War in the Caspian may become a reality

Text of report by the website of heavyweight Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta on 22 November

[Report by Sergey Kulikov: "War in the Caspian may become a reality – The conflict surrounding the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline is developing according to the Georgian scenario"]

The competition over supplies of gas to Europe threatens to take the form of an armed conflict on the Caspian Sea, where the question of whom the water area belongs to remains a subject of international dispute. Yesterday President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev called the prospect of the construction of the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline (TKG) from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan "very nebulous." And Russian experts are warning outright that ignoring Russia’s position may lead to a confrontation using force similar to the Georgian scenario in 2008. In the meantime, the European Union is demanding that Russia not set up obstructions to the TKG project, or else they threaten to hamper progress on South Stream [gas pipeline].

"This is still on the level of a conversation that has been going on for many years," Nazarbayev added in an interview for Interfax in speaking of the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline project. Bolat Akchulakov [as transliterated], the head of the national company KazMunayGaz, also clarified Astana’s position yesterday: "As long as the question of the legal status is not defined, we are not working on this project." Earlier both the Russian Federation MID [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] and President Dmitriy Medvedev were saying that the construction of the pipeline is unacceptable until the consent of all the countries on the Caspian is obtained.

Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan say that the TKG will pass within the national sectors of these two countries, and so the rest of the coastal countries of the Caspian cannot dictate to Baku and Ashkhabad what they have to do in their own territorial waters. And besides that, all the countries on the Caspian are already extracting oil and gas in their own sectors of the sea. But Moscow is insisting that the division into national sectors was purely hypothetical and until the five countries have signed the framework document on the legal status of the Caspian, not one of them has a right to build a pipeline along the bottom of the Caspian, even within their own "national sectors."

However, Guenther Oettinger, the European Union commissioner for energy, has said that if Russia is going to use threat tactics, it will have big problems. He made it clear that if Moscow hinders the construction of the Trans-Caspian Pipeline, Europe will not permit it to build South Stream, which competes with Nabucco.

In the meantime some Russian experts believe that Moscow may defend its own position not only using diplomatic methods. To illustrate, Mikhail Aleksandrov, a department chief of the Institute of the Countries of the CIS, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that for several months now, he has been warning high-ranking diplomats of the European Union of the possibility of the development of events based on a scenario using force. "This was at a dinner at the German Embassy which Pierre Morel, the European Union special representative for Central Asia, attended," he specified. "At that time I tried to explain to him that the West is underestimating Moscow’s resolve to resort to force in order to prevent the realization of pipeline projects across the Caspian Sea. And the explanation for this is not so much economic reasons as military-political ones."

In reality Moscow cannot permit the legal regime of the Caspian established by agreements with Iran to be violated, since it might lead to legal anarchy in the region right up to the appearance here of military bases of third countries, the expert notes. And construction of the TKG would mean de facto recognition of the division of the Caspian into sectors. That is altogether unacceptable to Russia, and it would have to act in the spirit of the operation to compel Georgia to peace. "This time Ashkhabad and Baku would have to be forced to comply with international law. It is possible that it would even be through airstrikes if they do not understand any other way," Aleksandrov believes. "After what NATO did in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, there simply are no restraining barriers – whether moral or legal – against Russia’s use of force in the Caspian."

Konstantin Simonov, the general director of the Foundation for National Energy Security (FNEB), also shares this point of view. "A method using force is the only possible response to this problem," he told Nezavisimaya Gazeta yesterday. "It is obvious that Russia does not need the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline. And it is the rare case where we have the law on our side in this situation. It is a different matter that we cannot at this point defend this legal position itself publicly." The job of diplomats is not to permit construction, the analyst is confident. But if they are outplayed and the matter moves specifically in that direction, there are no other options other than a technical, force-based, or military solution of the problem. "By the way, the fact that the construction of the pipeline has not yet begun suggests that Ashkhabad has not been given an absolute guarantee of protection from a military response by the Russian Federation," Simonov believes. "And only the experience of the August war in Georgia is holding back Ashkhabad now.

"Legally the Russian Federation’s position is absolutely justified, and Iran shares it. Kazakhstan is neutral in this situation, since it would not be a major exporter of gas. But there is another player in this market that is often forgotten – China, which does not need the TKG either. Today Beijing is buying Turkmen gas cheap, but tomorrow, if the plans for deliveries to Europe are realized, Ashkhabad might raise the price, which Beijing would obviously not like."

In turn, Dmitriy Aleksandrov, the leader of the investment analysis department of the Univer Company, rules out the very possibility of the start of construction for the most varied reasons: the uncertain prospects of growth in the consumption of gas in the European Union, the uncertain economic situation, and the presence of alternative sources of gas supplies from the southern and northwestern directions to Europe. "Accordingly, a confrontation with force should not occur," the expert hopes. "At the same time, Russia and Iran – the main opponents of the Trans-Caspian – in fact have the most respectable forces. In addition to that, the risks of a military incident are apparently seen as serious in Russia, so the programme of the modernization of the Navy in the Caspian seems more than impressive." But there are other opinions as well. To illustrate, Igor Ivakhnenko, the deputy editor in chief of the magazine Neft i Kapital [Oil and Capital], believes that actions using force are hardly possible, since the construction of the TKG is not an act of aggression. And Moscow is not going to risk resorting to "diplomatic gunboats" out of a fear of spoiling relations with the European Union, the United States, and the members of the CIS. "Opposition to the construction of the TKG can go in two directions," he believes. "In the first place, by mobilizing international nature protection organizations, including United Nations institutions, as well as the ecologists of the countries whose companies might participate in the project (the participants in the Nabucco project) under the slogan of a threat to the condition of the Caspian. In the second place, through offering the Russian gas transport system for deliveries from Turkmenistan to Europe based on direct treaties. In the short term perspective, that would give Moscow the opportunity at the least to aggravate the disputes around the TKG project, and from that it could derive dividends for the ‘ecological attack’ and at least gain some time. But in the long term perspective, it could keep control over transit and use it in the strategic games with the West."

The Russian Military Presence in the Caspian Sea

Before 2020 the Caspian Flotilla will receive up to 16 new ships. Some aircraft units will be transferred to the seamen from the complement of the strategic-operational command Yug. What is more, Bastion coastal missile complexes, which are capable of destroying surface targets with Yakhont supersonic cruise missiles at a distance of 300 kilometres, will appear in the arsenal of the Caspian Flotilla. Before January 2012, the Caspian Flotilla will obtain the first of a series of new Buyan-M – Grad Sviyazhsk class missile-artillery ships. Three of the latest assault ships would enter combat duty in the Caspian. At the same time, one must not forget the flagship of the Caspian Flotilla – the patrol ship Tatarstan, which was registered with the Navy in 2002. Its Uran strike complex can destroy any object of the enemy at a distance of 130 kilometres.

[captions to photographs, photographs not provided]

[first photograph] Ilham Aliyev, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, and Nursultan Nazarbayev, the heads of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan, have discussed the prospects of the Caspian Region more than once.

[second photograph] The attention of the countries that are consumers of oil and gas is riveted on the coasts of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.

Source: Nezavisimaya Gazeta website, Moscow, in Russian 22 Nov 11

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