Azerbaijan, Natural Gas, and the Reluctance of Europe: Two Cure the Third

Politico carried a piece on the Southern Gas Corridor pipeline from Azerbaijan into Europe (and bypassing Ukraine and Russia) this week, as a new diplomatic reality dawns in Eastern Europe. The story hits on the importance of Azerbaijan as natural gas supplier to Europe, especially in light of the evolving geopolitics of the former Soviet Union (a theme this site has discussed at length — here, here, here, and here, for example). Politico reports:

And while Washington is caught up in debates about hastening U.S. gas exports to weaken Vladimir Putin’s energy dominance, Azerbaijan maintains that its pipeline is the only shovel-ready means of giving Europe an alternative supply in the next few years.

“It is a hard-to-miss conclusion,” said Elin Suleymanov, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the U.S. “There is no other ready-to-go step at the moment.”

But the pipeline has its share of challenges — including the region’s always-tricky geopolitics and the risk that Russia could set out to undermine the project if it senses a threat to its interests.

Still, the pipeline has drawn interest from members of Congress and has received public backing from top officials in the State Department. Secretary of State John Kerry gave the project a brief public shoutout this month at an energy security meeting in Brussels, while the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, Richard Morningstar, has been a big proponent of the pipeline since heading the Obama State Department’s special envoy for Eurasian energy.

“The United States, and specifically this administration, has put in an enormous amount of effort to see this project through and to make sure that it is in the place that it is today,” Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Diplomacy Amos Hochstein said Wednesday. At the earliest, the pipeline will be completed in 2018, a timetable Hochstein called “ambitious.”

Suleymanov said his country isn’t looking for U.S. government assistance to build the pipeline but thinks the United States could be more vocal in championing the project. “Without U.S. leadership, things often don’t happen,” he said.

Although Azerbaijan is being cautious about the strategic import of the pipeline, as Politico notes, and even though the earliest natural gas can arrive in Europe will be 2018, it is time now to do what should have been done a decade ago and begin dismantling Vladimir Putin’s strengths. The last year has shown that Putin perceives that his strengths are paired with Western weaknesses; if the West is to seriously contest with him, it must become serious.

It is a common simplification that the Soviet Union ran on tanks, while Russia runs on petrochemicals. In fact, the Soviet Union thrived on high oil and natural gas prices in the 1970s, and was unable to match American strength and power projection (a fatal failing) in the 1980s when those prices collapsed. What this means is that Russia has spent decades in various incarnations building up its oil and natural gas export facilities and investments — in market access, physical infrastructure, and bribing/hiring Germany’s political class to work at Gazprom.

Europe is divided on Russia’s seizure of Crimea and bullying of Ukraine for many reasons, but foremost among these is Russia’s petrochemicals. Gazprom and the rest of the Russian state petrowealth apparatus provide between fifteen percent and one hundred percent of various European economies’ natural gas and oil needs. This is the inevitable result of a continent that has not taken its energy security seriously. If the West is to break past this, truly the most formidable of Russia’s power projection capabilities, it will need help from multiple directions, and it will be even now a project of years.

Some of this can come from natural gas reserves in Scandinavia (Norway would be able to offset a Russian shutoff to some extent as would the United Kingdom). Some can come if the United States lifts its ridiculous restrictions on natural gas export and develops LNG terminals in friendly countries. But much can come from Russia’s backyard, from a Western ally with European aspirations and an opposition to Russian tyranny.

Azerbaijan has spent two decades bringing its enormous reserves online (a situation that has hastened in the last decade). Its commitment to democratic norms, free markets, and to closer ties to Europe are a perfect counterpoint for Russia’s imperial march. Its trillions in proven reserves of natural gas can make a large dent in Gazprom’s power, and with Gazprom, Russia.

Yet this is not the only benefit of this project, for it is designed not merely as a single pipe, but rather a network feeding into Turkey and Southern Europe. Israel, which is finding enormous natural gas reserves (and which is on friendly terms with Baku), will likely be part of this project. Central Asian states can add their contributions as well. In time, Russia will be just one competitor among many — a good development for Russia and the West.

It is not too much to say that Brussels and Washington have been completely outmaneuvered by Russia’s moves in Ukraine. It is time to end this imbalance and bring their far superior power to bear — even indirectly, by aiding a small country that could be the key to breaking an ancient power’s bid for renewed empire.

Image Copyright FreeVectorMaps, via Politico