Transport and energy communications in Caucasus and Black See geopolitics

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Typography

It is a well-known fact that in the course of two centuries Russia has been putting a lot of effort in enforcing its positions in the Black Sea and Caucasus regions and in Central Asia. In result of the series of Russian – Turkish wars, the Caucasian war and the Turkistan marches, which ended with the inclusion of Khiva and Bukhara into the empire, this task seemed accomplished.

Key element in the Russian domination in the above regions has always been the control over strategic communications between Europe and Asia. By the way, the Caucasian war (during which Chechnya and Dagestan were finally included into Russia) was also related to Moscow endeavors to achieve sufficiently reliable communications in Georgia, which is the central link in the South-Caucasian corridor. As regards the economic, political and military integration of the Caucasian region into the Russian empire, it is obvious that the only existing route along the North – South axis (the so called Georgian Military Highway) is not sufficient. That is the reason why in the course of fifty years the Russians were building the famous Black Sea coastal line while fighting against (or making alliances with) Circassians and Abkhazians, building numerous forts and Kazakh settlements, blazing trails across hitherto impassable forests and kept large garrisons (the staff of which was constantly dropping down due to epidemics or in fights with mountain clans). Thus was established a constantly growing communications network, thanks to which the South Caucasus became part of the Russian economic, political and cultural space. The Soviet Union paid much attention to the development of its communications and military capacities in the South Caucasus. It is another well-known fact that during the Cold War era the Warsaw pact and NATO elaborated various plans for a possible war in Europe. In them the North-Atlantic alliance outlined three main directions for its defensive and offensive actions: North, Central and South Europe.

The South Korean war theatre, being an exceptionally convenient site for an attack against the USSR and its satellites, is present in practically every war scenario, elaborated by the NATO and tried out during tactical exercises. Its strategic location enables NATO armies in case of war to undertake offensive actions in the region thus relieving the Western forces on the Central European front and threatening the southern wing of the armies of the Warsaw pact, dislocated in Central Europe. From the South would come the first attack against the Soviet territory in South Caucasus and the invasion of the NATO forces would be supported by 6 th US Marine Division.

The plans of the North Atlantic alliance outlined the four passes in the South Caucasus, most convenient for a quick military invasion, namely the Chorokh, Kelkit, Kars -Arzinjan – Sivas and Karakes - Mush – Elyazig. The first two ones are on Georgian territory. The Kars -Arzinjan – Sivas pass, crosses Armenian territory and would allow NATO forces to achieve the necessary operational space only in case they overcome the fortified Akhalkalaki in Georgia. In its turn the USSR elaborated military plans of similar nature. It is on a special purpose that in Akhalkalaki, Akhaltsikha and Batumi large military battalions are dislocated in order to cover all possible access roads which could be used by NATO forces and which could be the starting point for a probable Soviet invasion in Turkey. The role of the large Soviet military air-base in Gudauta is of the same order.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, this complex system, which was built in the course of dozens of years, started quickly to erode. The Russian positions in the regions were additionally aggravated by the decline of Georgia to accede to CIS and to conclude new military agreements with Moscow, in result of which the military bases of the latter no longer had a clear status. After the Georgian – Abkhazian war were finally blocked the rail and road communications of Russia with South Caucasus and the main Russian ally in the region - Armenia – fell in almost total transport isolation. Still, in 1993 – 1995 Moscow managed to some extent to re-establish its positions in South Caucasus, when in return for the Russian support for his regime the Georgian President Shevardnadze acceded his country to CIS, signed the Collective Security Treaty and even signed the Agreement for the preservation of Russian military bases in Georgia. In parallel, the Russians assisted the coming into power in Baku of the Moscow loyalist (as he seemed then) Geidar Aliev. Thus, in 1994 the political and military capacities of Russia were certainly dominating over the capacities of its rivals – the US, the EU and Turkey. At the end of the same year, though, the situation started to change gradually against the interests of Moscow. This was directly related to the projects for new oil export communications from the Caspian region and Central Asia to Europe, which did not go through but round Russia.

In September 1994 Azerbaijan concluded a particularly important agreement with the international oil consortium for the development of its oil fields in the Caspian shelf. At that time Russia as a successor of the USSR was one of the two guarantors (the other one was Iran) for the agreement about the shelf and had the legal right to prevent this project. Instead, the Russian giant Lukoil, which held 10% of the shares in the international consortium, managed to influence the Government in Moscow so as not to hinder the agreement. This was further facilitated by the fact that the Western members of the consortium provided guarantees to the Russian party that the main oil pipeline will go via North Caucasus to the Russian port of Novorusiisk, from which the Caspian oil would be transported by tanker ships via the Bosphorus to Europe. Moscow received the promise that the second oil pipeline Baku – Tbilisi – Jeihan will play only auxiliary role and, moreover, a few Russian military basis were located along its route. Not much later, though, the Russians got the message that there would be not oil export via Novorosiisk unless Moscow controls and guarantees the security in the Chechen section of the pipeline. Probably this was one of the reasons why Eltsin ordered the launch of the military operation against Chechnya on 11 th December 1994, which most unexpectedly for the Russians transformed into the bloody and long-lasting First Chechen war. Meanwhile, Moscow's Western partners did everything to transform the Georgian route from auxiliary to primary. Turkey, in particular, under the pretext that it wished to guarantee its environmental security, decided to pose restrictions over the passage of tanker ships through the Straits. Thus, step by step was solved the issue with the re-orientation of the Trans-Caucasian strategic communications of Russia to Turkey and the West. By all means, the economies of the countries in the regions – Georgia and Armenia in particular, suffered serious damages from the breaking of traditional communications with Russia. Even the large-scale Western economic aid, which should have guaranteed the economic and political re-orientation of South Caucasus, did not manage to compensate their large economic losses. Thus, according to various assessments, in 2004 the Georgian GDP reached only 60% of its 1991 level. The West (and the US in particular), though, reached its major goal by putting under its control the political elite of Georgia as well as al mechanisms, which guaranteed the very functioning of the state. As regards the so called Rose Revolution in Georgia, it came in result of the fact that in the concluding phase of the authority rotation in the country, the President Shevardnadze tried to play his own game in order to ensure authority succession at much more favorable conditions for himself. To this end he tried to revive contacts with Russia and to seek support from the Ajarian leader Abashidze ( editor's note: Ajaria is an autonomous republic in the Western part of the country, populated by Georgian Muslims) . Most probably this was the reason why in spite of his undisputable contribution for the expansion of US (Western) interests in South Caucasus, could not hold his Presidential position by the end of his mandate. Meanwhile, as it became obvious that the process of communications (and, consequentially, the economic and political) re-orientation of the South Caucasus to the West had become irreversible. Russia activated its efforts to reanimate the so called Black Sea highway. In 1997 the Foreign Minister of Russia at that time, Evgeny Primakov, zealously launched the concept for the construction of a pipeline via the territory of Abkhazia to link the Novorosiisk oil pipeline with the pipeline Baku – Tbilisi –Jeihan, which according to Moscow would compensate at least partially the costs, incurred for the construction of the main pipeline. This concept was supported by the Georgian Government as well as by representatives of the US and Turkey, hoping to make use of it in order to bring Abkhazia back under the control of Tbilisi. To this end they put a number of preliminary political conditions for the implementation of the Russian project. Abkhazia refused to discuss them and the Russian Government, on the basis of its bitter experience with similar deals with its US partners, gradually lost interest in the concept.

The Istanbul Agreement of 1999 for withdrawal of Russian military bases from Georgia as well as the strong US pressure for this withdrawal to become effective by 2008 (in spite of Moscow's emotional objections) are proof that Washington is strongly against the presence of Russian bases along the route of the new strategic communications in the region.

Meanwhile, Moscow undertook desperate measures to turn the course of events. In particular, the Russian diplomatic efforts achieved the restoration of transit railway traffic via the territory of Abkhazia, which made it possible to unblock the main Russian ally in the region – Armenia – and to restore the economic (and hence political) influence of the Russians in South Caucasus.

This is the reason why it is not likely that the US will allow the Tbilisi Government to look for a solution to this problem in spite of the undoubted profit for the Georgian economy from the project implementation. In other words, negotiations on the restoration of railway traffic, held by Sotchy working groups, are unlikely to have a positive result. Most probably, Tbilisi will continue to impose conditions, which are unacceptable for the Russians (such as the repatriation of refuges and the preliminary political regulation of the Georgian – Abkhazian conflict) in order to prolong ad infinitum the solving of the problem.

The establishment of new communications with the active involvement of the US, which will link the Black Sea and Central Asian countries with Europe, going round Russia though, has gathered momentum recently. The Ukraine, Moldova and Romania, to name a few, are getting more and more involved with these developments. The interesting fact in the case is that the US are trying to get involved the EU in these projects or at least the countries from the so called “New Europe”. Although it is pretty clear that most of the above projects satisfy US interests, not the interests of European consumers. In particular, the concept for the utilization of the Ukrainian oil pipeline Odessa – Brodi for the transit transfer of Caspian oil to Europe is fully compliant with the vision of Washington to exercise control over the major transport and energy communications in the Caspian region (like the TRACECA project, the Baku – Jeihan oil pipeline etc.) and to increase the dependency of transit and rich in raw materials post-Soviet countries on the USA. Further to that, the support of Washington for these projects aims at facilitating deliveries for US military troops, which will soon be transferred form Germany to Poland and Romania within the framework of the planned “reconfiguration” of US troops in Europe. Meanwhile, most Western experts unanimously agree that the transit of Caspian oil along routes, which go round Russia, would not be cost effective. According to them, the oil pipeline Odessa – Brodi would bring profit only if the annual transit along it exceeds 7 million tons (its capacity is 14.4 million tons). Caspian oil is neither available in such quantities, though, nor would it be in the foreseeable future. The situation is additionally aggravated by the commissioning in October this year of the Baku – Tbilisi – Jeihan oil pipeline, which encounters serious problems with the utilization of its capacity. The international consortium, which spent USD 4 billion for the construction of this pipeline, would hardly agree to redirect some of oil, allocated for transfer via this pipeline, to the Ukrainian oil pipeline. In this connection, Brussels is fully aware that a probably European financial aid for ambitious Ukrainian plans for “liberation” from Russian energy dependency would be spent inefficiently and will be an additional burden for the budgets of the leading European countries.

The position of Kazakhstan on its probable involvement with the Ukrainian project is highly reserved. The President Nazarbaev considers that the issues of transit transfer of Kazakh energy to Europe via the Ukraine should be solved only within the so called “common economic space”.

The Polish oil processing concerns (unlike the Government in Warsaw, which is obviously led by political rather than by economic considerations) do not demonstrate any particular interest to the purchase of light Caspian oil. The reason thereof is that the Polish oil processing works are fit for the processing of Russian oil “Urals” and cannot efficiently process a different type. Furthermore, the evaluation of Polish experts shows that the price per 1 ton of Caspian oil in Brodi (i.e. at the Ukrainian – Polish border) would be USD 40 more than the price of 1 ton of Russian oil at the Byelorussian – Polish border (Adamova Zastava).

Meanwhile, the USA and the countries from the so called “new Europe” continue working for the restriction and gradual elimination of Russian political and military presence in the Black Sea region and in South Caucasus. The so called “color revolutions” in Georgia and the Ukraine were successfully accomplished. In Moldova all possible effort was made to solidify the authority of President Voronin (of course, after the latter decided to proclaim himself against Moscow). In parallel, the issue of the withdrawal of Russian military troops from these countries is being solved. As I already mentioned, the elimination of Russian military bases in Georgia will be accomplished by the end of 2008. In its turn, the Ukraine has already declared that it will not extend the contract for the renting of the Russian military and naval base in Sevastopol, which elapses in 2017. The Council of Europe and the USA insist on the withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova as well. In the same context should be regarded the US efforts (supported by some Western European countries) for the solution of Georgian – Abkhazian, Georgian – Osetian and Pridnestrovian conflicts by means of rendering the unacknowledged Abkhazian, Osetian and Pridnestrovian republics back within Georgia and Moldova.

To this end particular measures are adopted with a view to the restriction of Russian negotiation capabilities in the process of searching for solutions of these conflicts. This is mostly done by means of expanding the format of these negotiations through the involvement of the EU in negotiations on the Pridnestrovian and the “Group of friends of the UN Secretary General” in the negotiations on the Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and on the future of Abkhazia.

The appearance of the so called “Boden plan” and the Geneva mechanism, which grant leading role to the “Group of friends”, is also aimed at the weakening of Russian positions as an intermediary and proves that political pressure over Abkhazia will surely continue to grow.

It is highly indicative that in such a context we once again witness the resurgence of the concept for implementation of a number of oil-related projects on the territory of Abkhazia with the participation of US oil company Adarco and the Russian Lukoil, which was granted permission by the Government in Tbilisi to develop oil fields in Abkhazian shelf, in the region of Ochamchira and Gudauta. This situation brings memories of the scenario for the establishment of the Azerbaijani oil consortium, in result of which eroded Russian strategic interests in South Caucasus. In the case of Abkhazia, Lukoil, which aims at quick profit, could also help make this republic a strong competitor to Moscow.

In general, the situation in Abkhazia looks rather dangerous although the aggravation of the rivalry between Russia and the USA (and the West in general) for domination in the region, provides the autonomous republic with certain possibilities to solidify its status of an independent country. This is further proven by the developing cooperation of Moscow and neighboring regions, joint social programs and projects for re-establishment of communications and transport links, carried out by the Russians on Abkhazian territory. After all, this can lead to the transformation of this republic into a major Russian base in the South Caucasus.

* Bulgarian Geopolitical Society