Whatever the West may have thought about it, Russian President Vladimir Putin has already spectacularly preempted this weekend’s Group of Eight (G8) summit in St. Petersburg with his own bit of Pipelineistan news. Putin announced in Shanghai on June 15 that “Gazprom is ready to support the construction of a gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan and India with financial resources and technology.”
He was referring to a fabled US$7 billion, 2,775-kilometer, 10-year old project – an Iranian idea – which should now be finished by 2009, developed by Gazexport, a Gazprom subsidiary. As a result, by 2015 both India and Pakistan should be receiving at least 70 million cubic meters of natural gas a year.
Thus the two top global gas producers – Russia and Iran – reached a strategic partnership abiding not only by their own interests but the interests of India, Pakistan, China and part of Central Asia, something that spells nothing less than an auspicious economic future for a great deal of Asia – independent from any American interference. Washington was not amused.
Not surprisingly, everyone else in the region begged to differ. For Iran this represents the coveted Pipelineistan way to the east. India will save at least $300 million a year. Pakistan will receive as much as $600 million a year in transit fees. The pipeline will inevitably be extended to Yunnan province in China. No wonder the announcement was made at the annual meeting of the Chinese-inspired Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
The Russian masterstroke is to divert the bulk of upcoming Iranian gas exports to Asia – while Russia is still negotiating a very complex and very lucrative deal with Brussels to supply the European Union. Tehran and Moscow have reached a remarkable agreement. Putin and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad will be working in tandem. In Shanghai they all but decided to consult on all matters regarding gas prices and the new routes of Pipelineistan. Control of prices plus transportation routes obviously spell out a gas OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) just around the corner (Putin though was careful to dub it just “a joint venture,” not a cartel).
In practical terms Gazprom (See The Gazprom nation Asia Times Online, May 26) Now, a decade and a half after the end of the Cold War, the US and Russia’s lines of friction are startlingly similar: Eastern Europe, the Black Sea basin, Ukraine, Moldavia, Georgia and Iran. Sixty years ago, the Soviet Union offered Iran an energy partnership. Now Moscow is offering not only a nuclear partnership – building the nuclear reactor in Bushehr – but still an energy partnership, in the manner of selling its own gas wealth the most profitable way for both sides.
Putin is an accomplished chess player. Accusations of heavy-handedness – on civil liberties and on energy policy – aside, the Kremlin does not need a confrontation with the “colonialist” West (the qualification is Putin’s). What it needs is to find the best use for the massive financial flows that are pouring over Russia. The Russian weekly Vlast identifies “a new Russophobia in the West, hypocrite and erroneous.” The Russian response is to challenge the West to accommodate to its own terms. The Kremlin calls its own internal experiment “sovereign democracy.” As the Kommersant daily put it, “the West must answer to a series of ultimatums posed by Russia, including its refusal of European rules on the energy market, it particular position regarding Iran and the assurance of non-intervention on Russian internal affairs.”
Putin’s message to the G8 is loud and clear: we’re back. And this Gazprom nation, also reveling on oil at $75 a barrel, and rising, is doing things its own way – like exterminating, with perfect timing, public enemy number one, Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev, or banishing homeless people, street vendors, intellectuals and opposition voices from St. Petersburg ahead of the G8 summit. There’s virtually nothing the West can do about it. Russia is not struggling to be part of “the West” anymore; it has evolved its own system, and not unlike the Middle Kingdom, at the center of the system lies the Kremlin.
Preemption is the (Russian) name of the game. Russia’s strategic partnership with China has been solidified via the SCO. On the ultra-sensitive Iranian nuclear dossier, Moscow’s game is extremely flexible, and all about nuance, as are Russia’s relations with the Islamic world. It is charging market prices to both Ukraine and Georgia for its gas. And sooner – rather than much later – the gas OPEC with Iran and Central Asia may be a done deal.