BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Paul Mason
« Previous | Main | Next »

Hold on, how did this become the "pipeline war"?

Post categories:

Paul Mason | 09:16 UK time, Monday, 11 August 2008

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".

As far as I can see from this Google search, the words "pipeline war" were first used by the Daily Mail on 9 August in a now much quoted article "Russian Bear Goes For West's Jugular".

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.


  • Comment number 1.


    It wasn't all that long ago that the Soviet Union fell and the Cold War ended. Russia was in a mess and many new countries were created on the basis of the boundaries of each of the "socialist republics" that made up the old USSR.

    Only the Baltic States had any history of independence in the last 100 years or so. More significantly it meant that the boundaries of these new states did not necessarily reflect the wishes of all the people who found themselves in the newly independent states. And in this case it appears that most of the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia do not consider themselves to be part of Georgia.

    As Russia has recovered from the mess of the break up of the USSR on the back of their oil and gas wealth, they have once again begun to try and exercise more influence. This is hardly surprising and the West for its part has opposed this growing Russian influence. It seems that our leaders are intent on starting a new Cold War rather than build a better relationship with a recovering Russia, which would be a far better option. It is in the interests of the West to have a friendly and stronger Russia but this fact is lost on our leaders. After all, don't we need their oil and gas?

    Clearly the West was playing with fire by encouraging Georgia's ambitions. Georgia sees the West as their ally in their disputes with the populations of South Ossetia and Abkhazia who by all accounts do not wish to be part of Georgia. This crisis is therefore largely of the West's own making as we did not reign in Georgia from provoking Russia by invading South Ossetia.

    I am also concerned at the comments of the American Vice President Dick Cheney which seem designed to inflame the situation. Russia can point to the attacks on their own peace keepers in South Ossetia and their citizens for justifying their counter attack, which is far more than the USA and Dick Cheney can point to in trying to justify their invasion of Iraq!

    In conclusion Paul, I think you have clearly shown the weakness of the West's muddled thinking in this area of the world. The West has no Plan B and Plan A, encouraging Georgia as an ally and giving them the green light to apply to join Nato was very seriously flawed in the first place.

  • Comment number 2.

    oil market flat so they ain't worried. in fact wars are good for the economy and the stock market is up.

    now troops are involved one might suspect the price of peace will be a russian client state. who is going to stop them? why should they stop?

  • Comment number 3.

    There's Steve LeVine's Georgia, Russia and Rethinking China.. Think it's a bit self-promoting but worth a look.

    One of the earlier comments on that blog links to Radio Free Europe's pages, more specifially Yulia Latynina's take on the fighting and more on Russia's endgame.

    It does look like some have been playing Chinese whispers with Georgia..

  • Comment number 4.

    I would like to point out that if Russia secures the pipeline through Georgia, it will control all oil that runs into Europe, in essence a monopoly supply. This renders the mobility of NATO redundant at the command of the Kremlin.

    Georgia was a weakness to US policy and Russia are battling for their right to survive in the 21st century.

  • Comment number 5.

    edit - in capturing the pipeline from Azerbijan it does not secure monopoly, as there is a supply in Norway, although Finland has already been threatened with invasion, as 'with Russia or against Russia', and Russia requires total control of oil supply to European nations and militaries if it is to win a war in a European theatre.

  • Comment number 6.


    Iran - Strait of Hormuz, Russia - Georgian pipelines.

    They're allies.


More from this blog...

Latest contributors

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.