Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Russia's Energy Lesson

What a sad set of events have unfolded over the past few days. You may not know it from the news coverage, but there is a new war in town -- Russia has been bombing and has troops on the ground in the small nation of Georgia (a former part of the Soviet Union by force that broke away in 1991).

This development is very serious and deserves far more attention than it has received. Russia is using force to restore its control over countries and resources that it lost with the fall of the Soviet Union. We are seeing no less than the beginning of an effort to re-construct the "Evil Empire".

And everything about this move has to do with energy. Georgia has access to important oil pipeline infrastructure and Russia is bent on controlling it and squeezing off energy supplies to Europe whenever it wants anything from them.

If this is not a clear sign of our need to develop our own secure, domestic energy infrastructure, I don't know what is! I hear over and over the pundits of AM radio screaming about how "oil is freedom" Well, take a good look at what 'freedom' is doing to the independent state of Georgia!

I'm sorry, but oil - as efficient of a fuel as it is, is located in ALL THE WRONG PLACES in this world. Isn't that a hint that we should depend more on our own ingenuity and less on the graces of the greedy?

I know my blog is about pragmatism -- and this topic is not an exception. I'm not saying we should turn our backs on drilling and finding new domestic sources of energy. Clearly, we must. But we CAN NOT continue to delude ourselves into thinking that we can continue to make deals with the devil AND be a free people. It doesn't work that way. It never has.

So just maybe Paris Hilton has it right? We need to drill AND we need to massively develop alternative energy -- all of it (nuclear, wind, solar, geo-thermal, biogas, etc) so that we do not have to continue to stand by and watch Russia eat up surrounding nations, watch the Saudis continue to hand out $ for extremist terrorists and fund the very empire that will hold us hostage for energy.

Would Luke Skywalker fund the construction of the Death Star? No. And neither should we!!

Below is a terrific excerpt from a blog I found that provides detailed background on the whole Russia, Georgia history and the role of oil. I highly recommend reading the entire post -- which you can see by clicking on the blue entry listing below.

From 'green with a gun' blog, entry: "Georgia, Russia, the West - checkmate"
Russia, Gazprom and oil
Russia has aspirations to return to the Great Power status it once had, both under the Tsars and under the Communists. As I described in talking about India and nuclear weapons, a "Great Power" is a country whose economic and military might is such that it cannot be ignored in world affairs. Australia or Belgium can be ignored; the US or China cannot. For most of the 1990s Russia had effectively lost its Great Power status. It is now reclaiming it. Part of this is waving a stick at its neighbours, neighbours who were once part of Mother Russia - or the Soviet Union.

But this is not mere prestige we're talking about. Being a Great Power lets your people have more than their fair share of world resources. The US, for example, has 4.5% of the world's population but consumes about 24% its oil - the USA's Great Power status means that Americans can eat burgers, drive SUVs, and watch lots of tv. Russia was never as well-off as that, but it's better-off now than it was in the 1990s, and its people and government aspire to more.

So these two things tie in with each-other, the military and the economic. And they mean that control over resources and where they flow to is very important. Russia's shown itself adept at manipulating this. For example, the Russia energy company Gazprom supplies something like three-quarters of Eastern Europe's natural gas, and overall about a quarter of the EU's natural gas. If the EU pisses off Russia, Europeans face a cold winter. Russia has already shown itself ready to turn off the tap, as it did with the Ukraine and Belarus.

You can see, then, that the US and EU are rather keen not to have to rely on Russian goodwill to keep the oil flowing out of Central Asia. If they rely on Russia for oil or for natural gas, then if Russia switches one off it hurts a lot but they can change to the other, but if Russia controls both, they're stuck. Russia has them not merely by the balls but also the throat. Russia can then dictate not only prices, but to some degree foreign policy. "Yes, dear EU, you can support airstrikes on our friends in Iran, but you will gain a new appreciation of your white Christmas, as you're walking out in the cold past your unfuelled cars."

Chokepoint #2, Georgia
The EU and the US have looked for a way out. From the Central Asian republics the oil - and any gas they find with it - can flow four ways.
  • through Russia, which option they cannot accept
  • through China, which would be technically difficult and extraordinarily expensive (it'd have to go through desert western China, and then on tankers all the way round to Europe again), and anyway by the time the pipeline got built the Chinese would want the oil for themselves, their consumption is increasing madly
  • through Afghanistan and Pakistan. This was part of the motivation for the US/NATO invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, but those two countries are simply too unstable for pipelines to be built or survive - the Afghans cannot even secure their main prison in their capital, with several hundred prisoners escaping
  • through Azerbaijan, and then by some route to the Mediterranean.
Having no other option, they chose the last. From Azerbaijan the pipeline could go south to Iran, but this just transfers the problem from Russia to Iran - one country controlling a huge chunk of the EU's oil supply. It could go west to Armenia, but Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a war over an Azerbaijaini enclave within Armenia for six years, and though they've signed a ceasefire, they've not signed a peace treaty, and are still technically at war (like North and South Korea).

That left going northwest to Georgia, and then into Turkey and thus to the Mediterranean through the port of Ceyhan. Of course Georgia faces two armed insurrections, one in Abkhazia and the other in South Ossetia. Russia supports the insurgents essentially to keep a country which used to be part of Mother Russia under its thumb. But until recently there'd been no major fighting for a few years. It also passes through Turkish Kurdistan, where the Kurds have been fighting for independence for decades (and they have it in fact but not in name in Iraqi Kurdistan, thanks the West's two wars against Iraq). Altogether, not brilliant, but... really that route seemed the best of a bad lot. Better than any of the alternatives, and better than nothing. And so we have the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.

The BTC pipeline
This was built just last year. It can carry about 1.5 million barrels a day of oil, but currently carries just 800,000 bbl/day. It was built with extra capacity because the Azerbaijainis hope to increase production, and in any case the EU - who with Japan and the US paid for it - hope to get oil from the Central Asian republics in future years.

With the background so far, you can see why the BTC pipeline is so important to the West. With oil exports from the Persian Gulf declining over the next decade or so, Nigeria in a mess, Venezuela unfriendly, that leaves the Central Asian republics.

The BTC pipeline was already damaged last week, probably in an attack by Turk-Kurdish rebels, as discussed here.

On an oil pipeline, the most place most vulnerable to attack is the pipe itself, which can be ruptured with relative ease, and of course it's impossible to protect 1,700km of pipeline. However, while easy to rupture it's also easy to repair - you'd get a loss of pressure for half an hour until they found where the rupture was, then it'd be down for a few hours until they repaired it. Little effort, but little gain for the saboteur. But pipelines have pumping stations, these are large, relatively easier to defend, but if struck the line will be down for days at least, depending on the level of damage.

As for saboteurs, so for conventional warfighting. If in the course of the conflict pumping stations are destroyed, the oil flow stops. And while the fighting's still going on, nothing will be rebuilt - just ask the Iraqis, where more than five years after the invasion Baghdadis reckon they're doing well if they get six hours of electricity a day.

What's Russia up to?
Nothing more nor less than asserting and creating its Great Power status. It's not for nothing that last year they resumed patrols of nuclear bombers, flying close to Britain and to Guam.

There are many ethnic and historical issues behind the Georgia-Russia conflict. The Ossetians feel a kinship with Russia more than with Georgia, Georgia was set for NATO membership next year, putting a NATO country directly on Russia's border, and Russia has long held sway over the entire Caucasus. And since the West went to war with a Russian ally in Serbia to secure the independence and self-determination of the Kosovar Albanians, they can hardly complain if Russia goes to war with Georgia to secure the same for the Ossetians. But really that is not important: for the world and for Russia it all comes down to energy, to controlling the flow of it. Russia has chosen an effective means of controlling the flow of oil from the Central Asian republics.

Russia has accomplished a strategic coup de main. The aim of most warfare is to present your enemy with a dilemma. For example, achieve air superiority against his land forces, and his forces can either sit still in bunkers and be encircled by your troops, or move and be bombed - either way they're screwed, it's a dilemma. Russia has presented the West with a dilemma - do nothing to help Georgia and lose BTC, or go to war against Russia and in the course of the conflict lose BTC.

1 comment:

  1. Glad you liked it! Given the focus of your blog, if you quoted anything I thought it'd be the last paragraph, where I point out that nobody ever went to war over wind turbines and solar panels. If we reduce, reuse and recycle, if we use renewable energy, then the source of a good chunk of conflicts in the world... well, we can safely ignore all that nonsense.