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Russia-Georgia Conflict Fueled by Rush to Control Caspian Energy Resources

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Human Rights Watch has accused both Russian and Georgian forces of killing and injuring civilians through indiscriminate attacks over the past week of fighting. Professor and author Michael Klare joins us to talk about how the Russian-Georgian conflict is largely an energy war over who has access to the vast oil and natural gas reserves in the Caspian region. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Human Rights Watch has accused both Russian and Georgian forces of killing and injuring civilians through indiscriminate attacks over the past week of fighting.

On Tuesday, a Russian cluster bomb strike in the town of Gori killed at least eight civilians including the Dutch journalist Stan Storimans. An Israeli journalist was seriously wounded in the same attack. Human Rights Watch said this is the first known use of cluster munitions since Israel’s attack on Lebanon in 2006.

Meanwhile, tensions remain high between Moscow and Washington. On Thursday, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued a stern warning to Russia.

    ROBERT GATES: If Russia does not step back from its aggressive posture and actions in Georgia, the US-Russian relationship could be adversely affected for years to come.

AMY GOODMAN: Russia is now maintaining that the events of the past week have fundamentally redrawn Georgia’s borders. Russia’s Foreign Minister said it will be impossible to persuade the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to agree to be forced back into the Georgian state.

Our next guest has been closely examining how the Russian-Georgian conflict is largely an energy war over who has access to the vast oil and natural gas reserves in the Caspian region.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Three [years] ago the United States helped open a 1,000-mile-long pipeline that connected Azerbaijan to Turkey, running through Georgia. The pipeline was designed specifically to bypass Russia. More oil and natural gas pipelines are scheduled to be built in Georgia.

Michael Klare is the author of thirteen books, including Blood and Oil and Resource Wars. His latest book is Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy. He is the defense analyst for The Nation and the director of the Five College Program in Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst. He joins us this morning.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Michael.

MICHAEL KLARE: Good morning.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, talk to us about the pipelines and the energy aspect that has received almost very little attention in all the coverage of the Russian-Georgia conflict.

MICHAEL KLARE: Well, I believe that this is what really underlies the conflict, and it has to do with the fact that the US has eyed the Caspian Sea, which lies just to the east of Georgia, as an energy corridor for exporting Caspian Sea oil and gas to the West, bypassing Russia. And this was the brainchild of Bill Clinton, who saw an opportunity, when the Soviet Union broke apart, to gain access to Caspian oil and gas, but he didn’t want this new energy to flow through Russia or through Iran, which were the only natural ways to export the energy.

So he anointed Georgia as a bridge, to build new pipelines through Georgia to the West. And it was he who masterminded the construction of the BTC pipeline, which is now the outlet for this oil, with new pipelines supposedly following for natural gas. And he chose Georgia for this purpose and also built up the Georgian military to protect the pipeline, and Russia has been furious about this ever since. And I think that’s the reason that they have clung so tightly to Abkhazia and South Ossetia ever since.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re not hearing very much about this conflict, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heads to the area — I mean, the energy oil politics behind this conflict.

MICHAEL KLARE: No, but if you study very closely the history of US ties to Georgia, it’s unmistakable. Even under the Clinton administration, when Eduard Shevardnadze was the president of Georgia, who was hardly a paragon of democracy, President Clinton said that we need Georgia as an energy ally of the United States. And that was the basis on which the US forged a military alliance with Georgia.

And since then, we’ve poured hundreds of millions of dollars into beefing up the Georgian military. And this is unmistakable in the State Department and military Department of Defense justifications for arming the Georgian military, specifically to protect the BTC pipeline against sabotage and attack. So, looking into the Pentagon and State Department documents, there’s no question that this is about energy security, not about democracy or human rights or the other justifications that have been given.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, how would the two breakaway provinces affect this battle? Does the pipeline run through one or either of them?

MICHAEL KLARE: No, they run very close to South Ossetia, in particular, and I believe that the Russians have always been resentful of this effort by the United States to bypass Russia. Now, previously to this effort by the Clinton administration, subsequently embraced by the Bush administration, to establish bypass pipelines, previous to that, all of the pipelines from the Caspian Sea ran through Russia, of course formerly the Soviet Union, ran through Russia to Europe.

And it is the ambition of the Russian leadership, especially Vladimir Putin, to dominate the flow of oil and natural gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe, so they could maximize the profit and the political advantage of dominating the flow of Caspian energy to Europe. And by building these alternate pipelines, the US is trying to undercut Russia’s political and economic power in Europe. That’s what this is about. It’s a geopolitical contest between the US and Europe for — between the US and Russia for influence in Europe.

So, by clinging to these enclaves, this is Russia’s insurance policy, I guess you could call it, or veto power, over the American strategy, because they’re saying, “From our positions in these enclaves, we can sever those pipelines whenever we want,” which is exactly what they attempted to do this week. They did in fact bomb or attack the pipelines. And what they’re saying to the Europeans is, “You can build pipelines through Georgia, but we can snap them whenever we want.” And I think that the message that they’ve been sending to the Europeans is, “Don’t think that you could build more pipelines through Georgia and they’ll be safe. They’ll never be safe.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Michael, as you mentioned in one of your recent articles, the Russian leadership is as tied to its energy infrastructure as the present Bush administration is to the energy infrastructure here. President Medvedev is a former head of Gazprom, isn’t he?

MICHAEL KLARE: Yes, exactly. And what’s underway in Europe is an effort headed by the EU to try to get under the thumb of Gazprom’s dominant role in the delivery of natural gas. Gazprom now delivers something like one-fourth of Europe’s natural gas. And if Gazprom has its way, it will double the amount of natural gas it supplies to Europe.

This has many Europeans and the United States deeply worried, because it kind of undercuts NATO’s independence. So, under American prodding, Europe has plans to build an alternative energy natural gas system called Nabucco, after the opera by Verdi, and this would go right through Georgia. And I think one of the major objectives of Russia’s incursion into Georgia is to say to the European leadership, “Your ideas about Nabucco are futile, because we can smash the Nabucco system anytime we want.”

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Klare, I wanted to ask you about John McCain’s adviser, the controversy around Randy Scheunemann, part owner of the lobbying firm Orion Strategies, the Washington Post revealing Scheunemann briefed McCain before an April phone call with Georgian President Saakashvili, the same day Orion signed a $200,000 contract to advise Saakashvili’s government. Scheunemann then helped McCain draft a strong statement of support for Georgia. And Saakashvili has been talking directly to McCain, I mean, speaking through the press to McCain.

MICHAEL KLARE: Yes. It’s my impression that neoconservative circles in Washington have been egging Saakashvili on, have been telling him that he had much stronger support in Washington for this move, for this attack he made last week into South Ossetia, than he really did. I think, like so much else that’s happened in the past few years, there are really two foreign policy voices in Washington: the State Department voice of Condoleezza Rice and the Vice President’s Office and other elements around Dick Cheney that have a completely different foreign policy. And I wouldn’t be surprised if people around John McCain and Vice President Cheney weren’t telling Saakashvili that if he invaded South Ossetia, he would get much more support from the United States than in fact he did, and that this is what motivated him to provoke this clash, thinking that the US would come to his rescue. I have absolutely no evidence for that, but this kind of report that you just cited leads me to think that he went into South Ossetia last week with some sort of promises that never materialized.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what do you make of Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, his response to this crisis? Do you see any difference in his approach at this point from those of Bill Clinton previously or President Bush, in terms of the situation in Georgia?

MICHAEL KLARE: Well, you know, I get the sense that he was caught off guard by all of this. You don’t get the impression that he was following this as closely maybe as he should have. I don’t think he was aware of just how much — how much there has been this history of US support for Saakashvili and how much encouragement he’s probably been receiving from elements in Washington to engage in this adventuristic policy against the Russians.

And again, I don’t know how much he’s even aware of the degree to which Georgia has been a US military protectorate, the hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid, the fact that there are US military instructors in Georgia, and that this fast-track NATO policy that the Bush administration has favored — all of this has been viewed in Moscow as an effort, as part of this larger effort, that the Bush administration has pushed — is seen in Moscow as part of an offensive, you know, an attack on Russia. It’s tied, of course, to plans for putting missile interceptors in Poland and with the radars in Czechoslovakia. They see this as a Cold War assault on Russia coming from Washington, tied also to plans I mentioned a minute ago to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. They feel they’re under attack and very threatened. And so, all of this is viewed by them as something that required a strong countermove.

I don’t get the sense that Senator Obama was quite aware of the degree to which they felt under attack and were poised for some kind of counter-response.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s also interesting to see the presidents of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia standing with the Georgian president. They all went to Georgia. I just came back from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and I was very struck by, when asking why these countries had joined with the US in invading Iraq, albeit their forces very small in number but both in Iraq and Afghanistan, people repeatedly said, “We have to do this, because we need the US support against Russia.” They’re still very afraid of a Russian occupation. They don’t forget the sixty years.

MICHAEL KLARE: Yes, this is true. But on the other hand, I — again, I come back to this notion that we have two foreign policies. We have the State Department foreign policy, Condoleezza Rice, who often speaks of the need for a cooperative relationship with Russia, with working out these complicated issues, and we have a neoconservative foreign policy emanating from the Vice President’s Office, which isn’t interested in cooperation, which is interested in confrontation and in reviving the Cold War. And I think that they go to the countries on the border of the Soviet Union and encourage them to take a confrontational line and seek out leaders who are willing to speak this way. This is not where the rest of Europe is inclined.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Klare, we want to thank you for being with us, defense analyst for The Nation, director of the Five College Program for Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst. His latest book is Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy.

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