The Politics of Caspian Oil

The New Great Game
Blood and Oil in Central Asia
By Lutz Kleveman

(First published in The Massachusetts Sierran, Winter 2003/4, Volume 9, Number 4)

Back when there was a Soviet Union, the northern end of the Caspian Sea was a national wildlife refuge sheltering over 350 species, including sturgeon, Caspian seals and numerous migratory birds.

Koshbakht Yussifzadeh, the Soviet geologist in charge of the region, wanted to drill for oil in that wildlife refuge.

“I flew to Moscow and applied for an authorization to do a test drilling at Kashagan. The lady colonel in charge of the matter declined the request categorically. ‘Only over my dead body!’ she said. Today the lady colonel is dead, and the foreign corporations are drilling at Kashagan. No one mentions the environment anymore,” says Yussifzadeh.

Today, Yussifzadeh is the vice president of the national oil company of Azerbaijan. He remains profoundly uninterested in environmental impact.

Global warming takes a back seat
The consequences of pumping and burning fossil fuel—global warming and ecosystem devastation—are of negligible significance to the careers of politicians now in office in Central Asia. Changing this fact would not merely require an electorate determined to halt environmental devastation. It would require nations in which government is responsible to an electorate that wants to end global warming and ecosystem destruction. As it is, national leaders have little incentive to do so.

For today’s statesmen, the looming crisis is not environmental devastation. It is the threat of rapidly rising and wildly fluctuating oil prices. To avoid this economic threat, China, Europe, and the United States are locked in a high-stakes competition for control of Caspian oil. And Iran and Russia are only the most aggressive of several nations vying to profit by controlling the pipelines.

The race for Caspian oil
There is oil in abundance in the Caspian region. Kashagan, the largest oilfield in the Caspian, is only one of many oil fields in Kazakhstan, a nation that just a few years ago was one of the poorest and most backward regions of the former U.S.S.R. On the western shore of the Caspian lies the city of Baku, Azerbaijan, where oil wells that have been pumping crude since the 1870s still contain billions of barrels.

Across the Caspian from Baku lies Turkmenistan. Deciding which of the new Caspian states is more corrupt would be hard, but Turkmenistan would be a strong contender. Turkmenistan probably has somewhat less oil than Kazakhstan. I write probably because test drilling here is so recent that good figures are not yet available.

The problem is that the Caspian, a sea the size of California, is landlocked. So Caspian oil and gas can only be turned into money by pouring it through a pipeline. But every route from the Caspian to market runs through one or more of the most politically unstable nations on earth. Kleveman’s compelling book takes us to each of those nations.

The politics of pipelines
You can get some idea of the scope of the problem by beginning where Kleveman does, with the simplest case: Azerbaijan, where oil has flowed for decades through a pipeline to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk.

For Azerbaijan, this route has two great drawbacks. It makes Azerbaijan dependent on its hated former colonial master, Russia. And it runs through Chechnya. The Azeris may feel a certain Muslim brotherhood with the Chechens, but this does not override the risk of pumping oil through an active war zone.

A better route would run in a straight line from Baku to the deep-water Mediterranean port of Ceyhan on the Turkish coast. Unfortunately, such a pipeline would run through Armenia. In a bitter and bloody war marked by large-scale ethnic cleansing during the 1990s, Christian Armenia wrested the Christian Armenian majority province of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan. The Azeris Kleveman interviewed expressed eagerness to renew the jihad against Armenia. Cooperation on a pipeline is out of the question.

The pipeline to Ceyhan is, however, being built. It will take a wide detour through Christian Georgia and eastern Turkey, where Kurdish sentiment for independence from Turkey is strong. This is an expensive route not merely because it is so long, but because much of the way the pipeline will be buried several meters deep to lessen the risk of sabotage.

No good guys in this game
Kleveman’s book is a splendid introduction to the nations of the region, as well as to the politics of Caspian oil, but it is not always a reliable guide. Kleveman’s profound, almost visceral distrust of American power regularly leads him to misstate fact.

Kleveman writes, for example, of an “Iran Air passenger plane shot down for no apparent reason by the American battleship U.S.S. Vincennes in 1987.” Actually, while the incident was indeed a tragedy, there was a reason.

The Vincennes was in the Persian Gulf because of reports that Iran was positioning Chinese-made Silkworm missiles near the Strait of Hormuz in a bid to control oil supplies. On the morning of July 3, three Iranian gunboats fired on one of Vincennes’s helicopters. The Vincennes returned fire. Five minutes later, the Vincennes detected an aircraft taking off from the civilian-military Bandar Abbas airport. The ship radioed seven warnings to the plane, which apparently went unanswered. The ship’s log shows that the Vincennes identified the plane as an F-14 approaching at an altitude of about 7,000 feet and descending.

The New Great Game is both a great read and an eye-opening introduction to the realpolitik of oil. It is weakened only by Kleveman’s failure to perceive that Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia, and other nations are at least as willing as the United States to lie, cheat, steal, and kill in the competition for oil.

Diana Muir, a regular contributor to the Sierran, is working on a new book on the role of overpopulation in history.