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Chechnya: Pipeline Still Plays Significant Role

  • Michael Lelyveld

In the first Chechnya military campaign launched five years ago, preserving the Caspian oil pipeline route was seen by analysts as one of Russia's goals. The current war started under different circumstances but RFE/RL's Michael Lelyveld says a secure pipeline route through Grozny may again be the ultimate prize sought by Moscow).

Boston, 20 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In late December 1994, within days of the first Russian attacks, Western experts pointed to the strategic importance of the Caspian pipeline route running through Grozny. Russia's attempt to retake control of Chechnya by force came less than three months after the first Caspian offshore oil deal was signed.

Russia analysts, including Harvard University's Marshall Goldman, believed at the time that the pipeline played a part in Moscow's decision to launch its offensive in Chechnya. Later events supported the view that the route from Baku to Novorossiysk through Grozny was one of the biggest prizes of the war.

Even with the cease-fire 21 months later, negotiations over pipeline reconstruction, transit fees and security remained sticking points that consumed months of negotiation. The war was rekindled this past August after Chechen incursions into Dagestan and a series of apartment bombings. But it also followed months of tension over the pipeline, which was shut down for most of the year due to illegal tapping on the route.

Western commentators have now drawn attention to the Grozny pipeline route again as Russian forces encircle and storm the ruined capital. Although the pipeline and Grozny's refinery have reportedly been bombed, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Russia's oil route through the Caucasus still plays a significant role.

The attempt to build a bypass line around Chechnya was one of Moscow's first orders of business after it moved to secure the border of Dagestan. The Russian drive toward Grozny also came with the expected signing of pacts in Istanbul last month to build the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, bypassing Russia. Moscow cannot hope to control the Caspian without control in the Caucasus.

The continuing importance of the route was underscored earlier this month by Russian General Boris Gromov. At a conference at the Moscow Institute for International Affairs, Gromov said that "during the Istanbul summit the main question of the transport route for Caspian Sea oil was settled to Russia's disadvantage, and this was the basic reason for the first Chechnya war."

But on the fifth anniversary of the last war, it is also worth noting how many analyses have been off mark.

Most experts did not believe Russia's estimates that it could repair the Chechnya pipeline quickly and cheaply after the first war. But in a relatively short time, it was up and running again. It is unclear whether Moscow now has similar plans if it captures Grozny. But past experience raises the question of whether Russia would again rebuild the old line and abandon work on the bypass for the second time.

Analysts have been repeatedly fooled about Moscow's intentions during the current war. Reports first suggested that the Russian military would draw a "sanitary cordon" around Chechnya but not risk casualties by crossing into it. The next theory was that troops would stop north of the Terek River rather than try to take positions on more treacherous terrain.

It was also widely-held that Russia would only fight a "smart" war in Chechnya following NATO's example in Kosovo. All these analyses have been short-lived as troops and tanks have poured into the territory.

In the past week, Russian commanders have sent a series of confusing signals about the strategy for capturing Grozny, vowing first to encircle it and then denying reports that they have sent forces in to attack.

The entire operation has belied earlier signals that Grozny no longer holds any value, since Russia had decided to move the capital to Gudermes, which it has already secured. Chechen fighters were apparently not fooled by the signals, taking up positions in Grozny rather than retreating to the hills.

Yesterday's elections for the State Duma may well motivate the Kremlin to deliver Grozny as the symbolic prize that it was unable to capture during the last war that ended in 1996. But it is also worth wondering whether Russia's leaders also have their hearts set on the oil route through Grozny, the cursed corridor from the Caspian that still competes with U.S.-backed plans.

Understanding Moscow's motives may be critical to predicting what will happen after the election. A prolonged war seems certain to lead to further frictions with the West. Recent reports suggest that Russia now plans to keep large forces in the Caucasus permanently. Such a presence is likely to be aimed at controlling oil transit as much as winning elections or defeating Chechen rebels.

If that is the case, the war may be a test of what Moscow is willing to pay for Caspian oil.