by Akhmet Makhmoudov (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 48, No. 12, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1441)
At the end of November 2019, Turkey and Azerbaijan formally marked the completion of the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) that will bring natural gas from the Caspian Sea to Western Europe bypassing Russia. Exactly one month later, the dictator of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev sat for an interview with the Russian state TV channel and explained like a little school boy how the new pipeline was in no way a threat or competition to Russia’s selling of energy products to Western Europe. This is one of the many signs that the TANAP project is not seen favorably by Moscow.
Aliyev’s statements that TANAP is not a significant competitor for Russian energy supplies to Europe are only partly correct. Most experts agree that without the Central Asian energy products, TANAP cannot significantly reduce Europe’s dependency on Russian energy products. However, it has established a viable infrastructure for a long-term game in cutting Russian profits from its solid foreign currency income from Europe. This is something the BP executive hinted at when talking to oilprice.com, saying that “the 10 Bcm/year into Europe is not a game-changer from a volume point of view, but it is a game-changer from a new source of product into mainland Europe perspective and it can be expanded.”
Moscow is not going to allow Central Asian states to join TANAP as this would harm Russia geopolitically and economically. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia tolerated energy business deals between the newly emerged ex-Soviet states and the West, if they did not cross certain red lines. Some of those red lines are strictly political in nature, like closely cooperating with NATO or cutting Russia from its profitable earnings in the West.
In the early-2000s, when Ilham Aliyev’s father, KGB General Geidar Aliyev, initiated the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline bypassing Russia, Moscow was busy fighting a war in Chechnya and was too crippled by the Boris Yeltsin era of mismanagement to do much about the BTC project. Even if it could, the Kremlin under the leadership of Vladimir Putin has a very pragmatic approach toward Central Asian regimes and allows them to earn money. The only condition is that the regimes can do business with the West, but not become their regional proxies.
Nevertheless, the finalization of TANAP and almost the simultaneous sanctioning by the United States of America of the Russian-European pipeline project called Nord Stream 2, is a sign of re-activation of geopolitical pipeline politics.
Unlike the early-2000s, the US and Russia are locked in a tense tactical, global standoff. Thus, Washington will do its outmost to hit Russia on a geopolitical and economic level in order to exert maximum pressure on Moscow for its role in setting up the multipolar world order where the US is simply one of the global players.
While it is not in Russia’s interest to have Central Asia’s energy resources to get connected to TANAP, it is in the interest of the US and Western Europe. Thus, the West will begin pushing the regimes in Central Asia and Azerbaijan to increase their energy supplies for the TANAP project. This will trigger a reaction from Russia and the tussle with the West will destabilize those regimes — a phenomenon not so negative, taking into consideration that those regimes managed to terrorize the local populations to such a degree that a homegrown uprising without an external factor is impossible.
Destabilization of Central Asia and the Caucasus does not benefit Russia, as all those regimes are pro-Russian and know well that to remain in power, they must not cross Moscow’s redline. However, their looted wealth is stashed in Western banks and without access to stolen assets, those regimes will not be able to buy the loyalty of competing local clans. While this sounds primitive, the regimes in Central Asia are feudal kleptocracies.
The West will not be the only party exerting pressure on Central Asian regimes, Moscow will do the same. In fact, just a few days after the TANAP project was inaugurated, a prominent Azerbaijani billionaire, Farkhad Akhmedov, who is a Russian senator and has avoided involvement in Azerbaijan’s internal politics, published a so-called political road map for Azerbaijan on his widely followed personal Facebook page. The well-known entrepreneur, who is heavily involved in the oil sector, immediately came under fire from the Aliyev controlled media outlets. Those familiar with local politics of the region fully understand that Akhmedov’s road-map proposal most likely came as a political signal from Moscow toward the Aliyev regime, to not bend to Western pressure and expand TANAP, otherwise Russia has candidates who could replace him.
Taking the above into consideration, the question arises as to what exactly the US will do to limit Moscow’s profits by bringing in energy resources from other parts of the world to the West. We will not engage in a guessing game; however, there are certain generalities that present themselves as obvious economic and geopolitical leverages NATO regimes will utilize in the renewed geopolitical pipeline game.
It should also be noted that Trump with a simplistic merchant’s understanding of state affairs will go about with the crudest and most obvious options. The West’s goals in the rehabilitated pipeline game will be to entice Central Asian regimes to connect local pipelines to TANAP and this will be done through lucrative financial offers. These offers will be made to benefit the ruling circles, rather than the regional states. Declining the West’s offer will lead to the freezing of their stolen assets parked in Western banks, but this will not be enough to compel them to ditch Moscow. In the former Soviet Union region, most regimes cannot remain in power if Russia adopts an active policy to topple them. Remaining in the Russian camp can cost the Central Asian regimes a lot of money and some domestic inconvenience but turning their back on Russia will cost them their hold on power and a life behind bars.
There is an array of soft leverages NATO regimes can employ against Russia’s well entrenched influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus. However, the toughest option would be to revive the pro-independence movement in the North Caucasus, which has been revitalizing itself organically over the past two years.
While a few months ago the option of destabilizing the North Caucasus would have been the least likely option to initiate, the upcoming multi-frontal war between Islamic Iran and the NATO regimes has made the scenario of destabilization of North Caucasus a lot more likely. This is mainly because Iran and NATO regimes are now entering a far more serious mode of cold-war style confrontation, in which Moscow will show greater political backing of Tehran. To create a significant cost for Russia in doing so, Washington will aim to destabilize Russia on the internal front in order to deflect its attention from external issues.
In the coming years, Central Asia will witness a far greater geopolitical activity in the region. How exactly it will play out is yet to be seen. Authentic Islamic movements are weak to have a serious impact of their own. Ironically, the interest of Western powers will converge with regional Islamic movements and NATO regimes will do their best to use them as a destabilization tool.