Hold on, how did this become the "pipeline war"?
7 August: After a week of serious skirmishing Georgia signs a ceasefire with South Ossetian rebels. 8 August: Georgia attacks South Ossetian capital. 9 August: Russian 58th Army counter-attacks and retakes Tskhinvali, and steps up air strikes on Georgian territory; at this point the words "pipeline war" are first used. Shortly afterwards people begin to ask me (and in some cases tell me) whether this is a "war for oil".
Various blogs have taken up this theme as have other media outlets around the world. Today the Guardian's Jonathan Steele hit back with an analysis entitled "This is no pipeline war but an assault on Russian influence".
What are the facts about the pipeline and its role in the conflict? I've been trying to dig them out...
The Baku-Ceyhan pipeline was opened in 2006, is 1,768km long and according to BP, the lead company in the consortium which runs it, buried throughout its length. About 1m bpd of oil is transported (the world's total consumption is less than 90 million barrels per day so this is significant but not earth shattering to lose; its value is more for the diversification it brings to oil supply and of course as a route for the Caspian Sea oil industry).
The pipeline was the subject of early post-cold war diplomacy with Turkey as the lead player: Russia boycotted the project after it became clear the route would not pass through its territory; the USA insisted no pipeline could pass through Iran. Between Iran and Russia there is only the highly unstable Caucasus region and in 1993 the basics of a deal to build a pipeline there were laid out. Because Turkey was the lead player, and hosts the longest stretch of the system, its historic rival Armenia also got excluded, so if you look at the route of the pipeline it bends to avoid Armenia.
After various treaties in the next decade the project was launched in 2002 and completed in 2006. It is 30% owned by BP with the state oil company of Azerbaijan owning 25%, US company Chevron 9%, Turkey about 6% and another 7 companies owning less than 10%.
The much smaller Baku-Supsa pipeline runs directly through the conflict zone. This is a Soviet era pipeline that has been upgraded and reopened in June 2008 with a reported capacity of 115,000 barrels per day.
(UPDATE: Here's a map).
As for attacks on the pipelines: the Daily Telegraph ran a detailed report of a single strike; which has been reprinted in the New York Sun. The attack appears to have been made with submunitions. 51 impacts were counted by local police:
"Deep craters pockmarked the landscape south of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, in a Y-shaped pattern straddling the British-operated pipeline. The attack left two deep holes less than 100 yards either side of a pressure vent on the pipeline. Shrapnel of highly engineered munitions littered the area, but there was no visible damage to the pipeline."
Georgia's cabinet was told on Saturday that Russian troops had begun shelling pipelines (this would suggest the northern, Supsa pipeline which runs near Gori in the war zone).
Russia has begun a naval blockade, which would prevent the lifting of oil and gas from the Supsa terminal. Russian aircraft have attacked the Black Sea port of Poti, "destroying" it according to Georgian officials. This attack appears to have been carried out by an entire squadron (8 to 11 aircraft) so was presumably significant to the Russians. However I have not found any reports of attacks on Supsa itself.
The theory of a new "oil war" in the Caucasus as the prime motivation for Russia's stance is, as with Iraq, not sufficiently complex to encompass the totality. What is interesting is how quickly people have jumped to the conclusion that this is "about a pipeline"; including people I have spoken to in the past 48 hours who have little knowledge of the wider geo-politics of the Caucasus.
There are, as we will no doubt explore on Newsnight, wider geo-political issues at stake.
The pipeline seems to me simply the physical symbol of the west's dilemma in the Caucasus : if you choose Georgia as your ally and give them the green light to start the Nato application process you hand a high-value card to any Russian president who wishes to call your bluff; similarly if you spend two decades and $4bn creating a pipeline that symbolically diversifies the west's oil supply while antagonising Iran, Russia and Armenia (and, by the way, skirting the Kurdish region of Turkey) you have to have some kind of plan B if one of the parties excluded decides to have a go at it. Also a Plan B if one of your allies decides to launch an all out attack on a disputed territory defended by Russia.
This, it appears from the divergent responses of Nato and P5 foreign ministries so far, is what clearly does not exist. The USA may have a clear diplo strategy in Georgia but Nato as a whole clearly does not.
NOTE: As I am relying on secondary sources for all of this, of course I am open to correction. Likewise I may have missed something out. Hit the comment button.