Foreign policy is a fickle and duplicitous beast. From reneging on promises made to allies (the Platt Amendment, for one) to treading over established borders (pretty much every country ever, not just China, the US, and other colonizers), there’s hardly a country that hasn’t pulled a shady move on a friend (or foe) here and there.
And then there’s the oil.
To say that oil causes many problems is an understatement. The fact that “oil war,” “petro-aggression,” and “resource curse” are terms in our lexicon is not a chance coincidence. Although we’re too polite to admit it, a significant amount of foreign interest (and armed conflict) in the Middle East (and elsewhere) results from its rich petroleum reserves. When it comes to oil for the United States in particular, what our foreign policy says and what our policy does are often two different things. And while it isn’t necessarily an issue if two (or more) nations are looking to get access to their “fair share” of oil reserves, it’s quite another when the area in question is already destabilized by prior intervention and/or struggles within the state for proper management and development of said resource. There’s a reason why oil and water don’t mix.
But what about the places that are, comparatively, rather serene?
The Caspian Sea is considered to be one of the most oil-rich regions in the world, and a “critical asset” to foreign nations in an increasingly petroleum-starved world. Despite political turmoil during the 21st century, the oilfields in the Caspian sea are carefully delegated and the borders are quite stable. Relative to size, Azerbaijan is the most petroleum-wealthy nation in the group.
The Caspian nations face an unfortunate disadvantage – the Sea has no nautical outflow. Like most nations, the Caspian countries have turned to pipelines to export their oil, with considerate success. In particular, western European nations have been recipients of Caspian oil, while the United States receives Latin American and Middle Eastern exports. Of course, greed begets more greed, so in 2008 the European Commission (the executive body of the European Union) began the Southern Gas Corridor initiative in order to link and “solve” the issues of “diversification of routes and sources of energy supply” in the EU, as well as “envisag[ing] the delivery of gas from Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz gas and condensate field to Europe.”
Naturally, Azerbaijan is delighted, especially with recent news that Turkey has more or less committed to the initiative and the first batch of oil will be produced within the next few years. While the new pipelines do not originate in Baku (as shown on the map), the current Baku-Erzurum pipline will be extended to the heart of Western Europe – with Shah Deniz gas as its primary supplier. As President Aliyev noted during a meeting with the Advisory Council, it was a fitting honor for the nation:
“Azerbaijan is known as the world’s first oil-producing country. It happened in the middle of the XIX century. At the same time Azerbaijan is the first country producing oil in the sea in the middle of the 20th century. For this reason, the history of the oil industry of Azerbaijan is very rich. I would also note that [80% of the Soviet Union’s oil production in World War Two] was produced in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani oil workers made a great contribution to the victory over fascism. Perhaps, if there was not the Azerbaijani oil, the results of the Second World War would be different.”
However, it seems that the results of petro-politics aren’t really ever different: while Southern Gas Corridor spans a large swath of planned development paths, Russia is notably omitted from all Corridor designs. While nobody could predict the unfortunate circumstances that the Russian oil-based economy finds itself in currently and the EU maintains that the new corridor “does not jeopardize Russia’s position as the main supplier in Central and Southeast Europe,” the EU is sending a strong statement to its increasingly unstable neighbor. In response to the exclusion, Russia signed an agreement with Turkey in late 2014 to build the Turkish Stream pipeline, a new route that bypasses Ukraine and other nations to reach Western Europe. It is unclear exactly why Russia waited nearly seven years to sign a deal that essentially undercuts the Corridor – perhaps economic, perhaps otherwise – but Azerbaijan certainly isn’t worried.
It is a pure political effort to block Azerbaijani gas from getting into the Europe and to control its flow,” explained former US Ambassador to Azerbaijan Matthew Bryza.
“If Azerbaijani gas was not important we would not have seen such an initiative from Russia.”