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Cheney's Aims In The Caucasus

Steve LeVine
Steve LeVine
As the United States and Russia continued their diplomatic sparring over Moscow's war with Georgia, Washington announced that Vice President Dick Cheney would visit the region in early September. Cheney would become the most senior U.S. official there since the war erupted early last month. His itinerary should take him to Georgia -- which hosts two major energy pipelines -- and includes stops in energy-rich Azerbaijan and Ukraine and Italy.

RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Moore asked author Steve LeVine, a former "Wall Street Journal" correspondent and author of a recent book on Caspian Sea energy, "The Oil and the Glory," whether Cheney's trip be about energy security as much as about showing U.S. support for Georgia.

Vice President Cheney is to visit Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine, plus Italy. The White House says the trip was in the works before Georgia's war erupted. Whatever the original reasons for the travel, is the trip now about showing U.S. support for Georgia, or is it as much about energy security and U.S. influence in the region?

Steve LeVine: I would say it's both. The U.S. needs to -- if it cares about its influence in that part of the world, and Western influence as a whole -- needs to plant a flag, It's not good enough to make pronouncements out of Washington or even to send the secretary of state. When you send Dick Cheney that's a very important message. And the capitals he's going to are very interesting, He's being sent to the capitals that are regarded as "one": the state that was just hit by Russia and "two": more that are regarded as possible next points of vulnerability, Kyiv and Baku.

RFE/RL: And this is also a man who's also been a tough critic of Moscow, who has accused Russia in the past of using energy to blackmail its neighbors.

Levine: When you send someone like Cheney, you're demonstrating, you're underscoring that the concern goes all the way to the top. This was the guy who masterminded really, maybe the biggest mover of all on the attack on Iraq, on the very hard-line policy on torture. The most controversial policies that the Bush administration has, Cheney has been the most aggressive mover on those. So if you have Cheney going, that says the hard-line favors this and it's a message that someone like [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin will understand.

RFE/RL: The White House says he'll be visiting "key partners" in Europe and Asia. Is the inclusion of Azerbaijan also a further indication that the trip will be in a large degree about energy, energy security?

LeVine: I would say definitely energy is part of the equation. I think people make a mistake when they identify oil [as the key issue]. Oil is an instrument from which the United States achieves its aims in that region. What are its aims? Its aims are to deny Russia full sway over its backyard. So, by providing Azerbaijan and Georgia an independent oil pipeline and natural-gas pipeline to the West, they deny Russia complete dominance of this region that has been their playland for 200 years. And Baku [is] the oil capital of the whole region and the beginning of both the oil and gas pipelines to Turkey, that is, traveling through Georgia and then on to Turkey.

RFE/RL: The past few years have seen efforts by Europe to free itself from dependence on Russia for energy. What does the war in Georgia mean for those efforts?

LeVine: From Western Europe all the way across in an arc going through the Caucasus and on to Central Asia to the edge of western China, the capitals of those states are all thinking about what happened in Georgia and their reliance on Russia, their vulnerabilities to Russia. They will decide depending on what happens, whether they need to do more accommodation of Russia, whether they want to continue to be in bed with Russia. Germany has decided that Russia is a strong strategic partner of it. That starts with natural gas. It is a partner in Russia's natural-gas pipeline plans to build new natural-gas pipelines into Europe. One question is, "Does it make them reconsider?" and the other is, "Does it make these countries change their plans?" We don't know that yet, but what we do know is that Russia has come out very much on top and in my view that means all of these states will have to make new accommodations with Russia.

RFE/RL: What about other planned pipelines that are designed to avoid Russia and bring energy to Europe -- what are their chances now in the wake of this war?

LeVine: I think that Nabucco [which would link Central Asia gas suppliers to Europe, bypassing Russia] was already probably dead, but if it wasn't dead or if it's possible to kill a corpse, this did it. There simply is no chance that Nabucco is going to materialize. The reason is that the countries from which that gas would have to originate, Turkmenistan for example and even Azerbaijan, are not going to do anything that is going to irritate Russia. They're going to think twice before they're going to do that. Nabucco is a direct challenge to Russian influence. it's just not going to happen and anyone who talks about it now is just foolish.

RFE/RL: In a recent article you wrote that the U.S. could try and use Russia's energy strength against it to curb its actions in the region -- could you elaborate on that?

LeVine: Much has been said in the last two weeks after Russia's invasion of Georgia that its petropower is so strong, that really the West doesn't have any levers to stop it, to curb it and to enforce Western interests in that region. That's wrong, in fact the West does have levers, and it is that very Russian petropower. Russia right now supplies 30 percent of the natural gas that Europe uses every year, and it wants to cement that reliance, Europe's reliance and demand for that natural gas, by building two new natural-gas pipelines, Nord Stream and South Stream, into Europe.

Those pipelines travel through several countries in Europe in which the U.S. has strong diplomatic influence, Bulgaria, Hungary, Austria, Serbia. Serbia for example desperately wants to be a member of the EU, that's why it handed over [war crime suspect] Radovan Karadzic to the courts. So what the West ought to do, what the U.S. ought to do, is freeze their support for, their participation in Nord Stream and South Stream, but especially South Stream, and tell Russia we're going to keep these on hold till we get a couple of things. There's no doubt this is a very powerful lever with Russia, these two pipelines. The problem is the West doesn't know what it wants.

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