The Oil and the Glory

Are drones also protecting the new oilfields on the Caspian?

During the Soviet period, Kazakhstan was a nuclear laboratory. As the United States did in Nevada, the Soviets carried out nuclear tests in the Kazakh city of Semipalatinsk and the neighboring town of Kurchatov. Over the last two decades, Kazakhstan has renounced its nuclear missiles, and in a celebrated 1994 mission called "Project Sapphire," shipped ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

During the Soviet period, Kazakhstan was a nuclear laboratory. As the United States did in Nevada, the Soviets carried out nuclear tests in the Kazakh city of Semipalatinsk and the neighboring town of Kurchatov. Over the last two decades, Kazakhstan has renounced its nuclear missiles, and in a celebrated 1994 mission called "Project Sapphire," shipped much of its enriched uranium to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. More recently, the United States has been flying drones over the test sites to surveil against terrorists or smugglers targeting still-remaining stores of plutonium or highly enriched uranium, according to a piece by the New York Times'  Ellen Barry.

The disclosure about the U.S. surveillance is interesting. It's been clear for years that the states surrounding the Caspian Sea -- Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan -- are potential temptations for enterprising terrorists or criminal gangs.

Kazakhstan's old nuclear facilities and stores are among the inviting targets, though as discussed they have been the object of protective measures for many years. But what about the massive new oil facilities newly producing more than 1.5 million barrels of oil a day for BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and others -- Azeri and Chirag in Azerbaijan, and Tengiz in Kazakhstan? The sea around Astrakhan -- a major port in southern Russia -- has more fields (pictured above).

During the Soviet period, Kazakhstan was a nuclear laboratory. As the United States did in Nevada, the Soviets carried out nuclear tests in the Kazakh city of Semipalatinsk and the neighboring town of Kurchatov. Over the last two decades, Kazakhstan has renounced its nuclear missiles, and in a celebrated 1994 mission called "Project Sapphire," shipped much of its enriched uranium to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. More recently, the United States has been flying drones over the test sites to surveil against terrorists or smugglers targeting still-remaining stores of plutonium or highly enriched uranium, according to a piece by the New York Times’  Ellen Barry.

The disclosure about the U.S. surveillance is interesting. It’s been clear for years that the states surrounding the Caspian Sea — Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan — are potential temptations for enterprising terrorists or criminal gangs.

Kazakhstan’s old nuclear facilities and stores are among the inviting targets, though as discussed they have been the object of protective measures for many years. But what about the massive new oil facilities newly producing more than 1.5 million barrels of oil a day for BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and others — Azeri and Chirag in Azerbaijan, and Tengiz in Kazakhstan? The sea around Astrakhan — a major port in southern Russia — has more fields (pictured above).

These states have been free of terrorism. Part of that is their nature — there is little radicalism in Central Asia and the southern Caucasus — and there is a significant challenge, particularly in the case of Kazakhstan, crossing water or vast steppe. Yet there was an apparent suicide bombing in the important northern Kazakh oiltown of Aktobe last week (it is near the supergiant natural gas condensate field, Karachaganak), which while still under investigation means that no one can argue that an attack is wholly far-fetched.

(Update: A car bomb has killed two people outside the State Security Services office in the capital of Astana today [Tuesday]).

The potential outcome of violence in this region is probably under-appreciated. If any of those oil facilities were attacked, oil prices around the world would surge. This is because the Caspian has some of the only major new oil under production anywhere on the planet. Chevron so prizes Tengiz — it alone provided 19 percent of the company’s earnings last year — that it has been flying Wall Street analysts out there all month.

Are drones protecting them, too?

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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