Streetwise Professor

June 10, 2007

Laugh or Cry?

Filed under: Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 6:39 am

RIA Novosti reports on a speech given by Assistant Deputy Secretary of State Matthew Bryza on Central Asian energy. According to Novosti, Bryza said:

Pipelines in the Caspian region bypassing Russia do not spell confrontation with the country’s energy giant Gazprom, a senior United States official said Wednesday.

Speaking at an oil conference in Azerbaijan’s capital, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Matthew Bryza said the U.S. welcomed supplies to Europe via the well-developed pipeline network run by Gazprom, but that U.S.-Russia energy relations would only gain from robust competition.

I find it hard to believe that Bryza really believes this tripe. Pipelines bypassing Russia are all about confrontation with Gazprom. Moreover, “robust competition” will not improve US-Russia relations on any dimension. A serious effort to wrest some Central Asian gas from Russia/Gazprom strikes at the very heart of the entire Russian strategy. It will compromise its ability to meet its supply commitments to Europe. It will sharply reduce the fat margins that are the lifeblood of Gazprom and the Russian state. Given these realities, Russia will fight tooth and nail to protect its hammerlock on the Caspian. A serious battle will not put them in a good mood. And all the better for that.

So what’s the point of making such risible statements? Does he really think that such anodyne remarks will actually put the Russians at ease? If anything, such statements are likely to inflame the paranoia that characterizes so much of the Russian leadership. It’s all just diplospeak, you might say. Diplomacy is often built on polite fictions, but these fictions have to be at least slightly plausible. Bryza’s statements are anything but. In my view, a much more honest and straightforward approach would be desirable–and would more be more likely to get some respect from the Russians, as opposed to the derisive snorts that no doubt greeted Bryza’s remarks in the Kremlin.

This also illustrates a point that I made in an earlier post. Specifically, whereas Russia plays its A team in this game–with Putin spending an entire week in the region to seal deals–we have Deputy Assistant secretaries carrying the ball. And he’s speaking from Azerbaijan while Putin does business in Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. And the Europeans are MIA altogether.

I guess it could be worse. We could have Deputy Assistant Undersecretaries leading the charge. But until folks at substantially higher pay grades are regularly engaged in the task of dealing with Caspian energy issues, Putin will continue to leave us in the dust.

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