The Guardian February 2, 2000

The new Great Game:
US imperialism and Caspian Oil

On November 18, 1999, President Clinton was in Istanbul  as four 
countries signed a major new "intergovernmental declaration of intent". 
After years of US pressure, intrigue and bribery, the regimes of Turkey, 
Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan agreed to build a new 1,200-mile 
pipeline from the Caspian Sea oil centre of Baku to the ship-loading oil 
terminals of Ceyhan in southern Turkey.

If this pipeline project goes ahead, oil that was once the most valuable 
resource of the former Soviet Union will reach the world through facilities 
controlled by US imperialism and its allies.

In the 1992 Gulf War, the US tightened its control over Persian Gulf oil. 
Now the US is determined that any major new oil fields being opened to the 
world market will also be controlled by the US.


The US is not interested in Caspian oil to supply its own internal 
industry. The US is grabbing for control of the Caspian oil fields because 
other countries need this oil  and because the US wants to control them.

Other imperialist rivals  including Germany and Japan  are "energy 
poor" and need access to oilfields outside their borders. Most Third World 
countries are heavily dependent on imported oil.

Opening up the Caspian Sea oil under US control will also give the US more 
power over the Persian Gulf and Arab states in world affairs. It will have 
more power to play oil-producing countries off against each other.

In addition, by depriving Russia of any control over these oil fields, the 
US would be delivering a major blow to the possible re-emergence of Russia 
as either a socialist or even a capitalist power.

For all its fine words, the US ruling class has no intention of allowing 
Russia to become an imperialist rival, like Europe and Japan. US long-term 
strategy is for the breaking up of Russia  its Balkanisation.

"The US strategy toward Russia is aimed at weakening its international 
position and ousting it from strategically important regions of the world, 
above all, the Caspian region, the Transcaucasus and Central Asia"  
Russian Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev.

The Caspian Sea contains two huge sets of oil fields. One stretches 
underwater, east of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. The other is the 
Tengiz oilfields  far away on the Caspian's northwest shore in 

In addition there are massive amounts of natural gas scattered throughout 
the Caspian region.

Vast oil reserves

The known reserves of Kazakhstan alone are larger than the oil fields of 
Nigeria or Libya, but the unexplored oil may be as much as five times 
larger  putting Caspian oil fields in the same league as the fields of 
Iran or Kuwait.

With the success of the Russian Revolution of 1917, the oil-producing 
countries of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan became republics within the Soviet 
Union. Their oil was a key resource for the creation of the world's first 
socialist economy.

By 1989, US imperialism had long been plotting to carve off the Soviet 
Union's whole Central Asian tier of non-Russian republics, and their oil 

With the overthrow of socialism, the former Soviet republics of the Caspian 
region declared independence and US imperialism went into high gear.

The British imperialist poet Rudyard Kipling talked of the "Great Game"  
the intense struggle during the late 1800s between Russian imperialism and 
British imperialism to control the resources and people of Central Asia, 
from Afghanistan to Turkey.

After 1989, imperialist planners everywhere started talking about "the new 
Great Game".

Like arrogant conquerors, a consortium of 11 major oil corporations set up 
outposts on the Caspian. Atlantic Richfield, Chevron, Exxon, Mobil, 
Pennzoil, Philips Petroleum, Texaco and especially the new Anglo-American 
"powerhouse" BP Amoco spent billions of dollars buying up Soviet-era oil 
interests and drilling rights.

Political scheming

The Clinton White House set up a high-level "interdepartmental working 
group"  run by the National Security Council  to oversee the larger 
geo-political US takeover of the Caspian Sea.

But the Caspian Sea is landlocked, and far from any of the world's 
industrial centres. This oil must be transported out of the region by 
pipeline, through politically explosive and contested areas. Whoever 
controls the pipelines will ultimately control the oil.

Russia proposed to build a new northern pipeline parallel to the old 
pipeline from Baku to Novorossisk and to expand companion pipelines from 
Tengiz to Novorossisk.

Iran proposed a southern pipeline over its territory  from Baku to the 
Iranian oil terminal on Kharg Island. This route would make the Caspian Sea 
into a hinterland of the Persian Gulf  and would secure the position of 
Iran and other Persian Gulf countries in the centre of the world oil 

Some oil companies supported this Iranian plan because the Iranian route 
was estimated to be the cheapest. They also argued that this pipeline would 
give them more power within Iran  strengthening imperialist control over 
that important country.

The US  and specifically the Clinton White House  was determined to 
oppose any "north/south" pipelines. The White House adopted a plan, cooked 
up by long-time ruling class strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski, to create an 
"east-west" pipeline which would bypass both Russia and Iran.

The US-proposed pipeline would start in Baku and travel west through 
Azerbaijan. It would deliberately take a detour around Armenia, a Russian 
ally. The pipeline would circle into Georgia, and then travel southwest 
across Turkey, ending in a port near Ceyhan on the eastern Mediterranean.

US planners also propose a second pipeline  for natural gas  traveling 
over 1,000 miles from Turkmenistan to the Turkish city of Erzurum.

Turkey would play a pivotal role in this US plan, and not just because 
Caspian oil would be passing through Turkish territory.

In the manoeuvring to develop the Ceyhan pipeline, Turkey's Government and 
military has been assigned the task of infiltrating and politically 
influencing Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan  the "Newly Independent States" 
(NIS) that will be producing the oil.

Turkey was chosen for this because it is considered a "reliable ally" of 
the US and Germany  it is firmly dominated by US and German imperialism 
and overseen by a fascist military that operates within NATO.

In addition, the majority population of Turkey is closely related  by 
language and culture  to the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, including 
the peoples of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

For five years, the US pressured the Caspian regional governments to 
endorse the Baku-to-Ceyhan route and pressured the international oil 
monopolies to finance it.

Meanwhile, it renewed its support for the Turkish Government's military and 
political campaign to suppress the Kurdish people  whose lands in Turkey 
are designated as the route for the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline.

Strategic interests

"For the oil companies, the chosen route must be profitable. But for the 
Clinton administration, the prime concern has been strategic"  New York 
Times, November 21, 1999.

From the beginning, the major oil monopolies of the world had deep 
misgivings about the White House plan for a Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, which, on 
paper at least, they were expected to finance.

They were concerned that the Baku-Ceyhan route was the most expensive route 
proposed  possibly exceeding US$4 billion, almost twice the estimated 
cost of the Baku to Kharg route, proposed by Iran.

The oil companies were also concerned that the volume of oil passing 
through the the Baku-Ceyhan route might not be enough to make it profitable 
 especially if oil prices stay low and other pipelines are also built in 
the Caspian region.

In November 1998, Russia, Kazakhstan and Chevron agreed to build a US$2 
billion pipeline from Tengiz to the Russian port of Novorossisk. Would the 
larger Tengiz oilfield send its oil out through Russia, leaving the Ceyhan 
route with only the Baku output?

The US Government was determined to bring the oil companies "on board", 
saying that there were global, geo-strategic interests at stake here  
specifically, who would control the energy resources of the world.

First, the US Government simply and firmly ruled out any Iranian pipeline. 
They announced they would not lift their embargo on Iran and would not 
allow US companies to participate in any major projects there. That was the 
end of the Iranian pipeline.

Then the Russian plans for the northern pipeline "suddenly" ran into huge 
problems: War broke out in Chechnya, a border area of Russia where oil from 
Baku travels on its way to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossisk.

The war as suddenly extended into Dagestan in August 1999  just as the 
aging Baku-Novorossisk pipeline broke down and the Russian oil corporations 
were trying to move Baku's oil through Dagestan by rail.

Plans for northern Russian-controlled oil pipelines have been torpedoed by 
this fighting  during exactly the time frame when the oil companies have 
to decide on which pipeline to begin building.

The Russian Defence Minister says the US wants the "permanent smouldering 
of a manageable armed conflict" in the region. Clearly, the war in Chechnya 
was very useful for US plans in the Caspian.

Meanwhile, with US support, a new pipeline was opened between Baku and the 
Georgian port of Supsa in April 1999. This pipeline will carry the Baku oil 
that was previously passing north through Chechnya and Dagestan.

The opening of the Supsa pipeline means that oil will be able to flow out 
of Azerbaijan  regardless of whether Russia regains control of Chechnya 
or not.

This Supsa pipeline is small, and cannot carry the massive output expected 
by 2004  but it will handle much of the production until the Ceyhan 
pipeline is in place.

The new Supsa pipeline is especially useful in providing for the oil needs 
of Ukraine, and helping the US pry this large country further away from 

Finally, the Turkish Government cynically announced that it had 
"discovered" major environmental problems with letting huge oil tankers 
pass through the Bosphorus straits  the mouth of the Black Sea which 
Turkey controls.

In other words, Turkey is threatening to stop oil-tankers from using 
Novorossisk, which quickly made investors wary of building a pipeline that 
ended there.

After all these developments, the only pipeline that seemed practical was 
suddenly the US-backed Baku to Ceyban route. The oil companies and the 
Caspian oil-producing countries had been presented with "an offer they 
could not refuse".

* * *
The second and final part of this article will be published next week.

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