VIENNA — Russian President Vladimir Putin came away from his meetings in Tehran with most of what he wanted, but it is a measure of what he did not achieve that some Moscow analysts are suggesting he may take a page from Estonia's playbook to block the construction of Trans-Caspian pipelines backed by the West.
Russian commentators on Putin's visit to the Iranian capital have celebrated what they see as his great, even "breakthrough" achievements: First, they point to his securing of a declaration by the Caspian littoral presidents that none of them "in any circumstances" will allow their territories to be used to launch attacks on any of the other.
That declaration, as Igor Tomberg pointed out in an analysis posted online October 18th, highlights the Russian president's success in positioning himself as the leader of those in this region who are seriously concerned about and very much opposed to an American attack on Iran.
Second, Putin reaffirmed Russia's commitment to continue to help build Iran's nuclear power capacity, even though one Moscow observer pointed out that the Iranians have not paid Russia what they owe – am observation the underscores the political nature of the Kremlin's commitment.
As a Levada Center poll last month showed, Russians by a plurality support this Putin policy not only because they believe it solidifies Russian influence with Iran and the Muslim world but also because it reasserts Russia's status as a great power in opposition to the United States.
And third, the meetings Putin had in Tehran allowed him or at least members of his entourage to point to the ways in which the PKK, the Kurdish Workers Party which has had close ties to Moscow for decades, might be unleashed in the event of a Turkish incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan.
According to Tomberg, "considering the experience of the Workers Party of Kurdistan in conducting partisan war, [such a] conflict could assume a drawn-out character, fundamentally increasing the risks not only of hypothetical [pipeline] projects but also existing routes [such as] Baku-Tbilisi-Jeyhan."
Such a blunt reminder of how the PKK and its Russian patrons might use its operatives against Western interests represents the crudest assertion yet of just how the Kremlin believes in can act, given Washington's inattentiveness or apparent unwillingness to object to what the Russian leadership is doing.
But as other Russian analysts have noted, Putin did not get everything he wanted: He did not secure any significant movement on dividing up the Caspian seabed, and he did not find much enthusiasm among other littoral states in response to his call for creating a defense alliance.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the five littoral states have been discussing how to divide the Caspian seabed, but they have made little progress. Each country has its own ideas, and despite suggestions in Baku that the three other littoral states must defer to Moscow and Tehran, there was little evidence that the former agreed to this.
Having agreed not to allow third countries to use their territories for launching an attack on other Caspian states, however, most of these leaders saw no reason for agreeing to more. And Baku observers suggested that Putin's proposal was intended to ensure Moscow's "hegemony" in the region These attitudes now as in the past are forcing Moscow to make use of other tools to defend what it sees as its chief goals in the region: excluding Western influence by preventing the construction of any Trans-Caspian pipelines that would allow countries in the region to bypass Russia when they ship their gas to the West.
As the Russian authorities demonstrated during the expanded GUAM session in Vilnius two weeks ago, Moscow is extremely adept at playing the oil and gas card not only by turning on and off the spigot but also by pointing to the threat of a price war over petroleum that could harm producers.
Putin and his delegation did the same thing in Tehran, but the leaders of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan were not entirely impressed. And that has led the Russian government to think about invoking the same objections to any new pipelines in the Caspian that Tallinn has made about Nord Stream under the Baltic.
Despite the lack of agreement on the delimitation of national zones in the Caspian, the littoral countries agreed in Tehran that each of them has the right to demand an ecological evaluation of any pipeline project, an arrangement that could allow Moscow to delay or even kill almost any arrangement.
"This part of the declaration and the speeches of the Russian president can be considered," Tomberg argues, "as the use of the attempts by Estonia and Finland to freeze construction of the Nord Stream gas pipeline [between Russia and Germany under the Baltic] a precedent."
If the construction of a pipeline in the Baltic can be blocked for ecological reasons, the Kremlin clearly believes, the Moscow analyst continues, then "why not in the Caspian" as well?
While it is tempting to conclude that Russian officials believe that they can do no more in the Caspian than Estonians can do in the Baltic and that is block the construction of pipelines, Putin's game in Tehran is almost certainly larger, a reflection of Russia's greater power both in oil and gas and in geopolitics.
Indeed, it appears likely that by linking these two issues and playing to anti-American feelings in Europe, the Russian president hopes to enlist support from governments on that continent to get his way on pipelines both in the Baltic and in the Caspian basins.
Putin may use Estonian tactic to block trans-Caspian pipelines