For the (Western) news cycle, what stood out from United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Russia this week was an “appeal for cooperation” and a “challenge” for Russia to open up its political system, embrace “diversity” and shelve Cold War thinking.

Who’s fooling whom? One might be forgiven to picture a torrent of laughter echoing in the Kremlin’s corridors – later washed down with prime Stoli vodka – especially considering Washington’s current poor standing in the world, as well as those usual suspects, “Western values”; and the fact that Russian intelligentsia has been pointing out for years that it is Washington hawks who are still in fact mired in the Cold War. Such a pity that Iran hawk Hillary did not cross paths with chess master Vladimir.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had better things to do – he was away in Beijing for a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In Beijing, Putin bluntly told the US not to intimidate Iran, stressing that more sanctions were “premature”; what was needed was an “agreement.” Hillary was thrown by judo expert Putin – and she did not even see it coming. Yet Hillary still had time to spin on American TV that if the “international community” approved more sanctions on Iran, Russia would follow.

That’s not what Putin – or Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – said, or what the leadership in Beijing thinks.

Lavrov, although slightly more diplomatic than Putin, defined sanctions as “counter-productive.” That’s still essentially Putin – and Beijing – thinking. As for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, he may have implied no opposition to further sanctions – but as a last resort, and way, way further in the future, not by the imminent December deadline flashing red in Washington’s minds.

Lavrov went straight to the point, saying, “We want to resolve all issues relating to Iran’s nuclear program, so that that country can make full use of its rights as a non-nuclear member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and of all opportunities arising from this connected with the use of peaceful nuclear energy.” This means “all efforts should be employed to maintain the negotiating process” – and not advance a US/European deadline threat enveloped by the usual demonization of Iran campaign.

Putin plays Pipelineistan

As the architect of Russian gas monopoly Gazprom’s seduction of China, Putin had more urgent things to do in Beijing than to listen to Hillary carping in Moscow. It was no understatement when he said, “China is a colossal market. The diversification of supplies is a very important direction for Gazprom.” More than anyone, Putin knows that the name of the (New Great) Game is Pipelineistan.

Gazprom is bent on full strategic cooperation with Beijing. It’s not only about Pipelineistan spreading to China – one pipeline from western Siberia, ready by 2015, another one from eastern Siberia, requiring a lot of Chinese investment. The plan includes the expansion of joint projects in Siberia and even in other countries.

This falls under what is known across Asia as the Asian Energy Security Grid. A key element of the grid is what the Russians have called the Eastern Gas Program – gas Pipelineistan from production to transportation, coordinated by Gazprom, not only to China but to all points across the Asia-Pacific. Another front is the East Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline.

Much has been made of a Moscow-Beijing rift on pricing (Putin dismissed it, announcing an imminent agreement to set gas prices according to an Asian oil basket). Anyway, that’s just a technical issue. On a geopolitical level, the juiciest morsel is that Gazprom is wiling to commit to China almost half of the gas volume it is currently exporting to Western Europe – and this while the Chinese are also finishing a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan. Unlike oil – 4 million barrels a day – China still does not import a lot of natural gas. But it will – because it needs it, and Russia knows it.

It’s not all roses, though. Alexander Lukin, director of the Center for East Asian and SCO Studies at Moscow State University for International Relations, warns, “Russia will become nothing more than a raw materials appendage of China – just as it has already become for Europe.”

What’s the bottom line – for the moment? No further US-led sanctions against Iran is a key consensus of the SCO, which interlocks Russian, Chinese and Iranian interests – Iran is an observer of the SCO. For the SCO, the importance of an Asian Energy Security Grid is paramount. (See New Great Game revisited, Asia Times Online, July 25-26, 2009).

This goes directly against the Pentagon-driven, full spectrum dominance-style, US hegemonic designs on Central Asia and Iran. It was Putin who floated the idea of Iran enriching uranium in Russia in the first place – now a palpable way out for the Iranian nuclear impasse. As for Hillary, she could do worse than drown her own carping in vodka.