US seeks to offset Russian energy dominance

Washington will seek to boost alliances and offset Russian energy dominance when Vice President Dick Cheney visits Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine next week, a White House official said, according to AFP.

In light of rising tensions with Russia over its conflict with Georgia, Cheney`s trip is part diplomatic mission, part effort to boost alternate pipeline routes that would reduce Europe`s dependence on Russian oil and gas.

Cheney`s tour, which includes a security conference in Italy and talks with Turkish leaders, also comes as Washington mulls scrapping a US-Russia civilian nuclear cooperation pact, while France has warned of possible EU sanctions over Moscow`s actions in Georgia.

The vice president aims to send "a clear and simple message that the United States has a deep and abiding interest in the well being and security of this part of the world," said his assistant for national security affairs, John Hannah.

The visit, parts of which were planned before the outbreak of hostilities between Georgia and Russia on August 8, marks the first time Cheney will set foot in either Tbilisi or Baku, Hannah said.

However, the trip has "clearly taken on increasing importance," he added, after Russia`s nod this week to the independence of breakaway regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a move which drew international scorn.

"Russia`s actions in recent weeks have clearly cast grave doubts on its intentions, its purposes," Hannah said. "They merit and demand a unified response from the free world."

President George W. Bush`s decision to dispatch Cheney for talks to include discussions on advancing NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, is the clearest sign yet of US concern that its strategic interests in the region -- especially in oil -- could be at serious risk.

The strategic Black Sea region is the common thread in these former Soviet republics, and where major powers have played out power struggles ever since oil was found around the Caspian Sea in the early 20th century.

An administration official said Russia`s military action in Georgia has given fresh urgency to the planned Nabucco pipeline, which would bring natural gas from Turkey to Austria.

"The level of confidence and trust that people have in Russia`s overall reliability has been put in serious question by what`s happened," the official said on condition of anonymity.

"The United States has had a priority for quite some time in trying to lead an effort to encourage this diversification of energy infrastructure and pipelines and supplies, particularly to Europe, of gas," he said.

"These recent events ... reinforce the sense that that basic strategy is important and critical, and one that has to be pursued, if anything, with greater energy by us and by our European partners."

The official also pointed to comments by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who in Ukraine on Wednesday highlighted the need to "re-balance the energy relationship between Russia and Europe."

"We need diverse, secure and resilient gas supplies. Europe needs to act as one when dealing with third parties like Russia," Miliband said.

Another key oil pipeline is the BTC (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan) which passes from Turkey through Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. An attack in Turkey in early August claimed by the Kurdish rebel PKK underscored the vulnerability of the BTC line.

"The transit route through Georgia previously thought to be relatively secure and reliable is now seen as vulnerable and threatened by regional hostilities," said Edward Chow, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

US oil giants ExxonMobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips also have major stakes in Caspian sea oilfields, Chow noted.

With its broad opening on the Black Sea, Ukraine is a key strategic US ally in the region, and Russia`s main concern, according to Stephen Larrabee of the Rand Corporation.

"Georgia`s entry into NATO wouldn`t have major strategic consequences for Russia. Ukraine, on the other hand, is a very different matter," Larrabee added.

If Ukraine joins NATO, Russia would not only be forced to remove its ships based in Crimea; it also would see dashed its hopes of founding a Slavic union with Ukraine and Belarus, he said.

What`s more, Russian and Ukrainian defense industries are closely linked. Crimea, a peninsula attached to Ukraine in 1954 under Nikita Kruschev, is two-thirds Russian speaking.

[Source: UNIAN, Ukr, 29Aug08]

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