The recent developments in the Black Sea/Caspian region indicate a dramatic shift in the geopolitical environment of the region. The reduced strategic ties between regional actors; diminishing U.S. interest and capacity to enforce strategic access to Central Asia through the Caucasus; and increased pressure from Russia on the entire region could ultimately lead to a different strategic picture of the region in the next decade. The new geopolitical realities have a profound impact on the development of energy infrastructure in the region, and more importantly, on the prospects of integrating the region in broader Euro-Atlantic security and economic system.
BACKGROUND: Several recent developments have substantially changed the strategic picture of the Black Sea/Caspian region. First of all, the region has been greatly impacted by the new policy of the United States towards Russia. The U.S. strategy towards Russia under President Obama appears directed towards greater engagement and collaboration on issues of mutual interests with the ultimate goal of more coordinated relationships and responsible policies between both countries. Russia’s willingness to allow military cargos to be delivered to Afghanistan and Central Asia via its territory is seen as a success of the new policy. The direct flights over the North Pole from the U.S. to Central Asia may shorten the distance and time of delivery of cargoes. This development is seen as a factor that reduce U.S. interest in the alternative access to the Central Asia via the Caucasus.
Secondly, Turkey is progressing towards building its own center of strategic gravity around its periphery. This development was long expected considering the uncertainty of European policies towards Turkey’s EU membership. The strained relationships between U.S. and Turkey during and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq also encouraged Turkey to search for alternative strategies. Economic ties between Turkey and Russia are deepening, and several large scale energy projects are under way that will further increase trade turnover between the two countries, already reaching $40 billion on annual basis. Interdependency between Turkey and Russia leads towards more coordinated foreign policy strategies that are not always in line with the interests of the EU, the U.S., or the smaller and relatively weaker and vulnerable states of the region. As Turkey is no longer willing to act as a security deterrent to Russian power in the region, these regional actors feel greater pressure from the Russian Federation to limit Western interest and presence in the region.
Finally, the major shift in the strategic picture of the region is the larger and more aggressive Russian military presence in Georgia after the war in August of 2008. Russian occupation of Georgian territories, including areas in very close proximity to the capital Tbilisi, creates an oppressive environment under constant threat of follow-up military aggression that also undermines the stability of entire region. Georgia’s limited defense capabilities are no match to Russian power in the region, and the EU monitoring mission has very limited capability to ensure the security in the areas adjacent to Russian military units. The events of August 2008 demonstrated that Russia is willing to use force against its neighbors, while the West is unprepared to provide active military support to its allies – going so far as to implement a de facto arms embargo on Georgia, while supplying Russia with state-of-the-art naval vessels.
IMPLICATIONS: These strategic shifts are impacting political dynamics in the region and facilitate the emergence of more moderate or even pro-Russian forces on the political arena of some pro-Western countries of the region. This trend is already visible in Ukraine.
New realities are also significantly impacting energy developments and have potential implications for European energy security. The current trends are not serving the energy security interests or integration purposes for either the region or the West. Responding to the Turkish delay on a natural gas deal, Azerbaijan has signed an initial agreement with Russia’s Gazprom on the sale of 500 million cubic meters of natural gas in 2010, and later adjusted volumes to 1 billion cubic meters (bcm) for 2010. Gazprom plans to buy 2 bcm in 2011, or as much as Azerbaijan is ready to supply, thus making sure that Gazprom’s monopoly on supply of natural gas from Caspian region is maintained. Azerbaijan is a key potential supplier for alternative pipeline options for the so-called Southern Corridor for natural gas, but the lag in finalizing the supply agreement with Turkey is causing delays in the development of the gas fields and their delivery infrastructure. As a result, European dependency on natural gas coming from the Russian pipeline system will only increase.
Another dramatic development in the region with long term consequences is the opening of the two new natural gas pipelines from Turkmenistan: one going East to China, and the other going South, to Iran. The commissioning of these two pipelines substantially diminished the chances for the Trans-Caspian natural gas pipeline connecting Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan and to serve as another key supply source for Nabucco. With existing commitments to Russia and plans to send 30 billion cubic meters of natural gas to China and 20 bcm of gas to Iran, it is difficult to see how an additional pipeline from Turkmenistan across the disputed areas of the Caspian Sea can be justified and commercially supported. The only chance for the Trans-Caspian pipeline to progress will be if the U.S. and/or EU decide to commit public financing to its implementation, but this is hard to expect in current financial environment.
We are witnessing the weakening of the strategic ties between the regional actors in the Black Sea-Caspian region that have been built for more than decade around the energy and transportation infrastructure. These loosened ties between the regional actors are weakening the security and transportation system that connects the region to the West. The current commitment to soft power on the part of both the EU and the U.S. cannot match the assertive political-military and energy policy of the Russian Federation in the region. Turkey’s new regional policy and the downgraded strategic interests of the United States in the region have allowed Russia to have a larger say in regional affairs.
CONCLUSIONS: The United States needs to reestablish its strategic interest in accessing Central Asia through Caucasus. The security, nuclear and trafficking problems of the wider region and America’s ongoing military operations in Afghanistan should make this region a policy priority. The U.S. and Western allies can only at their own peril rely only on Russia for access to Central Asia.
It is also essential for the regional states to conceptualize the new geopolitical realities and adjust their strategies accordingly. In current geopolitical environment, no individual country of the region can attract enough attention from Western powers to receive guarantees for their security. A higher degree of regional cooperation and a coordinated policy towards key regional issues, as well as moving forward with plans for accelerated democratic, economic and military reforms to meet NATO ad EU standards could be the way to attract more attention and support to the region. Under the new geopolitical realities, the Euro-Atlantic integration of the Black Sea/Caspian region has turned into a long-term strategic project that can only be built on responsible policies and commitment to Western values of liberal democracy – a challenge that not all the regional actors are ready to meet.AUTHOR’S BIO: Mamuka Tsereteli is Director of the Center of Black/Sea Caspian Studies at American University in Washington D.C.