As never before, the connection between war and big power rivalry over oil and gas in Ukraine—and beyond—has become disturbingly tangible to average citizens, when it was once known only to world leaders, their militaries and spies, and their wealthy backers. Henry Kissinger, protégé of Nelson Rockefeller, once said, “you control the oil, you control the world.”
Now, in the United States, where the oil connection has been routinely suppressed for a century on grounds of national security, the mainstream media have no choice but to report “breaking news” that all too often has an energy component to it. But the facts relayed are facts in isolation, devoid of context.
We’ve all heard about the sinking of Russia’s flagship Moskva in the Black Sea, apparently downed by two Ukrainian Neptune missiles. This was the same vessel that warned Ukrainian soldiers to surrender their positions on tiny Snake Island, to which one of them replied: “Russian warship. Go Fuck yourself!” The Western press turned him and his fellow Ukrainians as heroic matyrs for valiantly resisting—but ultimately succumbing to—the onslaught of Russian bombs.
Only days later, the world learned that they had survived, having been taken captive and were later freed in a prisoner exchange. What the world did not know was that Snake Island (also known as Serpents Island) sits atop huge gas deposits in the Black Sea and has become “the bone of contention between Romania, Ukraine and Russia,” according to Le Monde, and “one of the key points in the war that Moscow is waging against Kyiv.”
The Russians seized Snake Island on Day One of their invasion of Ukraine. The same day, the U.S. leveled its first economic target against the $11 billion dollar Russian-owned pipeline, Nord Stream 2 linking Russia to Germany. N2 had recently been completed despite numerous efforts by the U.S. since 2017 to prevent this from happening, arguing it would make Europe even more dependent on Russia for its energy supplies—and would cost Ukraine billions in lost transit fees earned on aging Russian pipelines crisscrossing the country.
N2 was intended to supply additional cheap Russian natural gas to Germany and to markets throughout Europe, where gas reserves are at an all-time low and prices are skyrocketing. But once Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz caved to U.S. pressure, announcing that he had suspended its operation.
By now, the pipeline is no longer news to most people, but the ramifications of its suspension could have far reaching consequences, as 27 European countries, heavily dependent on Russian energy, are considering what was once unthinkable: joining the U.S. in banning imports of Russian oil products.
Putin, a master player in the Great Game, is hitting back by threatening “unfriendly countries” with having to pay for Russian natural gas in rubles, striking a blow to the almighty American petrodollar.
President Biden, for his part, has warned Americans that they would have to make a sacrifice with higher gas prices in order to support the besieged people of Ukraine. Now, to the dismay of climate activists, he has opened the country’s strategic reserves for only the third time, this time to pump out one million gallons a day in order to lower gasoline prices.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is desperately seeking replacement supplies of natural gas for its frightened European allies that rely on Russia for 40% of its energy needs. The Russian invasion turned out to be a boon for suppliers of fracked natural gas, which have been sending massive supplies of LNG by tanker to European ports. But there are insufficient LNG terminals to take in all the shipped American gas, forcing Biden to desperately seek additional supplies from his enemies—Venezuela and Iran—as well as greater oil output from Saudi Arabia, in return for more U.S. military assistance to its catastrophic oil and pipeline war in Yemen.
Finally, let’s not forget the folly of Russian tanks, stalled along a long stretch of road, possibly if media reports are to be believed, because they ran out of gas! Quite ironic, given that Russia has plenty of oil, unlike Germany in World War I and World War II, which lost both wars because it had not secured enough oil to fuel its military. The sight of black smoke billowing out of bombed fuel depots in Ukraine serves as a daily reminder of the importance of oil to its largest consumers: military machines.
So oil—and now natural gas—keep bubbling up as key factors in the war in Ukraine as it enters its second month. However, most Ukrainians dodging bombs and artillery—and arguably most global citizens—are still asking: “What’s this war all about?”
Even with the oil and gas issues noted above, the mainstream media continue to miss an important historical and geopolitical context behind the war which could give additional reasons for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, beyond references to “Great Russian Chauvinism”—once warned of by Lenin and adopted by Putin—to reclaim the glories of Mother Russia and re-establish the Soviet Union. Putin’s power is, after all, based on Russia’s enormous reserves of natural gas, prompting the Brookings Institution to comment as far back as 2002, “Russia is to natural gas what Saudi Arabia is to oil.”
In my comments below, I will suggest that the war in Ukraine may become known as the Mother of all Energy Wars if the U.S. chooses to escalate by sending American troops into the fray, risking nuclear war. Keep in mind that the tactics it has used so far, sending arms into Ukraine, money to support jihadist-like mercenaries and beefing up sanctions against Russia, come from an earlier playbook used most notably to undermine the pro-Russian regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Not surprisingly Putin and Assad are retaliating by sending pro-Assad mercenaries to fight in Ukraine.
Why Context Is Important
In the early 2000s, fellow investigative journalist Kristina Borjesson asked me to write an essay about how the media had covered the Iraq war for the paperback edition of her award-winning book, Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press. Kristina knew of my angst over the usual one-sided, pro-U.S. coverage of both the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. I had suspected all along that both wars were related to oil. That’s because, if you’ve lived and reported in the Middle East as I had, the oil connection to conflict is a no-brainer. But you would never know it if you followed the mainstream media in the U.S. So proving the oil connection required deeper digging.
In the course of writing the essay, I came across a statement made by a world-renowned forensic neuropathologist about the importance of context in criminal investigations: “Facts in isolation,” said Jan Leesma in an interview with CNN, “lead to all sorts of questions,” whereas “facts put in a contextual light enable the investigator to narrow down the causes.”
My essay would end up with the title “The War on Terror and the Great Game for Oil: How the Media Missed the Context.” Years later, I would incorporate my findings and expand on them in a book which has just come out in paperback titled Follow the Pipelines: Uncovering the Mystery of a Lost Spy and the Deadly Politics of the Great Game for Oil.
Except as otherwise indicated, the sources for this article are all extensively footnoted in the book.
Historical Context: “Getting the Oil at All Costs”
Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, made a historic decision in 1911 when he decided to convert the British Navy’s reliance on coal (of which it had plenty) for its fuel to oil (of which it had none). He feared, rightly, that the British Empire would have to fight over a “sea of troubles” to find oil. Getting the oil of Iraq became a “first-class war aim” for the British during World War I. Once accomplished, distributing Iraqi oil by pipeline to the port of Haifa on the Mediterranean Sea became a factor in the 1917 Balfour Declaration that favored a home for displaced European Jews in Palestine.
During World War II, protecting the oil of Saudi Arabia was yet another first-class war aim—this time for the Americans. I know because my father, Daniel Dennett, America’s first master spy in the Middle East, was tasked with this job as the head of counter-intelligence (X-2) for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and later the Central Intelligence Group (CIG, immediate precursor to the CIA). He died in a mysterious plane crash in March 1947 following a top-secret mission to Saudi Arabia.
I was an infant then, but 27 years later, when I left my job with the Beirut Daily Star in 1975 and returned to the U.S. after dodging a sniper’s bullet on the eve of the Lebanese civil war, I began to investigate the circumstances surrounding his death. I found a steamer trunk in the family attic filled with his letters and reports that revealed his last mission was to determine—and protect—the best route for the planned Trans-Arabian pipeline.
TAPLINE would carry desperately needed post-war Saudi oil to a terminal point on the eastern Mediterranean. From there it would be shipped to ports in Europe, where it would play a major role in turning Europe’s dependence away from largely Communist-controlled coal unions to “free-market” oil, aiding to the reconstruction of Europe under the Marshall Plan. The Cold War was about to begin.
The terminal point, once favored to be Haifa, Palestine, ended up (as my father recommended, due to instability in Palestine) next door, in Lebanon.
TAPLINE was, on reflection, just as big a deal back then as the construction of the Nord Stream Pipeline is today, as both projects were intimately wound up in the Great Game for Oil between the world’s biggest Petro Powers: the U.S. and Russia.
“Pipeline for U.S. Adds to Middle East Issues; Oil Concessions Raise Questions Involving Position of Russia”
This was the headline accompanying an article I discovered appearing in The New York Times on March 2, 1947, two weeks before the plane crash that killed my father.
The gist of this article was that this $100-million project, running across “the territories of four Middle Eastern countries,” was the source of significant consternation and resentment among America’s wartime allies. Why? Because it heralded the emergence of a major new power—the U.S.—in the Middle East, a region which had previously been dominated by the French and British. It also alarmed another rising world power: the Soviet Union, which Izvestia predicted (rightly as it turned out) would augur in an “American system of worldwide military bases.”
The Times article gave credence to this concern: “Protection of that investment,” wrote Clifton Daniel, soon to be son-in law of President Harry Truman, “and the military and economic security that it represented will become one of the prime objectives of American foreign policy in the area, which has already become a pivot of world politics and one of the main focal points of rivalry between East and West.” [Emphases added.]
This single sentence aligned with a declassified statement made by my father as he headed to Lebanon in 1944, reporting on his expected duties: “We must protect the [Saudi] oil at all costs,” he said in his otherwise heavily redacted five-page Analysis of Work.
Equally intriguing in the Times article was a map. It revealed not only the projected route of TAPLINE across the Arabian desert to a terminal point in Lebanon but the routes of two earlier pipelines built in the 1930s, one carrying the oil of Iraq to British-controlled Palestine and the other carrying Iraqi oil to French-controlled Lebanon.
These pivotal finds early in my investigation—my father’s last report, the New York Times piece, and the declassified Analysis of Work (obtained after I sued the CIA in an FOIA lawsuit) introduced me to “pipeline politics,” and how they could rapidly descend into all-out war if pipeline proponents did not get their way.
As monopoly chronicler Matt Stoller recently wrote regarding Nord Stream 2, “Pipelines ship energy. They also organize power.” And, if necessary, they can bring about regime change.
My father’s last report revealed that TAPLINE executive William Lenahan was frustrated by a highly nationalistic, anti-Zionist Syria refusing to let the pipeline cross through Syrian territory to terminate in Palestine.
The end result? The CIA, in its first-ever coup, in 1949, succeeded in removing Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli and replacing him with a police officer who gave approval for TAPLINE to transit through Syria.
Ernest Latham, an American diplomat posted to Saudi Arabia at the time, commented that TAPLINE had assumed the role of “one of the great arteries of Empire, the American Empire in the Middle East I mean. Because that’s in fact what it was.”
And how would it be protected? Not by American troops stationed along its route as was the usual MO, as I reveal below about Afghanistan and Iraq, but by a whole nation created not only to be a refuge for European victims of the Holocaust, but also as the supreme military outpost of the American Empire in the Middle East: Israel.
Bush’s Oil Wars
Applying a post-9/11 contextual analysis of the War on Terror, I discovered how the Great Game for Oil had turned deadly, not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but in Syria as well. As with TAPLINE, the military protection of pipelines figured largely in these conflicts.
*The U. S war in Afghanistan, according to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, was to “stabilize Afghanistan” and to link South and Central Asia “so the energy [from the Caspian Sea] can flow south.” How? through a planned Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline. U.S. and Canadian soldiers were sent into Afghanistan to protect the pipeline route. The pipeline, owned by Unocal (now Chevron), never reached completion due to continued instability in Afghanistan.
Financial institutions are loathe to support pipeline construction in areas of conflict. But discussions have resumed now that the U.S. has exited its troops from Afghanistan, with assurances from the Taliban that they will protect the pipeline.
*The U.S. war in Iraq was designed to turn Israel into a major energy corridor along the Eastern Mediterranean, beginning with the planned rebuilding of the Iraq Petroleum Company’s Kirkuk-to-Haifa pipeline that had been built in the 1930s but was closed during the 1948 Israeli war for independence. The plans were to overthrow Saddam Hussein and replace him with an Iraqi exile, Ahmed Chalabi, who favored the pipeline and created the Iraq WMD myth.
American troops were sent first to protect the pumping stations along the defunct pipeline. It has yet to be rebuilt, again due to instability in the Middle East, but now that Israel is developing its massive offshore natural gas deposits in the Mediterranean, it plans to ply Europe with natural gas through its East-Med pipeline, through Cyprus and beyond.
*The so-called civil war in Syria rapidly became a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia and their respective allies after Syria’s Bashar al-Assad rejected a proposed pipeline that would have carried natural gas from Qatar through Syria to Turkey—and on to Europe. He reportedly did so to avoid upsetting his Russian allies, which saw the pipeline as a threat to Russia’s copious exports of natural gas to Europe.
Instead, Assad, in 2011, signed a deal for an Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline—the so-called “Islamic pipeline” designed to carry Iranian natural gas through Syria to Europe. This was too much for the U.S., especially after he also proposed an ambitious Four Seas pipeline project that would have fostered a regional alliance between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Syria, the countries that lie at the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Black Sea and the Persian Gulf. Assad envisioned Syria to be a strategic energy corridor, an ambition that ran counter to Israel’s similar ambitions.
Qatar, whose pipeline scheme had been rejected by Assad in 2010, by 2013 had spent up to $3 billion, according to the Financial Times, “over the past two years supporting the rebellion [against Assad] in Syria.” ISIS, long believed by locals to be a creation of the U.S., would soon be receiving “clandestine financial and logistical support” from the Qatari and Saudi governments, according to a leaked memo from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Obama adviser John Podesta.
ISIS would lay siege to large portions of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo that lasted four years. ISIS also moved into eastern Syria, site of Syria’s largest oil holdings. Who could forget President Trump’s inartful ordering of U.S. troops to leave Syria, only to quickly reverse course and order them to stay because “that’s where the oil is.”
The Clash of Empires
It is now widely accepted that Syria, on the brink of collapse, survived regime change by calling in the Russians for help. In return, Russia was promised a role in the development of Syria’s offshore oil and gas as well as enlargement of its only military base on the Mediterranean at the Syrian port of Tartus.
Putin, meanwhile, continued to monitor Western moves to penetrate Eastern Europe, aimed in part to bypass Russia’s enormous pipeline systems in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region between the Caspian and Black Seas.
Ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the U.S. and its NATO allies had begun encroaching on former Soviet republics that held considerable oil and gas deposits. Such incursions were in direct violation of an agreement between the on-the-brink Soviet Union and NATO that NATO would not move eastward, “not one inch.”
By 1996, a New York Times article intriguingly titled “The Third American Empire” stated that the disintegration of the Soviet Union “prompted the United States to expand its zone of military hegemony into Eastern Europe (through NATO) and into formerly neutral Yugoslavia. And—most important of all—the end of the cold war has permitted America to deepen its involvement in the Middle East.”
It took the sleuthing of California attorney and law professor Marjorie Cohn to recognize the importance of this article while tracking the activities of Dick Cheney, former CEO of Halliburton before becoming Bush’s vice president. Halliburton had become one of the world’s largest providers of products and services to the energy industry and today is active in 70 countries.
What Cohn discovered was a vast network of Cheney’s oil interests that extended from the Balkans to the Middle East to the Caspian Sea, which by the late 1990s was considered the next Middle East. Cheney and his fellow neocons’ Project for a New American Century, created in 1997 to ensure that the U.S. would become “the world’s pre-eminent power,” was clearly up and running when George W. Bush became president.
As it turned out, the U.S., unable to effectuate the TAPI pipeline eastward through Afghanistan, decided to run a pipeline from Baku on the western shores of the Caspian Sea to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean Sea.
The result was the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline company—a consortium of eleven energy companies including Chevron, Conoco Phillips and British Petroleum—starting from the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, passing through Georgia, and terminating in Turkey.
The BTC pipeline was considered the “linchpin of the shift in U.S. energy policy away from the Middle East.” It was built between 2003 and 2005, mostly underground, for fear of pipeline sabotage in some of the most conflict-prone areas of the Caucasus. As precautionary moves, the U.S. poured military assistance into the three hosting countries to ensure the safety of the pipeline and the “uninterrupted transport of Caspian oil” to Europe, completely bypassing Russia.
The Russians viewed it as a threat to their gas interests and an effort “to redraw the geography of the Caucasus on an anti-Russian map.” Azerbaijan, once firmly cemented in the Soviet Union since Stalin organized oil workers in Baku, became allied with the West due to heavy courting by Zbigniew Brzezinski, Putin’s equal in great gamesmanship.
As President Carter’s national security adviser, Zbig had masterminded the Soviet Union’s demise in Afghanistan. Though a neo-liberal and trusted associate of banker David Rockefeller, Zbig shared the neo-cons’ vision of an America gaining complete control of Eurasia, the Middle East, and the world, becoming the world’s only superpower.
In 2008, Georgia, by then the “leading recipient of U.S. arms and equipment in the former Soviet space,” invaded the breakaway Republic of South Ossetia, and Russia retaliated against Georgia with an unexpected intensity, causing many to fear then the start of World War III. War was averted, interestingly enough, because NATO declined to come to Georgia’s assistance.
Russia used the resulting peace agreement to formally recognize the independence of the two breakaway republics adjoining Georgia, South Ossetia (where the fighting had erupted) and Abkhazia. On the 10th anniversary of the Russo-Georgia War, Russia was widely regarded as the victor, using its strategic position in the two republics, according to oil historian Michael Klare, as “daggers at the BTC jugular.”
What emerged from what was then seen as the first war in Europe in the 21st century was the so-called Medvedev Doctrine, named after Russia’s then president, which signaled Russia’s determination to protect its influence in the former Soviet Union, where it had friendly relations, and to resist any intrusions, especially those sponsored by the U.S. and NATO.
Russia, according to the Doctrine, “does not accept the primacy of the United States in the international system.” This, some seven decades after Izvestia warned of the U.S. setting up worldwide military bases, largely to protect its oil interests. Spillover into the Middle East became apparent when the first world leader the Russians met with during the war was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
That Russia was able to emerge as the winner at this stage of the Great Game was due largely to Putin’s calculation that the U.S. had been weakened, and its forces overstretched, by its disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He would go on to develop two pipelines to Turkey beneath the oil-rich Black Sea: The Blue Stream and Turkstream pipelines, both bypassing Ukraine and protected by Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
President Biden’s recent “regime-change statement” about Putin—“For God’s sake: This man cannot remain in power”—has caused an international uproar, but some commentators, like Washington Post columnist Max Boot, suggest that it was not a gaffe but an “unequivocal message of support for the brave Ukrainians who are inflicting grievous casualties on the Russian invaders.”
Certainly Putin understands that the U.S. wants to topple him, and there is plenty of evidence that officials in the Biden administration are supportive of regime change, including Victoria Nuland, the third-ranking official in the State Department.
Nuland, a neo-conservative who advised Dick Cheney on the war in Iraq, played a key role in the coup that brought down pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, as evidenced by a leaked phone conversation with another State Department official; she has since been advocating for regime change in Russia.
One has to also wonder what role Zbigniew Brzezinski’s son, Mark, is playing as the recently appointed U.S. ambassador to Poland.
There is widespread speculation that the U.S. set a trap for Putin, with Ukraine as the bait, or, conversely, that Putin’s own authoritarian rule condemned him to a “dictator trap” surrounded by yes men who would not tell him the truth about his ill-advised war. There are also growing concerns that the days of global economic stability may come to an end due to the decline of the petro-dollar. History will eventually decide…that is, if humankind survives.
I conclude by returning to the World War II era when the Trans-Arabian Pipeline was identified as an “artery of empire,” and my father pledged to protect it “at all costs.” When we add up the enormous costs since then, both human and financial, of endless wars in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and now Ukraine, we can only wonder when the rulers of empires, goaded by fossil-fuel companies reaping huge profits, will fall because the costs of their military ambitions are too unbearable, too ghastly—indeed too apocalyptic—to endure.
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