While Sarah Palin was in St. Paul, Minn., on Wednesday firing up Republican voters with promises of oil and gas pipelines and energy independence, the man she hopes to succeed was addressing the same concerns thousands of miles away. Vice President Dick Cheney, on a tour of former Soviet Republics, was working to shore up U.S. alliances in the wake of Russia's military humiliation of Georgia a mission whose outcome could have profound consequences for Washington's efforts to maintain and expand the flow of oil and natural gas to the West while bypassing Russia.
Speaking in Georgia on Thursday, Cheney slammed Russia's "illegitimate, unilateral attempt" to redraw the country's borders and promised ongoing support for Georgia's efforts to join NATO. The Vice President's trip was accompanied by a $1 billion aid package announced in Washington Wednesday, for the purpose of rebuilding Georgia's shattered economy and infrastructure. Still, the Russian campaign in Georgia has dramatically altered the geopolitical equation in the Caucasus, and it may take more than Cheney's signature tough talk to stiffen the spines of allies chastened by the Georgian experience. For many of those former Soviet satellites leaning westward, the lesson of Georgia has been the inability of the U.S. to save an ally emboldened to challenge Moscow once Russia sends in the tanks.
Upon arriving in Azerbaijan on Wednesday, Cheney told the people of that country and their neighbors in Georgia and Ukraine that "the United States has a deep and abiding interest in your well-being and security." But the $1 billion reconstruction aid package may also signal the limits of what the U.S. can do for those on Russia's doorstep who choose to tangle with Moscow. Sure, the U.S. can help rebuild Georgia's economy and provide humanitarian relief for those displaced by the fighting, but the package offers nothing for Georgia's military, whose destruction was a primary aim of Moscow's incursion. A military aid package may come later, but clearly the Bush Administration is leery of openly provoking Russia, which has warned against moves to rebuild Georgia's military. The same logic prevailed at NATO's "emergency" meeting on Georgia on Monday, which concluded with no substantive response to Russia's ongoing presence on Georgian soil.
Cheney's itinerary alone has provoked anger in Russia. The fact that the most hawkish member of the Bush Administration has been sent to Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine is cited in Moscow as evidence of an ongoing U.S. scheme to encircle Russia. Still, Cheney's tone has been measured. The current pattern of U.S. deployments and commitments elsewhere in the world make it implausible for the U.S. to become the military protector of countries such as Ukraine and Georgia at this point, even a military attack on countries already enjoying full NATO membership and the right to invoke its Article 5 requiring military aid from all alliance members would severely test NATO's ability to deliver on its core commitments.
It may be couched in the rhetoric of the Administration's "freedom agenda," but the key concern in Cheney's visit and of U.S. foreign policy in the Caucasus and Central Asia over the past two decades is Western energy requirements. (Indeed, some of Cheney's first meetings in Azerbaijan were with the local heads of BP and Chevron, to discuss the energy situation in the Caspian region in the wake of Russia's action.) The reason for concern is obvious: Georgia is the integral transit route of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that pumps Caspian Sea oil from Azerbaijan to the Turkish port of Ceyhan while bypassing Russia. And, of course, Azerbaijan is the source of the oil and gas coursing through that pipeline.
Denying Russia control over all energy shipments from the region to the West has been a core bipartisan foreign policy objective of the post-Soviet era, and Russia is just as eager to prevent that from occurring its current control over much of Western Europe's energy supplies gives it considerable diplomatic leverage over much of the European Union. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S.-Russia relations in the area have been driven less by a "freedom agenda" than by a "Great Game" of energy pipeline politics. And the Georgia debacle was an announcement that the rules of that game have changed.
Russian President Dmitri Medvedev on Sunday sketched a five-point foreign policy. Among its tenets were claims that Russia would protect Russians and their business interests "wherever they may be" and that Moscow claimed "privileged interests" in the traditional sphere of influence around its borders. Of course, he emphasized that Russia rejects the notion of U.S. primacy in the current world order.
This strident reassertion of expansive Russian interests in former Soviet territories, unapologetically pushing back against U.S. influence, poses an acute dilemma for Azerbaijan. The government in Baku has performed a delicate balancing act since the 1990s, maintaining good relations with both Washington and Moscow. The post-Georgia situation may force President Ilham Aliyev to choose sides, something the country has avoided for more than a decade. And the Russians on one hand, and the U.S. and its allies on the other are both dangling inducements. The Russians, for example, are offering to buy Azerbaijan's natural gas at market rates, rather than the long-term fixed rates negotiated in the Western contracts. But Baku is currently on track to become a major direct supplier of natural gas to Western Europe via the Nabucco pipeline, which would run gas all the way from the Caspian to a major natural-gas hub in Austria. For Azerbaijan, the choice will not simply be commercial; it could carry epic geopolitical consequences.
Thus far, Aliyev has not shown any interest in selling its gas to Russia rather than the West. It remains to be seen whether the new enmity between Washington and Moscow changes Azerbaijan's orientation. Cheney will certainly have done his utmost to keep it in the U.S. orbit. The problem, of course, is that Azerbaijan is bordered by both Russia and Iran, and is loathe to be drawn into U.S. conflicts with either country. Chances are, Aliyev will avoid making any firm commitments for as long as he can.