coast:
[Even at the time] Clinton understood that this strategy entailed significant risks, particularly because Washington's favored "energy corridor" passed through or near several major conflict zones -- including the Russian-backed breakaway enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. With this in mind, Clinton made a secondary decision -- to convert the new Georgian army into a military proxy of the United States, equipped and trained by the Department of Defense. From 1998 to 2000 alone, Georgia was awarded $302 million in U.S. military and economic aid -- more than any other Caspian country -- and top U.S. military officials started making regular trips to its capital, Tbilisi, to demonstrate support for then-president Eduard Shevardnadze.

According to high-level officials at the US's National Security Council, these efforts to promote the construction of new pipelines through Azerbaijan and Georgia were clearly intended "to break Russia's monopoly of control over the transportation of oil from the region."

But when Vladimir Putin took the political stage in Russia in 1999, there was a strong priority given to pushing back against Washington's attempts to monopolize the vast oil and gas supplies of Central Asia right in their backyard. Even before assuming the presidency in 2000, Putin indicated that he believed state control over energy resources should be the basis for Russia's return to great-power status.

On this basis, Putin presided over the re-nationalization of many of the energy companies that had been privatized by Yeltsin and the virtual confiscation of Yukos -- once Russia's richest private energy firm -- by Russian state authorities. He also brought Gazprom, the world's largest natural gas supplier, back under state control and placed a protégé, Dmitri Medvedev -- now president of Russia -- at its helm.

According to Klare:
Once he had restored state control over the lion's share of Russia's oil and gas resources, Putin turned his attention to the next obvious place -- the Caspian Sea basin. Here, his intent was not so much to gain ownership of its energy resources -- although Russian firms have in recent years acquired an equity share in some Caspian oil and gas fields -- but rather to dominate the export conduits used to transport its energy to Europe and Asia.

This is the historical background that simply must be thoroughly understood and taken into account to even begin to understand the military actions in Georgia and the independent states on Russia's south border - Abhkazia and South Ossetia. The Bush administration ultimately decided to use Georgia's recently elected President, Mikheil Saakashvili, as a "useful pawn in [Washington's] pursuit of a long smoldering anti-Russian agenda" and [both Bush and Saakashvili] ended up walking into a trap that had been cleverly designed by Putin.

As the article goes on to explain:
It is hard not to conclude that Russian prime minister goaded the rash Saakashvili into invading South Ossetia by encouraging Abkhazian and South Ossetian irregulars to attack Georgian outposts and villages on the peripheries of the two enclaves. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reportedly told Saakashvili not to respond to such provocations when she met with him in July. Apparently her advice fell on deaf ears. Far more enticing, it seems, was her promise of strong U.S. backing for Georgia's rapid entry into NATO. Other American leaders, including Senator John McCain, assured Saakashvili of unwavering U.S. support. Whatever was said in these private conversations, the Georgian president seems to have interpreted them as a green light for his adventuristic impulses. On August 7th, by all accounts, his forces invaded South Ossetia and attacked its capital city of Tskhinvali, giving Putin what he long craved -- a seemingly legitimate excuse to invade Georgia and demonstrate the complete vulnerability of Clinton's (and now Bush's) vaunted energy corridor.

As this article so convincingly illustrates, as with most geopolitical conflicts to which the US is a party to (and which major conflicts is the US completely disengaged from, really?), the Ossetia War and the broader conflict between Russia and its former client states of Georgia and the Ukraine has as much to do with the Great Game and control of resources as it does the more obvious, long-term military ambitions of these Central Asian states.

Therefore, this latest report from today's Financial Times (UK) on VP Dick Cheney's promise of a $1 billion (US taxpayer funded!) humanitarian aid package for Georgia to help rebuild must be read with all of the aforementioned facts in the front of one's mind. Context is simply everything here, and by ignoring it, or worse getting it wrong- we will end up being led to what can only be described as a radically confused understanding of the ins and outs of these rapidly developing world events and their dynamics.

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