Pipeline of Greed

U.S. Imperialism and the "Great Game" for Caspian Oil

Revolutionary Worker #1035, December 19, 1999

"A Cocktail of Oil and Politics--U.S. Seeks to End Russian Domination of the Caspian"

New York Times headline, November 20, 1999

"It is not just another oil and gas deal, and this is not just another pipeline. It is a strategic framework that advances America's national security interests. It is a strategic vision for the future of the Caspian region."

Bill Richardson, U.S. Energy Secretary, November 18, 1999

"Steal an apple, they call you a thief.
Steal a country, they call you an emperor."

old saying

"Note to schoolteachers: Find the Caspian on the map, draw a circle around it, and show it to the children. Twenty years from now, or perhaps even 10, some of them may find themselves deployed there."

Paul Starobin, "The New Great Game," National Journal,
Washington magazine for U.S. policymakers


On November 18, 1999 President Clinton was in Istanbul, Turkey--as four countries signed a major new "intergovernmental declaration of intent." The grins on imperialist faces showed that this was a major step in U.S. plans to seize the oil fields of the Caspian Sea.

After years of U.S. pressure, intrigue and bribery, the regimes of Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan agreed to build a major new 1,200-mile pipeline from the Caspian Sea oil center of Baku to the ship-loading oil terminals of Ceyhan in southern Turkey. If this pipeline project goes ahead, oil that was once the most valuable resource of the former Soviet empire will reach the world through facilities controlled by U.S. imperialism and its allies.

In the 1992 Gulf War, the U.S. tightened its control over Persian Gulf oil. Now the U.S. is determined that any major new oil fields being opened to the world market will also be controlled by the U.S.

The U.S. is not interested in Caspian oil to supply its own internal industry. The U.S. is grabbing for control of the Caspian oil fields because other countries need this oil--and because the U.S. wants to control them. Other imperialist rivals--including Germany and Japan--are "energy poor" and need access to oilfields outside their borders. Most Third World countries are heavily dependent on imported oil.

Opening the Caspian Sea oil up, under U.S. control, will also give the U.S. more power over the Persian Gulf and Arab states in world affairs. It will have more power to play oil-producing countries off against each other.

In addition, by depriving Russia of control over these oil fields, the U.S. would be delivering a major blow to plans of the Russian ruling class--to re-emerge as a world class imperialist power. Cheap Caspian oil was crucial for operating the military bloc that the Soviet ruling class built after restoring capitalism in 1956. Losing that strategic oil would threaten today's Russian imperialists with a permanent demotion--one they will not tolerate without a fight.

The intense bombing of Chechen villages is only one of several operations being carried out by Russian imperialism to keep its hand in the Caspian region.

The U.S. move into the Caspian is a power move that threatens and provokes other big powers. And at the same time, it is a sinister threat to the masses of people throughout the world.

This is a power grab by an oppressor who is determined to enthrone itself as the "single global superpower" well into the next century. It is an imperialist move to control the lives, resources, labor and future of hundreds of millions of people. *****


@BODY LEFT = "The U.S. strategy toward Russia is aimed at weakening its international position and ousting it from strategically important regions of the world, above all, the Caspian region, the Transcaucasus and Central Asia."

Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev

The Caspian Sea contains two huge sets of oil fields. One stretches underwater--east of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. The other is the Tengiz oilfields--far away on the Caspian's northwest shore in the country of Kazakhstan. In addition there are massive amounts of natural gas scattered throughout the Caspian region.

The known reserves of Kazakhstan alone are larger than the oilfields of Nigeria or Libya--but the unexplored oil may be as much as five times larger--putting Caspian oil fields in the same league as the fields of Iran or Kuwait.

With the success of the Russian revolution of 1917, the oil-producing countries of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan became republics within the Soviet Union. The oil pipelines there all ran north--into Russia. From 1917 to 1956, this oil was a key resource for the creation of the world's first socialist economy. During World War 2, Hitler tried to seize the oil of Baku--and during this adventure his armies received their decisive defeat in Stalingrad. After capitalist forces seized power in the Soviet Union in 1956, the Caspian oil became a glue holding together their empire and social-imperialist war alliance.

After 1989, the Soviet Union collapsed and its central Russian republic slipped into economic crisis, political turmoil and military disarray. The former Soviet republics of the Caspian region declared independence. The oil and natural gas of the Caspian came "up for grabs." U.S. imperialism had long been plotting to carve off the Soviet Union's whole Central Asian tier of non-Russian republics, and their oil reserves. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S. imperialists went into full gear.

The British imperialist-poet Rudyard Kipling talked of the "Great Game"--the intense struggle during the late 1800s between Russian imperialism and British imperialism to control the resources and people of Central Asia--from Afghanistan to Turkey. After 1989, imperialist planners everywhere started talking about "the new Great Game."

Like arrogant conquerors, a consortium of 11 major oil corporations set up outposts on Caspian shores. Atlantic Richfield, Chevron, Exxon, Mobil, Pennzoil, Philips Petroleum, Texaco, and especially the new Anglo-American "powerhouse" BP Amoco spent billions of dollars buying up Soviet-era oil companies and drilling rights. The Clinton White House set up a high-level "interdepartmental work group" --run by the National Security Council--to oversee the larger geo-political U.S. takeover of the Caspian Sea.

The intrigue that followed has been done with very little public awareness in the U.S. These are operations worked out within the U.S. ruling class. U.S. imperialism made its moves using oil companies, semi-secret delegations, military connections and all kinds of funding of pro-western media. For ten years now, high-level networks of U.S. agents have been expanded, trained and activated throughout the countries of Central Asia.


"The game's called pipeline poker. The Caspian is crazy. It's landlocked. We can drill all the oil you'd ever need. But can we get it out?"

Texas oilman in Baku's "Ragin' Cajun" bar

"We cannot help seeing the uproar stirred up in some western countries over the energy resources of the Caspian. Some seek to exclude Russia from the game and undermine its interests. The so-called `pipeline war' in the region is part of this game."

Russian President Boris Yeltsin, 1998

The oil corporations are spending billions--producing oil rigs and hiring large numbers of people to extract oil from the Caspian Sea. But, when the millions of barrels start flowing out of the Caspian, how will they reach the world market?

The Caspian Sea is landlocked, and far from any of the world industrial centers. This oil must be transported out of the region by pipeline--through politically explosive and contested areas. Whoever controls the pipes ultimately controls the oil.

Russia proposed to build a new northern pipeline parallel to the old pipeline from Baku to Novorossisk--and to expand companion pipelines from Tengiz to Novorossisk.

Iran proposed a southern pipeline over its territory--from Baku to the Iranian oil terminal on Kharg Island. This route would make the Caspian Sea into a hinterland of the Persian Gulf--and would secure the position of Iran and other Persian Gulf countries in the center of the world oil economy.

Some oil companies supported this Iranian plan because the Iranian route was estimated to be the cheapest. They also argued that this pipeline would give them more power within Iran--strengthening imperialist control over that important country.

The U.S.--and specifically the Clinton White House--was determined to oppose any "north/south" pipelines. The White House adopted a plan, cooked up by long-time ruling class strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski, to create an "east-west" pipe which would bypass both Russia and Iran.

The U.S. intends to strip Russia of control over this oil. And the U.S. wants the Caspian oilfields to be completely independent of the Persian Gulf--to diminish the importance of Persian Gulf states in the world economy.

The U.S.-proposed pipeline would start in Baku--traveling west through Azerbaijan. It would deliberately take a detour around Armenia--a country allied with Russia. The pipeline would circle into Georgia, and then travel southwest across Turkey. Most of its length would be through the Kurdish areas of Turkey--where there has been ongoing armed struggle against the Turkish oppression of Kurds. And the pipeline would end in a port near Ceyhan on the eastern Mediterranean.

U.S. planners propose a second pipeline --for natural gas--traveling over 1,000 miles from Turkmenistan to the Turkish city of Erzurum.


Turkey was put center stage by this U.S. plan in two ways: First, Caspian oil would be passing through Turkish territory. Second, in the maneuvering to develop the Ceyhan pipeline, Turkey's government and military has been assigned the task of infiltrating and politically influencing Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan-- the "Newly Independent States" (NIS) that will be producing the oil.

Turkey was chosen for this because it is considered a "reliable ally" of the U.S. and Germany--it is firmly dominated by U.S. and German imperialism and overseen by a fascist military that operates within NATO. In addition, the majority population of Turkey is closely related--by language and culture--to the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, including the peoples of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

For five years, the U.S. has pressured the Caspian regional governments to endorse the Baku-to-Ceyhan route and has pressured the international oil monopolies to finance it. Meanwhile, it has renewed its support for the Turkish government's military and political campaign to suppress the Kurdish people--whose lands in Turkey are designated as the route for the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline.

One of the main reasons that the U.S. attacked Serbia last year was to prevent Turkey from being drawn into the Balkan wars. When Yugoslavia first started to fall apart in the early 1990s, U.S. Secretary of State Baker said, "We don't have a dog in that fight"--meaning that there were no U.S. interests tied up in the fighting between Serbia and Croatia. But Turkey has close ties with Albania--and when the Balkan fighting spread southward into Kosovo, the U.S. got involved--to guarantee that Turkey would not get drawn into a larger war with its neighbors, Greece and Bulgaria. The U.S. wanted Turkey to focus on its assigned task: pacifying Turkish Kurdistan and infiltrating former Soviet Central Asia. [See "U.S. Predators Stalk the Balkans: The imperialist motives behind the NATO war on Yugoslavia," RW #1002, April 18, 1999, RW Online: rwor.org]


"For the oil companies, the chosen route must be profitable. But for the Clinton administration, the prime concern has been strategic."

New York Times, November 21, 1999

From the beginning, the major oil monopolies of the world had deep misgivings about the White House plan for a Baku-Ceyhan pipeline--which, on paper at least, they were expected to finance.

They were concerned that the Baku-Ceyhan route was the most expensive route proposed--possibly exceeding $4 billion, almost twice the estimated cost of the Baku-to-Kharg route, proposed by Iran.

The oil companies were also concerned that the volume of oil passing through the Baku-Ceyhan route might not be enough to make it profitable--especially if oil prices stay low and other pipelines are also built in the Caspian region. In November 1998, Russia, Kazakhstan and Chevron agreed to build a $2 billion pipeline from Tengiz to the Russian port of Novorossisk. Would the larger Tengiz oilfield send its oil out through Russia, leaving the Ceyhan route with only the Baku output?

The U.S. government was determined to bring the oil companies "on board"--saying that the pipelines of the Caspian could not be decided by the narrower "ka-ching, ka-ching" calculations of U.S. and European bankers and oil companies. The U.S. government insisted that there were global, geo-strategic interests at stake here--specifically, who would control the energy resources of the world.

The Clinton White House operated like world class gangsters, pulling strings and making threats--to make all the other pipelines "disappear" and make the Ceyhan pipeline profitable for the western oil capitalists.


First the U.S. government simply and firmly ruled out any Iranian pipeline. They announced they would not lift their embargo on Iran--and they would not allow major U.S. companies to participate in any major projects there. That was the end of the Iranian pipeline.

Then the Russian plans for the northern pipeline "suddenly" ran into huge problems: War broke out in Chechnya and Dagestan--border areas of Russia where oil from Baku travels on its way to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossisk.

War broke out in Dagestan in August 1999--just as the aging Baku-Novorossisk pipeline broke down and the Russian oil corporations were trying to move Baku's oil through Dagestan by rail. Then the fighting spread from Dagestan to nearby Chechnya. The Russian army initiated a brutal campaign to crush resistance and pacify the region. About 200,000 Chechens are refugees, as many as 4,000 may be dead, and much of this small nation has been devastated.

Meanwhile, plans for northern Russian-controlled oil pipelines have been torpedoed by this fighting--during exactly the timeframe when the oil companies have to decide on which pipeline to begin building. There is no documented evidence that the U.S. unleashed and armed the Muslim secessionist forces of Chechnya. But clearly the timing of this new war has been very useful for U.S. plans in the Caspian.

The Russian Defense Minister has accused the U.S. of wanting the "permanent smoldering of a manageable armed conflict" in this region.

Meanwhile, with U.S. support, a new pipeline was opened between Baku and the Georgian port of Supsa in April 1999. This pipeline will carry the Baku oil that was previously passing north through Chechnya and Dagestan. The opening of the Supsa pipe means that oil will be able to flow out of Azerbaijan--regardless of whether Russia regains control of Chechnya or not.

This Supsa pipeline is small, and cannot carry the massive output expected by 2004--but it will handle much of the production until the Ceyhan pipeline is in place. This new Supsa pipeline is especially useful in providing for the oil needs of Ukraine, and helping the U.S. pry the Ukraine (a large country with extremely important industrial and agricultural production) further away from Russia.

Finally, the Turkish government cynically announced that they had "discovered" major environmental problems with letting huge oil tankers pass through the Bosphorus straits--the mouth of the Black Sea which they control. In other words, Turkey is threatening to stop oil-tankers from Novorossisk, which quickly made investors wary of building a pipeline that ended in Novorossisk.

After all these developments--the only pipeline that seemed practical was suddenly the U.S.-backed Baku-to-Ceyhan route. The oil companies and the Caspian oil-producing countries had been presented with "an offer they could not refuse."


In November 1999, a conference of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) gathered many government representatives to Istanbul--and by then the U.S. government had, quite simply, forced the key regional governments to give the imperialist oil companies the guarantees and finance that these oil monopolies wanted. A new agreement was finally possible, and Clinton flew in for last minute arm-twisting.

  • The governments of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Kazakhstan agreed to officially back the Baku-Ceyhan route.
  • Turkey's government promised to pay all construction costs over $1.4 billion for the Turkish pipe segment. This meant that, the Ceyhan route was suddenly as cheap, for the oil companies, as the Iranian route would have been.
  • Kazakhstan promised that in the next century it would send 20 million tons of oil a year through a new, proposed, underwater pipe to Baku and from there on to Ceyhan.
  • Russian plans for a Tengiz-Novorossisk pipeline were knocked back.

    In short, the imperialist oil companies were guaranteed protection from cost over-runs, and were guaranteed that the Ceyhan pipeline would get most or all of the production of the Caspian. The cost of these "guarantees" would (presumably) come out of the wealth of these regions. And the whole package was backed and blessed by the U.S. godfathers themselves.

    The plan is now in place to have this new pipeline ready by 2004--when huge new oil installations now being built in the Caspian region are expected to start sending 1 million barrels a day to Ceyhan.


    "Domination on the Black and Caspian seas...is a vital interest for the whole southern half of Russia. If Russia's horizons ended on the snowy summits of the Caucasus range, then the whole western half of the Asian continent would be outside our sphere of influence and...would not long wait for another master."

    Russian General Rostislav Fadeev, 1850s, at the start of the first "Great Game" for Central Asia

    "Chechnya is just the beginning of what we're going to face in this region. Russia is not going to sit back quietly as from its perspective the United States tries to `undermine its vital strategic interests there.

    Martha Brill Olcott, U.S. thinktank expert on the Caspian region, New York Times, Nov. 19

    "`Central Asia may not yet be in crisis, but it may just be a short bus ride away,' said Gavin Graham, regional manager for Royal Dutch/Shell Group. Without naming Russia and Iran, he told an oil and gas conference in Turkmenistan that regional rivals can conspire to keep margins in landlocked Central Asia unprofitable."

    Wall Street Journal

    "It seems Clinton has for a minute forgotten that Russia has a full arsenal of nuclear weapons... It has never been and never will be the case that he will dictate to the whole world how to live... We will dictate to the world. Not him alone."

    President Boris Yeltsin,
    defending Russia's reconquest of Chechnya, December 9, 1999

    The Istanbul agreements opened the door for the multi-billion-dollar fundraising for the Baku-to-Ceyhan pipeline. That capital must be raised by October 2000, and the construction must start soon after that, if this pipeline is going to be ready by 2004--when major new production of oil is expected in the Caspian region.

    However, there will be counter-moves by the Russian imperialists--seeking to retake their chair at the table and seeking to sabotage the completion of the Ceyhan route.

    The Russian military intends to pacify Chechnya and surrounding regions--and reestablish a viable overland pipeline route through Russia. And, Russia is strengthening its military presence in the Caspian region itself--reportedly sending new MIG jet fighters and air defense missiles to its base in Armenia.

    In addition, the Baku-Ceyhan route requires a strong pro-western government in the Caucasus country of Georgia. The U.S. currently has such a government there--headed by President Eduard Shevardnadze, who was the Soviet foreign minister under Gorbachev. But now, toppling his government has become a high priority for Russian operations in this region. In 1998 alone, Shevardnadze faced an armed insurrection, a major secessionist movement and a commando-style assassination attempt.

    "Permanent smoldering" in Georgia suits Russian imperialist interests--just as "permanent smoldering" in Chechnya suits U.S. imperialist interests.


    For now, the "new Great Game" for the Caspian has largely been carried out using dollars and strong-arm diplomacy. But the major powers understand well that the future of this region may ultimately be decided by guns--in coups and warfare. And, for that reason, the U.S. has conducted a huge but unpublicized campaign of drawing the Central Asian countries under its military wing.

    Several former Soviet allies in Eastern Europe have been openly recruited directly into NATO's war alliance--but the U.S. has pursued a slightly different course in Central Asia. Six years ago, NATO created a military sub-alliance called "Partners for Peace" (PFP)--and under that arrangement has been training, arming and deploying military forces around both the Caspian and Black seas. The difference between NATO and PFP is, as one NATO official put it, "razor thin."

    Through PFP, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have formal military liaisons at NATO's Supreme Headquarters. Under NATO auspices, PFP has created a joint Central Asian Peacekeeping Battalion (CENTRASBAT)--which is the embryo of a NATO-led military force in the region. During the 50th anniversary conference of NATO, in April 1999, an anti-Russian alliance, GUUAM, was formed out of the former southern Soviet republics--Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova.

    Azerbaijan and Georgia have developed especially close military ties with NATO. The U.S. and Turkish militaries have been supplying both countries with NATO-compatible weapons. Azerbaijan has signed a mutual defense treaty with Turkey and a "defense cooperation agreement" with the U.S.

    Under PFP, 4,000 military officers from Caucasian countries have received military training in Turkey--a majority of them from Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani soldiers participated as part of a Turkish Army battalion during the Balkan war. It was the first direct deployment of a Caspian unit by NATO.

    At the same time, Turkey--a notoriously brutal and repressive state--has been training thousands of pro-western government officials, legal prosecutors and police for the ruling classes of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.

    In 1997, NATO organized naval exercises--Operation Sea Breeze--on the Black sea--making a statement about who controlled that sea and the oil traffic that crosses it. As Russian troops were leaving Georgia, the flagship of the U.S. 6th fleet entered the Georgian port of Poti. There have already been over a hundred different joint NATO-Georgian military programs and activities.

    Common NATO-Georgian military exercises were held around the oil port of Supsa in Georgia during 1998. In May 1999 the U.S. army held joint maneuvers in Kazakhstan--which were officially called "international disaster relief exercises." That same month, Turkmenistan officially ended the agreement allowing Russian troops to patrol its southern border with Iran and Afghanistan.

    In Azerbaijan, top presidential adviser Vafa Guluzade caused a furor in February 1999 by proposing that the U.S. set up a NATO airbase on the Apsheron Peninsula outside Baku. Though the Russian and Iranian governments immediately objected, the U.S. government simply said the plan was not currently under consideration.

    Then, in November, a leader of the Azerbaijani parliament proposed that NATO form a special unit to protect the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. That same month, besieged Chechen President Maschadov called for NATO intervention against the advancing Russian troops in his country.

    For the moment, the U.S. and NATO seem to be riding high. But there are already forces within the U.S. ruling class asking whether the U.S. can really expect to back up the major military and economic commitments it has made far away--right on the southern borders of Russia. And they are openly saying that if U.S. soldiers are going to be prepared to kill and die in any new war for the Caspian Sea--the U.S. government must already now start creating public opinion about the importance of this region.


    "The strategic value of the Caspian has been there from the beginning--it never was just about oil."

    Zbigniew Brzezinski, U.S. ruling class architect of the New Great Game

    "Why do we call them imperialists? Because they exploit and oppress people all over the world. They have developed an empire and they will do anything to try and preserve it. It is the same people robbing and exploiting, degrading and humiliating us every day that are doing that same thing, and want to do more of it, to the people all around the world. That's why we call it imperialism, because that's what it is."

    Chairman Bob Avakian,
    Revolutionary Communist Party,USA

    The U.S. masks its operations in talk of freedom and human rights. This is true in the Caspian too. U.S. politicians talk of training the people of the region in "U.S. style democracy"--while sending them fascist Turkish trainers. The U.S. talks about ending the Russian military abuse of Chechen people--while energetically supporting the Turkish military abuse of the Kurdish people. The U.S. talks about bringing "free trade" to the world and "knocking down barriers"--while spending billions of dollars in semi-secret plots to control the oil trade of the world, and seize control of the oil reserves of the Caspian.

    The U.S. is taking advantage of a rival imperialist's moment of extreme weakness. Russia is deeply in debt, gripped by a paralyzing economic and political crisis--and its military (though heavily armed with nukes) is having great difficulty reasserting control in regions that are officially within Russia.

    The New York Times called the current White House policies "flogging the half-dead Russian bear." But if and when this Russian bear emerges from its crisis, it will be determined to reverse the U.S. takeover of the Caspian. There is already an angry demand rising from the Russian ruling class for a government and military that can aggressively reassert their imperialist interests in the Caspian region.

    Events in the Caspian region may reveal that there are other imperialists in the world--in Europe or Japan--who do not consider it in their interests for the U.S. to so tightly control all the major oil sources in the world.

    In one sense, U.S. expansion in the Caspian is part of the outcome of its victory in the 1980s "Cold War." But in another sense, it is setting the stage for inter-imperialist rivalries and conflicts in the next century.

    Meanwhile, the robbery of wealth, wholesale corruption of governments, threat of reactionary war, foreign exploitation of working people and massive environmental damage--all of these developments reveal the intensely reactionary role that the imperialists, of all these "great powers," are playing in this region. The wealth and future of Central Asia are being fought over by imperialists from the U.S., Europe and Russia--whose interests have nothing in common with the oppressed people who live and work there.

    This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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