Cross-posted with tomdispatch.com.
Brussels -- Oil and natural gas prices may be relatively low right now, but don't be fooled. The New Great Game of the twenty-first century is always over energy and it's taking place on an immense chessboard called Eurasia. Its squares are defined by the networks of pipelines being laid across the oil heartlands of the planet. Call it Pipelineistan. If, in Asia, the stakes in this game are already impossibly high, the same applies to the "Euro" part of the great Eurasian landmass -- the richest industrial area on the planet. Think of this as the real political thriller of our time.
The movie of the week in Brussels is: When NATO Meets Pipelineistan. Though you won't find it in any headlines, at virtually every recent NATO summit Washington has been maneuvering to involve reluctant Europeans ever more deeply in the business of protecting Pipelineistan. This is already happening, of course, in Afghanistan, where a promised pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India, the TAPI pipeline, has not even been built. And it's about to happen at the borders of Europe, again around pipelines that have not yet been built.
If you had to put that Euro part of Pipelineistan into a formula, you might do so this way: Nabucco (pushed by the U.S.) versus South Stream (pushed by Russia). Be patient. You'll understand in a moment.
At the most basic level, it's a matter of the West yet again trying, in the energy sphere, to bypass Russia. For this to happen, however -- and it wouldn't hurt if you opened the nearest atlas for a moment -- Europe desperately needs to get a handle on Central Asian energy resources, which is easy to say but has proven surprisingly hard to do. No wonder the NATO Secretary General's special representative, Robert Simmons, has been logging massive frequent-flyer miles to Central Asia over these last few years.
Just under the surface of an edgy entente cordiale between the European Union (EU) and Russia lurks the possibility of a no-holds-barred energy war -- Liquid War, as I call it. The EU and the U.S. are pinning their hopes on a prospective 3,300-kilometer-long, $10.7 billion pipeline dubbed Nabucco. Planning for it began way back in 2004 and construction is finally expected to start, if all goes well (and it may not), in 2010. So if you're a NATO optimist, you hope that natural gas from the Caspian Sea, maybe even from Iran (barring the usual American blockade), will begin flowing through it by 2015. The gas will be delivered to Erzurum in Turkey and then transported to Austria via Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary.
Why, you might ask, is the pipeline meant to save Europe named for a Verdi opera? Well, Austrian and Turkish energy executives happened to see the opera together in Vienna in 2002 while discussing their energy dilemmas, and the biblical plight of the Jews exiled by King Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar), a love story set amid a ferocious struggle for freedom and power, swept them away. Still, it's a stretch to turn aluminum tubes into dramatic characters.
Of course, the operatic theater here isn't really in the tubing, it's in the politics and strategic implications that surround the pipeline. In Eastern Europe, for instance, Nabucco is seen not as a European economic or energy project, but as a creature of Washington, just like the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey that President Bill Clinton and his crew backed so vigorously in the 1990s and which was finally finished in 2005. For those who have never believed the Cold War is over -- the Eastern Europeans among them -- once again it's the good guys (the West) against the commies... sorry, the Russians... at an energy-rich OK Corral.
The Great Borderless Gas Bazaar
Russia's answer to Nabucco is the 1,200-kilometer-long, $15 billion South Stream pipeline, also scheduled to be finished in 2015; it is slated to carry Siberian natural gas under the Black Sea from Russia to Bulgaria. From Bulgaria, one branch of the pipeline would then run south through Greece to southern Italy while the other would run north through Serbia and Hungary towards northern Italy.
Now, add another pipeline to the picture, the $9.1 billion Nord Stream that will soon enough snake from Western Russia under the Baltic Sea to Germany, which already imports 41.5% of its natural gas from Russia. The giant Russian energy firm Gazprom holds a controlling 51% of Nord Stream stock; the rest belongs to German and Dutch companies. The chairman of the board is none other than former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
Put this all together and Russia, with its pipelines running in all directions and firmly embedded in Europe, spells trouble for Nabucco's future and frustration for Washington's New Great Game plans to contain the Russian energy juggernaut. And that's without even mentioning Ukhta which, chances are, you've never heard of. If you aren't in the energy business, why should you have? After all, it's a backwater village in Russia's autonomous republic of Komi, 350 kilometers from the Arctic Circle. Built by forced labor, it was once part of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag archipelago. By 2030, however, you'll know its name. By then, a pipeline from remote Ukhta will be flooding Europe with natural gas and the village will be one of Nord Stream's key transit nodes.
While Nabucco as well as South Stream remain virtual, Nord Stream is a Terminator on the run. By 2010, it will be tunneling under the Baltic Sea heading for Germany. By 2011, it should be delivering the goods and a second pipe -- 12 meters wide, 100,000 tubes long -- will be under construction to double its capacity by 2014. Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller pulls no punches: this, he says, will be "the safest and most modern pipeline in the world."
How can Verdi lovers possibly compete? In the middle of a global recession, Gazprom is spending at least $20 billion to conquer Europe via Nord and South Stream. The strategy is a killer: pump gas under the sea directly to Europe, avoiding messy transit routes across troublesome countries like Ukraine. No wonder Gazprom, which today controls 26% of the European gas market, is expected to have a 33% share by 2020.
In other words, in many ways, the Nabucco versus South Stream energy war already looks settled. Nabucco is, at best, likely to be a secondary pipeline, incapable, as Washington once hoped, of breaking the EU away from energy dependence on Russia.
Brussels, predictably, is in its usual multilingual policy mess. Most bureaucrats at its monster, directive-churning body, the European Commission, publicly bemoan the "pipeline war." On the other hand, Ona Jukneviciene, chairwoman of the committees at the European Parliament dealing with Central Asia, admits that Nabucco cannot be the only option.
As for Reinhard Mitschek, managing director of the Nabucco consortium, he tries to put a brave face on things when he stresses, "we will transport Russian gas, Azeri gas, Iraqi gas." As for the top European official on energy matters, Andris Piebalgs, he can't help being a pragmatist: "We'll continue to work with Russia because Russia has energy resources."
From a business point of view, it's tough to argue with South Stream's selling points. Unlike Nabucco, it will offer cheaper, all-Russian natural gas that won't have to transit through potential war zones, and while Nabucco will always deliver limited amounts of Caspian natural gas to market, South Stream, given Russian resources, will have plenty of room to increase its output.
The fact is that, as of now, Nabucco still has no guaranteed sources of gas. In order for the gas to come from energy-rich Turkmenistan, to take but one example, the Turkmen leadership would have to break a deal they've already made with Russia, which now buys all of that country's export gas. There's no way that Moscow is likely to let one of the former Soviet Republics do that easily. In addition, both Russia and Iran could well be capable of blocking any pipeline straddling the floor of the Caspian Sea.
Gazprom will pay to build South Stream, and then distribute and sell gas it already controls to Europe; Nabucco, on the other hand, has to rely on a messy consortium of six countries (Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Germany) simply to finance one-third of its prospective costs, and then convince wary international bankers to shell out the rest.
The Pentagon does the Black Sea
So what does Washington want out of this mess? That's easy. Rewind to then-prospective Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her Senate confirmation hearings on January 13, 2009. There, she decried Europe's dependence on Russian natural gas and issued an urgent call for "investments in the Trans-Caspian energy sector." Think of it as a signal: The new Obama administration would be as committed to Nabucco as the Bush administration had been.
What is never spelled out is why. Enter the Black Sea, that crucial geo-strategic stage where Europe meets the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Enter, thus, Bulgaria, home to a new Pentagon air base in Bezmer, one of six new strategic bases being built outside the U.S. and as potentially important to Washington's future games as the stalwart air bases in Incirlik, Turkey, and Aviano, Italy have been in the past. (Aviano was the key U.S./NATO base for the bombing of the Bosnian Serbs in 1995 and the 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999.)
With the Pentagon's bases already creeping within a stone's throw of Southwest and Central Asia, it doesn't take a genius to imagine the role Bezmer might play in any future attack on Iran (something the Russian defense establishment has already taken careful note of). With both Romania and Bulgaria now part of NATO, Article 5 of the alliance's charter now applies. NATO can take action "in the event of crises which jeopardize Euro-Atlantic stability and could affect the security of Alliance members."
In this way, Pipelineistan meets the American Empire of Bases.
Young Turks and Wily Russians
Why is everyone so damn hooked on Central Asian oil and gas? Elshad Nasirov, deputy chairman of the state-owned Azerbaijani oil company SOCAR, sums the addiction up succinctly enough: "This is the place where there is oil and gas in abundance. It is not Arab, not Persian, not Russian, and not OPEC."
It's the Caspian and, unfortunately for Europe, the region could, in energy terms, turn out to be not the caviar for which it's renowned but so many rotten fish eggs. No one knows, after all, whether the EU will ever be able to buy Iranian gas via Nabucco. No one knows whether the Central Asian "stans" have enough gas to supply Russia, China, and Turkey, not to mention India and Pakistan. No one knows whether any of their leaders will have the nerve to renege on their deals with Gazprom.
Ever since a 2008 British study determined that Turkmenistan may have natural gas reserves second only to Russia on the planet, the European Commission has been on a no-holds-barred tear to lure that country into delivering some of its future gas directly to Europe -- and not through the Russian pipeline system either. Turkmenistan's inscrutable leader, the spectacularly named Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, just has to say the word, but despite the claims of EU officials that he has agreed to send some gas Europe-wards, he's never offered a public word of confirmation. No wonder: with Nabucco unbuilt and a pipeline from his country to China still under construction, Turkmenistan can play Pipelineistan games only with Russia and Iran. In fact, Russia essentially controls the flow of Turkmen gas for the next 15 years.
Should Gurbanguly someday say the magic word -- and assuming the Russians don't throw a monkey wrench into the works -- he can marry Turkey, as the key transit country, with the EU and let them all sing Verdi till the sheep come home. In the meantime, angst is the name of the game in Europe (and so in Washington).
A declassified dossier from the FSB, the Russian heir to the KGB, is adamant: considering Nabucco's shortcomings, "Russia will remain the primary supplier of energy to Europe for the foreseeable future." Call it a matter of having your gas and processing it, too. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been making the point for years. If Europe tries to snub it, Russia will simply build its own liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants, to facilitate storage and transport, and sell its LNG all over the world.
Anyway it's worth paying attention to what the St. Petersburg State Mining Institute (where Putin earned his doctorate) has to say. According to the institute, Russia has only 20 years' worth of its own natural gas reserves left. Since Russia plans to sell up to 40% of its gas abroad, "Russian" gas may in the future actually mean Central Asian gas. All the more reason for the Russians to make sure that those massive Turkmen and other reserves flow north, not west.
Whatever Washington thinks, the Europeans know that energy independence from Russia is, in reality, inconceivable. Bottom line when it comes to natural gas: Europe needs everything -- Nord Stream, South Stream, and Nabucco. The bulk of the natural gas in this Pipelineistan maze may well turn out to be Central Asian anyway and a substantial part could be Iranian, if the Obama administration ever normalizes relations with Iran.
That, then, is the current state of play in the European wing of Pipelineistan. Russia seems to have virtually guaranteed its status as the top gas supplier to Europe for the foreseeable future. But that brings us to Turkey, a key regional power for both the U.S. and the EU. As President Obama has recognized, Turkey is both a real and a metaphorical bridge between the Christian and Muslim worlds. It is also an ideal transit country for carrying non-Russian gas to Europe and is now playing its own suitably complex Pipelineistan game.
Chances are that, like Ukhta in far off Siberia, you've never heard of Yumurtalik either. It's a fishing port squeezed between the Mediterranean Sea and the Taurus mountains, very close to Ceyhan, the terminal for two key nodes of Pipelineistan: the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline from Iraq and the monster BTC pipeline. Turkey wants to turn Yumurtalik-Ceyhan into nothing less than the Rotterdam of the Mediterranean.
Even as it dreams of future EU membership, however, Turkey worries about antagonizing Moscow. And yet, being aboard the Nabucco Express and already fully committed to the functioning BTC pipeline puts the country on a potential collision course with Russia, its largest trading partner. Of course, this does not displease Washington.
On the other hand, the Turkish leadership draws ever closer to Iran, which provides 38% of Turkey's oil and 25% of its natural gas. Ankara and Tehran also have geopolitical affinities (especially in fighting Kurdish separatism). Together, they offer the best alternative to the Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Georgia) in terms of supplying Europe with Iranian natural gas. All this, of course, drives Washington nuts.
Needless to say, the Nabucco consortium itself would kill to have Iran as a gas supplier for the pipeline. They are also familiar with realpolitik: this could happen only with a Washington-blessed solution to the Iranian nuclear dossier. Iran, for its part, knows well how to seduce Europe. Mohammad-Reza Nematzadeh, managing director of the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), has insisted Iran is Europe's "sole option" for the success of Nabucco.
Is Russia just watching all this gas go by? Of course not. In October 2007, Putin signed a key agreement with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: If Iran cannot sell its gas to Nabucco -- a likelihood given the turbulence of American domestic politics and its foreign policy -- Russia will buy it. Translation: Iranian gas could end up, like Central Asian gas, heading for Europe as more "Russian" gas. With its European and Iranian policies at cross-purposes, Washington will not be amused.
When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to "rethink Nabucco" if the tricky negotiations for Turkey to enter the EU drag on forever, EU leaders got the message (as much as France and Germany may be against a "Europe without borders"). Pragmatically, most EU leaders know very well that they need excellent relations with Turkey to one day have access to the Big Prize, Iranian gas; and that puts Europe's energy and EU membership inclinations at loggerheads.
Last July in Ankara, Nabucco was formally launched by an inter-governmental agreement. The representatives of Turkey, Austria, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary were there. Obama's special Eurasian envoy, Richard Morningstar (a veteran of the BTC adventure), was there as well. The Central Asian stans were not there.
But crucially, Gurbanguly, ever the showman, finally made an entrance without ever leaving Turkmenistan, (almost) uttering the magic words in a meeting with his ministers in the capital, Ashgabat, on July 10th: "Turkmenistan, staying committed to the principles of diversification of supply of its energy resources to the world markets, is going to use all available opportunities to participate in major international projects -- such as, for example, [the] Nabucco project."
At the Vienna headquarters of Nabucco the mantra remains: this is "no anti-Russian project." Still, everyone knows that Russia's leaders are eager to kill it, and not a soul from Brussels to Vienna, Washington to Ashgabat, knows how to link Central Asia to Europe via a non-Russian pipeline, at the cost of more than $10 billion, without some assurance that Turkmeni, Kazakh, Azerbaijani, and/or Iranian natural gas will be fully (or even partially) on board. Who would be foolish enough to invest that kind of money without some guarantee that hundreds of miles of aluminum tubes won't remain empty? You don't need Verdi to tell you this is one hell of a quirky plot for a global opera.
Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times and analyst for the Real News. His latest book is Obama Does Globalistan. He may be reached at email@example.com.
Copyright 2009 Pepe Escobar