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By John Helmer in Moscow

RUSSIAN President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Athens this week – his second in six months, a Russian presidential record – is so unusual, its meaning may not be fully understood. Moreover, few Russians accompanying Putin are able to put into clear perspective the relationship which the president himself is trying to create.

For one thing, by choosing to meet his Greek and Bulgarian counterparts for a second signing ceremony that he could have delegated to a lower level, Putin is putting an end to false hopes that have bedevilled the Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline project for the decade that preceded Putin’s direct intervention last year.

The new pipeline is being built because the project supports strategic interests of the Russian state in seeing one of its natural resources safely to market, across friendly territory.

Commercial payoffs there will be. But these are the crumbs that will be divided after the majority shareholders of the project – Russia’s state pipeline company Transneft, and the state oil and gas companies, Rosneft and Gazprom – fix the lion’s share.

Putin is also letting the Bulgarian and Greek governments understand that if they want to put fuel in their Nato tanks, aircraft and other machines of war, let alone gas in their electricity stations, kitchen stoves, and home heaters, they will fail if they think they can rely on either Washington or the Nato alliance.

Putin is also much too polite to explain that he has assigned his personal priority to the Greek oil export route from Russia, only after, and because, Turkey ended up proving to be the captive of American policy in the energy sector. Those Greeks who imagined that they could open a window of opportunity with Ankara might do well to study the recent Russian experience of one Turkish-American veto after another on the supply of Russian crude to Turkish pipelines and to the Turkish refinery industry.

Turkey’s loss, it should be clearly understood, is Athens’ and Sofia’s gain. Even those powerful Russian oil interests, which counted on Turkish backing for their commercial schemes, have been burned.

Take, for example, Lukoil, Russia’s second producer and exporter of crude oil and refined products. Lukoil conceded this week that it is locked out of petroleum refining in Turkey, and must supply its retail petrol outlets in that country, as well as its Turkish bunkering operations, from an expansion of its refinery at Burgas, on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast.

Lukoil spokesman Dmitriy Dolgov told the Athens News on March 12: “We are expanding the Burgas refinery from 7.5 million tonnes [per annum] to 10 million tonnes, instead of constructing a new [refinery] in Turkey.”

What he meant was that the attempt by Lukoil chief executive, Vagit Alekperov, who is Azeri by origin, has failed to get Turkish government permission to build a new refinery at Zonguldak, on Turkey’s Black Sea coast.

Alekperov has been a consistent opponent of the Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline route, and by dragging his feet, Lukoil has delayed the signing ceremony this week by years.

Alekperov has also found himself in conflict with Transneft, as well as Kremlin officials, who were unhappy with his attempts to support Turkish and US efforts to draw more Russian crude onto Turkish territory, and in Turkish pipeline shipments to Ceyhan, on the Aegean.

This was a domestic policy conflict Alekperov has now definitively lost, even though spokesman Dolgov tried playing down the politics, and the personal defeat for his boss, telling the Athens News that Lukoil’s “main reason” for the decision to expand at Burgas is “logistics”.

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