This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
Oil and natural gas prices may be relatively low right now, but don’t be fooled. The New Great Game of the twenty-first century is always over energy and it’s taking place on an immense chessboard called Eurasia. Its squares are defined by the networks of pipelines being laid across the oil heartlands of the planet. Call it Pipelineistan. If, in Asia, the stakes in this game are already impossibly high, the same applies to the “Euro” part of the great Eurasian landmass–the richest industrial area on the planet. Think of this as the real political thriller of our time.
The movie of the week in Brussels is: When NATO Meets Pipelineistan. Though you won’t find it in any headlines, at virtually every recent NATO summit Washington has been maneuvering to involve reluctant Europeans ever more deeply in the business of protecting Pipelineistan. This is already happening, of course, in Afghanistan, where a promised pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India, the TAPI pipeline, has not even been built. And it’s about to happen at the borders of Europe, again around pipelines that have not yet been built.
If you had to put that Euro part of Pipelineistan into a formula, you might do so this way: Nabucco (pushed by the US) versus South Stream (pushed by Russia). Be patient. You’ll understand in a moment.
At the most basic level, it’s a matter of the West yet again trying, in the energy sphere, to bypass Russia. For this to happen, however–and it wouldn’t hurt if you opened the nearest atlas for a moment–Europe desperately needs to get a handle on Central Asian energy resources, which is easy to say, but has proven surprisingly hard to do. No wonder the NATO Secretary General’s special representative, Robert Simmons, has been logging massive frequent-flyer miles to Central Asia over these last few years.
Just under the surface of an edgy entente cordiale between the European Union (EU) and Russia lurks the possibility of a no-holds-barred energy war–Liquid War, as I call it. The EU and the US are pinning their hopes on a prospective 3,300-kilometer-long, $10.7 billion pipeline dubbed Nabucco. Planning for it began way back in 2004 and construction is finally expected to start, if all goes well (and it may not), in 2010. So if you’re a NATO optimist, you hope that natural gas from the Caspian Sea, maybe even from Iran (barring the usual American blockade), will begin flowing through it by 2015. The gas will be delivered to Erzurum in Turkey and then transported to Austria via Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary.
Why, you might ask, is the pipeline meant to save Europe named for a Verdi opera? Well, Austrian and Turkish energy executives happened to see the opera together in Vienna in 2002 while discussing their energy dilemmas, and the biblical plight of the Jews exiled by King Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar), a love story set amid a ferocious struggle for freedom and power, swept them away. Still, it’s a stretch to turn aluminum tubes into dramatic characters.