Vice President Dick Cheney left today on a four-nation tour focused largely around reassuring US allies in the Caucasus in the wake of this month’s Georgia-Russia conflict. Cheney will be visiting Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, and Italy.
And while Cheney is expected to meet with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, an important sign of support at a time when he is experiencing serious internal unrest and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has labeled him a “political corpse,” the most important stop is seen to be the oil-rich nation of Azerbaijan.
America has invested heavily in finding a route for Azerbaijan’s significant oil and gas resources that wouldn’t require traversing either Russia or Iran. That route has taken two major forms: a pipeline through Georgia into Turkey, and rail links from Azerbaijan to Georgia’s Black Sea ports. The same route is also seen as key for a planned natural gas pipeline, which America has hoped would break Russia’s virtual monopoly on the transit of gas from Central Asia to Europe.
But the pipeline route has turned out considerably less stable that Azerbaijan had hoped. Earlier this month the PKK sabotaged the pipeline in Turkey, shutting it down for repair. Then Russia invaded Georgia in response to an attack in South Ossetia. The fighting damaged a bridge, severing Azerbaijan’s main rail link to Georgia. This had left Azerbaijan with only one source for western export: a much smaller capacity pipeline into Russia’s Black Sea port of Novorossiysk.
The instability has done serious harm to Azerbaijan’s heavily energy export-based economy, to the point where UPI quoted an anonymous official as saying Iran would be the “best economical and safest route” for energy exports, and though this would still cut Russia out of the exports, it would also run afoul of American sanctions against Iran. Azerbaijan has maintained a tense relationship with Iran over the years, but they have assured that they will not allow the US to use their nation as a staging ground for an attack on Iran.