Russian seizure of Georgian pipeline has dangerous implications

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Baku pipelines: Supsa and Ceyhan. [Wikimedia]

Taras Nazarenko urges Europe to wake up and notice Russia’s new weapon: seizing its neighbours’ pipelines. 

Taras Nazarenko is an independent Ukrainian political analyst and commentator.

The Russian border guards stationed by the Kremlin on the perimeters of Georgia’s breakaway, pro-Russian enclave of South Ossetia, have moved the enclave’s border markers further into Georgian territory.

The expanded border gives South Ossetia, which has declared itself an independent state, and its Russian backers, control of a mile-long stretch of the Baku-Supsa pipeline. That is the line that transports oil from Azerbaijan’s capital Baku through Georgia’s Black Sea port of Supsa to Western markets. 

The Russian seizure has implications for other countries in the region with pipelines that skirt Russian territory. Azerbaijan, for example, has a line that runs close to Nagorno-Karabakh, an Azerbaijani enclave that Russian-backed ethnic Armenians seized in a war in the early 1990s.

Azerbaijan has declared its intention to get the enclave back — by force, if necessary. One of the dangers of a new war is that the pipeline could fall into the Russian-backed separatists’ hands.

Russia’s seizure of the Baku-Supsa pipeline has important economic and political dimensions.

Pipelines are an important source of revenue for Georgia, a poor country with a limited industrial base. Tbilisi makes hundreds of millions of dollars in transit fees a year from Baku-Supsa and other pipelines crossing its territory.

An important line besides Baku-Supsa is Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, which sends oil from Azerbaijan through Georgia’s capital Tbilisi to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. From there it is sent on to Europe and the world.

Russia had two economic goals in mind when it seized the Baku-Supsa pipeline. One was to hurt the Georgian economy, which remains defiant toward Moscow after losing the 2008 war against the combined forces of Russia and separatists from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another pro-Russian enclave.

Controlling even a small portion of the Baku-Supsa pipeline means the Russians and South Ossetians can steal the oil flowing through it.

Not only would this deprive Georgia of revenue, but it would also give the South Ossetians income to continue building the separatist state they declared after their military victory. That income would mean Russia would have to provide less aid to South Ossetia.

Georgia could stop the flow of oil before it got to the Russian-held section of the pipeline, of course. But it would then have to get the oil to Supsa by truck or rail — a much costlier proposition than using a pipeline.

The political dimension of Russia’s seizure of the pipeline involves another attempt to intimidate Georgia into dropping its determination to join the EU and NATO.

Former Soviet territories like Azerbaijan and Georgia raised the Kremlin’s hackles when they built oil and gas pipelines skirting Russian territory — because Moscow cannot control the pipelines. That gave those countries more leverage to pursue their own, non-Russian-influenced foreign policies.

Russia has long used its abundant oil and gas, and the fact that most pipelines in the region cross Russian territory, as a way to intimidate its former republics into succumbing to its will. It has also used the threat of cutting off gas flowing through pipelines from Russia to Ukraine and Western Europe to intimidate both the Ukrainians and the continent.

It irritates Russia that Tbilisi continues to defy the Kremlin’s attempts to bully it into abandoning its plans to join the EU and the Western military alliance.

Seizing part of the Baku-Supsa pipeline is a way for Moscow to up the political ante on Tbilisi.

It is also a message to other neighbours that have built pipelines in order to loosen Russia’s political grip that Moscow has a counter strategy.

Russia has used a number of weapons to try to bend its neighbours to its will in recent years.

They include taking over vital segments of a neighbour’s economy, as in Armenia; cutting off gas, as in Ukraine; fomenting political unrest, as in Ukraine and Moldova; abducting other countries’ nationals, as in Estonia; and provoking war, as in Georgia.

Seizing a pipeline is just the newest weapon Moscow has come up with to bully its neighbours, which it still sees as its vassals two and a half decades after the demise of the Soviet Union. As Europe supports new regional initiatives to diversify its energy supplies, it must react to such tactics with tough words and toucher actions, or their viability might also be in jeopardy. 

Russia is way behind the West, Japan, China, South Korea and other countries in developing innovative technology. But it is the world leader — hands-down — in coming up with innovative ways to intimidate its neighbours.

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