After Georgia, US fears interests at risk in Ukraine, Azerbaijan


WASHINGTON (AFP) — The United States is worried that after the Georgian conflict, US strategic interests in Ukraine and Azerbaijan -- especially in oil -- could be at serious risk.

The clearest sign of US concern: Vice President Dick Cheney next week will travel to Georgia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan.

The White House, on announcing the trip Monday, said President George W. Bush had given Cheney the job of discussing the United States' common interests with these key partners.

The White House did not specifically identify these interests, but analysts say there is a common thread in these former Soviet republics: the strategic Black Sea region, where major powers have played out power struggles ever since oil was found around the Caspian Sea in the early 20th century.

Even that far back, Azerbaijan, which does not have direct access to the Black Sea, shipped its oil to the Georgian port of Batumi to gain access to Europen markets, said Edward Chow, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

It is no fluke that during the Georgian conflict, US officials firmly spoke out against Russia's brief control of port facities at Poti, now a key site in Caspian Sea oil and gas shipping.

Meanwhile, an attack in Turkey in early August claimed by the Kurdish rebel PKK underscored the vulnerability of the BTC oil pipeline (Bakou-Tbilisi-Ceyhan) linking Azerbaijan and Turkey. It follows the Russian border.

"The transit route through Georgia previously thought to be relatively secure and reliable is now seen as vulnerable and threatened by regional hostilities," Chow stressed.

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

With its broad opening on the Black Sea, Ukraine also is a key strategic US ally in the region. The United States is keen to diversify its suppliers of oil to reduce dependence on the Middle East, and to limit Moscow's influence.

Washington is strongly in favor of expanding NATO to include Ukraine and Georgia. But for Stephen Larrabee, of the Rand Corporation: "Georgia is a sideshow. What the Russians are really concerned about is Ukraine.

"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.

For Dmitri Trenin, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "it is Ukraine... that moves into the center stage of the new geopolitical rivalry.

"No Russian leader could have failed to respond to a direct attack on Tskhinvali," he added in an opinion piece in Newsweek.

"But, more ominously, no Russian leader can remain in power if he 'loses' Ukraine to the United States as a member of NATO," Trenin stressed.

Crimea, a peninsula attached to Ukraine in 1954 under Nikita Kruschev, is two-thirds Russian speaking.