Although the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, its pipeline network remains today. Soviet pipelines embody the de-facto hegemony of Russia. In a geopolitical context, most countries attach great importance to the security of the pipeline system, for they carry several types of energy resources such as petrol and gas. Having a long pipeline system is not always pleasant, as the country has to enforce security as well as diplomatic measures.
Russia carries out the best pipeline diplomacy. As the successor of the Soviet Union, Russia owns the Soviet pipeline system. It inherited around 46,000 km of crude oil pipelines, 15,000 km of petroleum product pipelines, and 152,000 km of natural gas pipelines, almost all of which are still controlled by the state. This system includes oil/gas pipelines that extend between Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Central Europe.
Most Central Asian countries are not satisfied with the 'Russian-led restoring measures' for their pipeline networks. Russia restores pipelines in Central Asia and does not let the region build new ones; this tactic keeps those countries dependent upon Russia. However, countries such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have opened new routes to export their resources to countries such as China and Iran.
The main security problem of the pipeline system is the instability in the transit countries. For example, the TAPI project cannot be properly instituted because of the instability in Afghanistan and the Chechen threat to Russian pipelines. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline is still under the threat of the PKK.
But transit problems do not come solely from unstable areas but also from transit fees. The most notable example of this kind of "pipeline diplomacy" occurred in Ukraine. In 2006 and 2009, a gas crisis shut down gas transportation through Ukraine to Europe. Russia spoiled its political image, while Ukraine proved itself to be an unreliable transit country. Consequently, the European Union determined a new diversification policy for reliable energy provision of its Member States.
One cannot only blame Russia, however. All of these conflicts also emanate from the political behaviors of the Western countries and the neighbors of Russia. Such behavior includes: the enlargement of NATO and the EU and membership desires by both Ukraine and Georgia; EU-led energy projects in the Caspian basin; pro-western colored revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine; American military presence in Central Asia. Such behaviors resulted in the 2006/2009 Ukraine gas crisis as well as the 2008 August War between Russia and Georgia.
Another noteworthy issue is the pipeline rivalry between energy exporter countries. For example, Russia deems some regional gas pipelines such as Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum, Nabucco West (the new European concept or shortened NABUCCO), Trans-Anatolia Gas Pipeline, and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) as alternatives to its pipeline system. Some of these projects bypass it, while others remain main rivals to Russian-led projects such as North Stream, South Stream and Blue Stream, including the Russian-supported IPI (Iran-Pakistan-India) project.
In this context, Russia promised some European countries to sell natural gas via South Stream at below-market prices, though it is unclear which sources exactly Russia will use to supply this pipeline. Most likely, Turkmen gas will be the main contributor for the South Stream pipeline. In regard to TAPI, the project still remains uncertain since Russia opposes the implementation process but supports the realization of the IPI. Meanwhile, the United States strongly opposes the IPI project because US officials believes that Iran will be able to develop its nuclear program and military sector with revenues obtained from this project.
When analyzing the pipeline system, the actual construction of the pipeline is very important. Private companies usually carry out the construction. Projects can face various geographical, ecological, financial, and political challenges. But challenges cannot be summarized only by the above-mentioned factors. Some companies simply do not have enough experience in international pipeline projects. For example, because companies involved in the construction of the NABUCCO pipeline were not experienced, the construction of the pipeline remained unclear and partner companies gave different financial excuses for leaving the project.
Geography is another obstacle to pipeline construction. Some countries cannot develop their pipeline network in a more expansive way because of their mountainous geography (for example, Iran or China). Mountains hinder the building of pipelines. If a country is landlocked, then it must keep good relations with neighboring countries in order to have transportation opportunities. Another geography-related point is the construction of pipelines under the sea, which could cause environmental damage in case of any leakage or explosions. Thus, most countries oppose the construction of undersea pipelines (for example, the Trans-Caspian Pipeline under the Caspian Sea), and instead they may build them under sea basins (for example, North Stream and South Stream under the Baltic Sea).
Furthermore, some countries assume that pipeline networks will ensure their security in the long-run. However, one must not forget that such networks will not be entirely protected from military intervention or terrorist attacks. In a nutshell, the new cold war is one of pipelines and energy.
İlqar Qurbanov is an expert for the Strategic Outlook Research Organization on Russia, the South Caucasus, and energy; a graduate Student from Azerbaijan State Economic University (faculty of International Economic Relations); and a Project Consultant of the United Nations Development Program in Azerbaijan.