The energy rich Caucasus region is the front line of a new geopolitical a competition -- a contest over oil and gas. 

The Caucasus, a mountainous area about the size of Syria, forms the boundary between Europe and Asia where the Christian and Islamic worlds overlap.  It?s a complex mix of cultures and people whose lands have been trampled by conquering armies through the centuries.

Today, the southern part of the Caucasus is again in the international spotlight. Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia -- three regional states that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union - - lie next to the resource-rich Caspian Sea. Many analysts say the Southern Caucasus has become an important player in one of today's most difficult problems: how to secure enough oil and gas to keep the world's industrial economies running.  

Four percent of the world?s oil reserves and four-to-six percent of the world?s natural gas reserves lie beneath the Caspian Sea.  The region is also home to a web of pipelines that pump hundreds-of-thousands of barrels of oil and millions of cubic meters of natural gas daily for Western and Asian markets.

Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington says involvement in the Caucasus by neighboring and other powers is well underway.

?That means Russia to the north; it means Iran to the south.  China?s interest in energy is leading it to take a larger role in many different regions.  The United States has wanted to assure that the energy resources of this area can be exported to world markets without Russia or Iran having a chokehold.  So the number of major international players watching the Caucasus, at least out of the corner of their eye, is great,? says Sestanovich.

Breaking Russia?s Grip

Some experts expect Caspian oil and gas to assure economic prosperity for the region and secure energy independence from the Middle East and Russia for the West. Europe imports 25 percent of its energy supplies from Russia, which could rise to 45 percent by 2030.

Stephen Sestanovich says Europeans are weary of Moscow?s increasing attempts to dictate energy terms.

?They were deeply disturbed by the conflict between Ukraine and Russia over gas supplies, and the fact that Russia went so far as to turn off the gas for a while.  They were even more alarmed to see that Russia would push its dispute with Belarus in January 2007 to the point of turning off the oil.  The EU is concerned about what it sees as Russia trying to exercise energy muscles,? notes Sestanovich.

Russia holds a tight grip on the network of pipelines in the Caspian basin.  According to military and security specialist Marcel de Haas of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, this is why many countries have invested billions of dollars in new energy pipelines in the region.

?All regional and global parties, such as India, the European Union, are involved in diverting [i.e., bypassing] pipelines from Russia.  China has a deal with Kazakhstan for creating a pipeline directly from Kazakhstan to China.  The European Union is involved in constructing the so-called Nabucco pipeline, which would be a direct line from the Caspian area through Turkey and on to Europe.  So everybody is involved in securing pipelines, getting their hands on pipelines and diverting pipelines from Russia,? says Marcel de Haas.

Bolstering Energy Security

These new pipelines also skirt conflict-ridden zones in the South Caucasus.  John Glenn, Director of Foreign Policy of the German Marshall Fund in Washington, says the West, particularly Europe, is concerned about the region?s political stability. 

He says unresolved ethnic disputes in the Caucasus could erupt into full-scale wars on Europe?s doorstep. ?You have regions with mixed ethnic areas that sought greater autonomy after the Soviet Union dissolved -- two regions in Georgia [South Ossetia and Abkhazia] and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan", says Glenn. "They did not want to be located in the republics in which they have been in, if those republics were independent.  We have an area right on the European borders, now that the EU is enlarged, in which you see a potential for violence, for war.?

In addition, most experts say, the Caucasus has a serious problem of trafficking in weapons, drugs and people. Furthermore, they say the region could become a haven for terrorists. And Western nations are increasingly worried about the safety of the new pipelines. There is even talk of NATO safeguarding the flow of Caspian oil and gas.

But according to military expert Marcel de Haas, such a move would further fray U.S. and European relations with Russia.  He says the Kremlin resents the possibility of direct Western involvement in a region it considers a traditional part of Russia?s sphere of influence.

?If you understand Russian security thinking, then NATO?s involvement in that area would be considered another threat.  The relationship between the West and Russia tends to be not so good anymore and it would even deteriorate if NATO would be formally involved,? argues Marcel de Haas.

The German Marshall Fund?s John Glenn agrees. ?It seems hard to imagine Russia countenancing NATO troops -- either on its soil or its neighbors? soil.  The amount of territory that would entail is so enormous that -- while it seems reasonable to me for NATO to be saying, ?How can we help and contribute to this area -- the idea that NATO troops would be deployed to help ensure energy security throughout the Caucasus seems to me a bit fanciful,? says Glenn.

Still, most analysts argue that the countries of the Caucasus have the resources to develop their military and security forces, and the political commitment and strategic desire to continue to build close relations with the West. 

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.