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Oil and Natural Gas Fuel Caspian War

New America Media, Interview, Andew Lam Posted: Aug 12, 2008

Editor's note: The war between Georgia and Russia is said to be a territory dispute but professor Michael T. Klare tells NAM editor Andrew Lam there is another equally important factor: a geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West over the export of Caspian Sea oil and natural gas. Klare is the author of "Resource Wars" and "Blood and Oil". His latest book is "Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy." Klare directs the Five College program in Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass.

NAM: The general news we get is that Russia and Georgia are fighting over a disputed territory, but you propose another motivation behind Russia's attack.

MK: The conflict between Russia and Georgia is driven by a number of factors, including Russia's determination to retain a dominant role in what used to be the Soviet Union and Georgia's desire to regain control over two breakaway areas -- Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- that it believes are part of its sovereign territory. Personality also plays a role, with Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili keen to demonstrate his mettle by regaining control over the two rebel areas and Russian leaders equally resolved to humiliate him.

But underlying all this is a larger, more significant contest: a geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West over the export of Caspian Sea oil and natural gas.

NAM: Please elaborate.

MK: Georgia itself does not possess significant quantities of oil and gas. But it has been designated by Washington (D.C.) as a critical "energy corridor" for the delivery of Caspian oil and gas to the West. This has entailed, most importantly, U.S. backing for the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, which now delivers about 1 million barrels of Caspian oil per day to Western markets. This was built at the United States' urging, specifically to bypass Russia, thereby lessening Moscow's control over the flow of Caspian Sea energy.

Knowing that the pipeline would be vulnerable to the spillover effects of conflict in adjacent areas, the United States has also provided substantial military aid to Georgia, making it the leading recipient of such aid in the region.

All of this, of course, has infuriated the Russians, who both detest the intrusion of American influence in what was once part of the Soviet Union and also resent the challenge to their control over the flow of Caspian energy. In response, they have attempted to maintain a significant military presence of their own in the region, most notably by deploying "peacekeeping" forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Every effort by the Georgians to oust these forces has been met with fierce resistance by Moscow. And when Saakashvili attempted last week to dislodge them with force, Russia responded with predictable fury.

NAM: The United States has been supporting Georgia in its independence. What responsibility does it have now that Georgia is in dire need of international help?

MK: The United States bears a significant responsibility for what has happened because it has provided substantial military aid to the Georgian military and seems to have fueled Saakashvili's ambitions. This was most apparent, I believe, in President Bush's attempt to "fast track" Georgia's candidacy for membership in NATO at the NATO summit in Bucharest last April. This was a calculated affront to Moscow, which obviously saw it as a threat to its strategic interests, yet no doubt boosted Saakashvili's sense of invulnerability.

NAM: What about the European Union? It seems to be directly affected if Georgia's pipelines are under Russian control.

MK: The EU has also played a role in all this because it has long eyed Georgia as a corridor for the transportation of Caspian Sea natural gas to Europe, thus diminishing its reliance on Russian gas and the pipelines controlled by Gazprom. The EU has been placing great emphasis on construction of a natural gas pipeline called Nabucco [after the opera by Verdi] that could deliver gas from Azerbaijan to central Europe via Georgia and Turkey -- a project that would jeopardize Gazprom's dominance in the European gas market.

By attacking Georgia, the Russians are obviously sending a message to the Europeans that any attempt to escape their control over the flow of natural gas is bound to prove futile.

NAM: What do you think will be the outcome of all this?

MK: Clearly, there can be no solution to this conflict that ignores these underlying issues. If the United States and the EU want to achieve a degree of peace in the region, they will have to stop using Georgia as a tool to thwart Russian ambitions in the region. They will have to work cooperatively with Russia and other Caspian states to develop a comprehensive regional energy plan that addresses the interests of all major players and provides incentives for all to cooperate in the peaceful development and transport of oil and gas supplies.

Related Articles:

Will the U.S. Support Terrorists to Destabilize Iran?

Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet Global Fight for Oil

America's Duty: Next U.S. President, Iran and Iraq

Chicken Comes Home to Roost in Georgia

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