NATO could get involved in protecting a potential trans-Caspian gas pipeline, which Russia strongly opposes, an alliance official has said.
The idea of building a pipeline across the Caspian Sea to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan's massive reserves to Azerbaijan and then further on to Europe has been on the drawing board for a long time, but has been held back for a number of reasons, not least Russia's strong opposition.
In May, a senior EU official said on a visit to Ashgabat that a "political decision" had been made to build the pipeline and that the EU expects to start receiving gas from it by 2019. It's still not clear who would build the pipeline, however.
But now a NATO official has said that the alliance would play a part in protecting it. In an interview with Azerbaijani news website AzVision, NATO's South Caucasus Liaison Officer William Lahue weighed in on the pipeline and made some surprisingly bold endorsements of it:
“It is important that countries have multiple sources of supply in order to protect themselves from fluctuations in available sources of supply,” he said. “In this process Azerbaijan is going to be important, and its importance is growing.”
“Technically, it is possible to build Trans-Caspian Pipeline as I was told by businessmen from different countries,” said Lahue, adding that the politics is lining up the way that it is eventually going to happen....
“What NATO will be able to do is to pull partners looking for protection of critical energy infrastructure and in that way, we can help facilitate trainings, education for the national organizations working in this sphere for protection of infrastructure,” said Lahue.
(NATO's press office confirmed to The Bug Pit that these were in fact Lahue's statements.)
Russia and Iran have repeatedly voiced their opposition to "foreign" military forces on the Caspian, and at last year's Caspian summit the five littoral states agreed to prevent any such military contingent from appearing. It's not clear how much the three other countries (which have all received various naval military aid from the United States) are committed to that principle, and Azerbaijan, in particular, has resisted such a ban.
Russia, coincidentally, released a new version of its naval strategy last week, and while it was remarkably (and unrealistically) ambitious in its intention to compete with NATO in the Black Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, the Caspian was a noticeably lesser military priority, with only the last of twelve goals dedicated (vaguely) to defense issues: "to develop the armed forces and also the basing system of the Caspian Flotilla, the buildup of its quantitative-qualitative paramters."
But in case Russia and NATO don't have enough fronts to spar over -- Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltics, Moldova, etc. etc. -- might the Caspian become yet another?