Monday, June 09, 2008

The United States & Turkmenistan: The 'Great Game' continues

"I think the fundamental issue of energy security is that you’re not dependant on any one route, on any one customer, or on any one investor. The market is the best guarantee of security, and having multiple export routes is the best guarantee of having access to the market. So, I think, in the end, what we talked about were prospects for exports in all directions, what are the prospects for some gas to go south. There is renewed interest, I know, in Pakistan, in the Trans-Afghan Pipeline. There is interest, obviously, in Europe in importing gas from Turkmenistan. We all know there are plans and programs to export gas to China and there are existing relations with Russia. So, having all these possibilities, I think, helps Turkmenistan have a secure set of markets, helps Turkmenistan get a good price for its gas everywhere it goes, and frankly helps the customers, too. Customers have more security because they have multiple routes to acquire gas. So energy security for Europe, for example, is important to us; it’s important to the Europeans. And that, again, is based on having multiple sources. So I think what’s good for the producers is actually good for the customers as well. So we were looking at all these things. The ultimate feasibility of these projects needs to be decided by companies and commercial considerations. Governments can look at what’s possible to facilitate, but, in the end, they have to be done by government…by commercial institutions, sorry.

QUESTION (in Russian): Ukrainform agency. You told that you discussed the human rights. So what particularly was discussed and do you see any improvements in this area?

"I think we’ve seen some improvements in terms of the ability to travel, ability to access the internet. They’ve let a lot of people out of jail. Some of them are people that were of concern. What we talked about is how to continue these kinds of changes, but also how to give the people of Turkmenistan more of a voice in their government – through elections, through powers of parliament – how to open up access to information, allow journalists to operate more freely: all these things that make for a modern information society, that allow people to participate in a modern economy".

United States Assistant Secretary of State for South & Central Asian Affairs, in Turkmenistan, 29 May 2008, in

According to some reports, and, it is clear from American Assistant Secretary of State Boucher's recent visit to the region, those (like myself) who declared last year that the 'Great Game' in Central Asia, was 'over' may perhaps have been premature. Contrary to my then surmise that Moskva was triumphant over the USA, EU and the China, in their combined competition over getting control of Central Asian energy, specifically oil and gas resources. And, the means of transporting them out of the region. As it did appear last year, when then Russian President, Vladimir Putin managed to get his Turkmen and Kazak counterparts, to sign accords which according to independent observers at that time, gave Moskva: "an unbreakable stranglehold over Central Asia's energy resources" (

Now according to some observers, it is Matushka Roissya who is on the defensive in the region, and, it is the USA and the EU which is on the diplomatic offensive (see in particular & "Western Diplomatic Offensive throws Russia on the defensive", in This alleged turn of events, begs two questions, which I would like to at the very least raise today, if not necessarily answer: a) is there an American, if not necessarily an EU offensive in the region?; b) and, if so, does such a maneuver by the USA make diplomatic and strategic sense?

On the first of the above questions the answer is quite evident: that contrary to most areas of the world, where the USA appears to be in a diplomatic holding pattern, Central Asia has seen in the last nine months, renewed energy and drive by official Washington. The negative side effects of the nearly destroyed relationship with Karimov regime in Uzbekistan in the region as a whole appears to be almost entirely gone. Quite clearly and indeed almost cynically so, Washington has decided it seems, that 'if you cannot beat them, join them'. Id est, that authoritarian regimes in the region are going to be around for awhile, and, there is no sense in trying to pretend otherwise. Hence the obviously empty platitudes issued by Mr. Boucher in the Turkmenistan capital less than two weeks ago about alleged 'improvements' in human rights. As well as similar noises elsewhere in the region. It now appears that for purposes of energetically trying to re-establish close ties with these rather nasty, brutish if not necessarily short (sorry Thomas Hobbes for that) dictatorships, the concepts in the air of 2004 and 2005 in American diplomacy, of the primacy of human rights over other policy considerations has evaporated into thin smoke. For Boucher, et. al., what now counts over almost every other consideration, is keeping the region's natural resources open to Western (aka American) control or at least access, rather than solely that of Moskva's Gazprom. As Boucher quite clearly stated a few months back:

"We are promoting multiple linkages to connect Central Asia to the world. Countries should never be left with only one option — one market, one trading partner, one vital infrastructure link. Central Asia is a landlocked region, far from major maritime trading routes. But it was once a crossroads of global trade and can be once again. Central Asia lies next door to some of the world’s most dynamic economic regions. The more options Central Asians have, the more choices they have, the more independence they have....Central Asia is clearly significant to our efforts to diversify energy supplies to Europe and the United States. We also consider the development and diversification of the Central Asian energy sector as a critical component in our broader strategy to create those multiple economic linkages that increase the independence of the Central Asian states and introduce market principles to the regional energy market. We are therefore working to facilitate multiple oil and gas export routes, including trans-Caspian routes, to increase the region’s stability and prosperity" (Richard Boucher, 8 April 2008, in

No one needed to be told of course, that the 'one option' mentioned by Boucher refers of course to Russia's current control of all of the energy transmission lines out of the region.

So, the question I believe can be answered in the affirmative: there is in fact an American diplomatic offensive in the region. Which leads immediately to the second question: does such a diplomatic offensive make sense? For some of course (Stephen Sestanovich, Zbignieuw Brzezinski, et cetera, et cetera), an anti-Russian diplomatic push, by the Bush regime is something overdue and long awaited. They say that only by throwing the American diplomatic weight on the scales, can Central Asia, throw-off the 'yoke' of Russian hegemony. To my mind, this is an absolutely wrong way of looking at this issue. To my mind a better manner of approaching this issue is the following: a) regardless of perhaps being able to obtain direct access to Central Asian energy resources, some day in the future (2010, 2015, 2020?) via a Caspian and other gas pipelines, the fact of the matter is the for the short-term (next five to ten years time), Russia will still continue to control almost all of the pipelines exiting the region to the West. Nothing can change that; b) even when the anointed day arrives when say the Caspian-Nabucco pipeline project will become a reality, and (say) Turkmenistan will be able to export a portion of its gas directly to the West, per se, the volume of gas being exported will be so low, as to not materially effect Gazprom's current market share in Western, Central and Eastern Europe. However much, many American diplomats would like to think otherwise; c) the costs involved in 'a' and 'b' above, are rather blithely ignored by our modern-day 'Great Game', strategists. What exactly are those costs you may wonder? They are as follows: Russian non-co-operation in dealing with Persia, in dealing with Afghanistan, among other things. Additionally, of course, such an overt American role, has the potential, to unnecessarily alienate diplomatically Matushka Roissya. All three issues have I would argue, a far higher importance than any hoped for gains to be obtained by the 'opening' Central Asia to American diplomatic influence. Finally, it is quite clear to me, if not necessarily to official Washington, that the real alternative to Russian 'hegemony' in Central Asia, is not some successful American project of Democratization and Western strategic alignments, but, in fact something infinitely worse, much, much worse than Russian influence, such as it is, but in fact, Chinese hegemony. A hegemony, which if it were to come about, would be infinitely more dangerous for Western interests and concerns than anything offered up by Moskva. Perhaps before Washington loses its head over its renewed interest in Central Asia, it will perhaps remember that salient fact. One only can hope so.


At 3:22 AM, Blogger Rational Calculation said...

Times of Asia has an insightful article published today about this article. If you don't have a subscription, I quoted much of the article on my blog.

I can't isolate a strong reason why this is directly in the interests of the United States, but the pipeline, etc is clearly an issue of importance for European nations and I would argue that they have pushed for this. But I do see the "combating Russian hegemony" idea as underlying it. The timing is obviously due to the change in leaders in Russia, as Boucher visited just as Medvedev was getting used to the presidency. I also suspect that Putin had a lot of clout over the region, and the US sought to take advantage of his relaxed role.

I think we are many years away from anything close to Chinese hegemony in the Caspian region as China has played little part in the politics you discuss. However, it seems that preemptive diplomatic action by the US would place it in a better position in the future to combat Chinese influence in the region rather than relying on an unpredictable and often unfavorable Russia. It would greatly surprise me if the US sought to alienate Russia within the region, and it seems these current efforts are more likely an attempt to slightly reduce its influence.


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