By Damien McElroy in Tbilisi

Daily Telegraph
02 Sep 2008

Dick Cheney, the US vice-president will arrive in the Caucasus on a
mission to prevent Russia from gaining a stranglehold over Central
Asia's vast reserves of energy.

As he starts a tour of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine, Mr Cheney
will try to allay fears that Russia's campaign in Georgia has fatally
damaged a cornerstone of the West's energy policy.

That message will be particularly potent in Azerbaijan's capital Baku,
once the capital of the Soviet oil industry and now a pivotal ally
of the United States.

The Caucasus region, between the gas-rich Caspian Sea and Turkey,
provides the only energy pathway from Central Asia to Europe that
does not traverse Russia or Iran.

"If Azerbaijan tilts to Russia there goes 15 years of US energy
diplomacy," said a Western diplomat in Baku. "Cheney has the history
and personal clout to make this trip clearly focused on energy."

Mr Cheney's unparalleled reputation as a defender of US interests and
close ties to the oil industry means the vice president is uniquely
placed to deliver a tough message to Russia.

John Hannah, his national security advisor said: "The overriding
priority, especially in Baku, Tbilisi and Kiev, will be the same: a
clear and simple message that the United States has a deep and abiding
interest in the well-being and security of this part of the world."

After European leaders bickered over how to deal with Russia at
a summit on Monday, Mr Cheney will have to shore up Azerbaijan's
confidence in Western support.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, the Georgian prime minister
Lado Gurgenidze said that without efforts by Gordon Brown, the EU
position would have been weaker.

"We are aware that the document perhaps would have read differently
if it had not been for the efforts of the British delegation," he said.

The vulnerability of pipelines running from Azerbaijan to Turkey was
dramatically illustrated by Russia's war in Georgia, when exports
were halted and expatriate energy workers evacuated.

"Russia didn't need to attack the pipelines running through Georgia
but by stopping the flow west it ensured that the great fears over the
system have been realised," said Andrew Neff, an analyst at research
firm, Global Insight. "Cheney must ensure that Azerbaijan doesn't
take the wrong message from events in Georgia."

Supplies of Azeri gas are crucial to European efforts to build the
2,000 mile Nabucco pipeline through Turkey to Austria by 2013. Its
inauguration would erode Russian's dominant role in energy supplies
to Central and Eastern Europe.

America has been a strong proponent of the project. "Without Azeri
gas, the Nabucco pipeline is dead on the drawing board," said Mr
Neff, who concluded that Russia's campaign in Georgia had given it a
"de facto veto" over energy flows through Georgia.

Russia has already attempted to coax Azerbaijan away from its Western
backers. President Dmitry Medvedev used a visit to Baku in the spring
to herald "co-operation prospects" between the two states.

Gazprom, the large Russian oil firm, has offered to pay market rates
for its gas, which at a time of rising prices is more attractive than
the long-term supply deal prices proposed by the West.

Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan's president, has been solidly pro-Western
since succeeding his father in 2003.

However, despite its rapid economic growth, Azerbaijan remains
vulnerable to Russia intervention in the breakaway enclave of
Nagorno-Karabakh. As in the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and
South Ossetia, separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh rely on Russian backing.

Diplomats have urged Mr Aliyev not to succumb to the short-term
pressures of Russian expansionism. "It's 'don't lose sight of the
long-term goal for a short-term fix'," said one official. "Ultimately
Azerbaijan needs direct access to the Western market to remain
independent of Russia."

Senior American conservatives have rallied behind Mr Cheney's trip,
possibly his last significant act before President George W Bush's
term ends in January. "The security of Georgia and Azerbaijan are
vital American interests for a variety of reasons," said John Bolton,
a former US ambassador to the United Nations. "Including the critical
corridor they provide to get oil and natural gas out of the Caspian
Basin region without transiting Russia or Iran. Europe should also
understand this key point."