As the winter approaches, potential disruptions in Russian energy supplies could have significant, negative effects in the other former Soviet states. The specter of fresh cuts in energy supplies in an atmosphere of already escalating tensions warrants a fresh look at Russian pipeline security.
Threats to pipeline networks can be grouped into two broad categories: accidents and sabotage. Many accidents can be attributed to excavation, insufficient system capacity, corrosion, weather, mechanical failure, control system failure, operator error and natural disasters.
At a time when Russia aims to increase its oil and gas production for domestic and foreign markets, the country's pipeline networks are incapable of meeting producers' ambitions. Attempts to overburden the system can be linked to accidents. Increased pressure, for instance, was the official cause of the January 2006 Aksay-Grozny pipeline explosion.
Up to 60 percent of the Russian pipeline network is in need of modernization. For its export market, Russia produces almost 7 million barrels per day of oil and refined products, of which only about 4 million bbl/d can be transported by major trunk pipelines, according to some estimates. For the remainder, Russia depends on more vulnerable and expensive rail and maritime transportation routes.
The Russian domestic market is no less in need of pipeline infrastructure development. About 80 percent of the entire Russian pipeline system, parts of which dates back to the 1950s, was oriented toward export, rather than domestic consumption. As a result, many regions, including border areas where export pipelines are located, lack branch connections for the supply of local populations and industry. This lack of pipeline capacity, and resulting local dependence on tanker trucks and rail, increases the threat of hijackings and sabotage, drives up transportation costs and raises the likelihood of illegal "cut-ins" and siphoning where supplies are scarce.
Pipeline sabotage can result from a variety of actions, including use of explosives or machinery on pipeline infrastructure, cyber-attacks on pipeline control systems and physical or cyber attacks on electric grids or telecommunication networks, which could in turn disrupt dependant pipeline control and safety systems.
Pipeline sabotage has been of particular concern in Russia's North Caucasus region, where oil, refined products and gas pipelines running through Chechnya, North Ossetia and, increasingly, Dagestan have been regular targets of attacks. The MozdokGazi-Magomed gas pipeline, running through Dagestan to Azerbaijan, has in recent years been attacked over a dozen times.
Protection of pipeline infrastructure against such attacks has been hampered by a lack of dedicated pipeline security services. In Stavropol Krai, the strength of the regional government's paramilitary forces is sufficient for the defense of less than a quarter of 400 vulnerable pipeline network objects, according to Russian media outlets.
Difficult topographical and weather conditions additionally complicate both pipeline security and repair efforts. For example, freezing temperatures supposedly delayed repairs on the Mozdok-Tbilisi gas pipeline last January. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Efforts to reduce accidents and pipeline sabotage can include bolstering safety precautions, modernizing and hardening of pipeline infrastructure, creating buffer zones along pipeline routes, strengthening federal regulations, and increasing patrols by governmental and private security services.
Pipeline operators monitor the rate, movement and pressure of products in the system, checking for inconsistencies and shutting down the pipeline in the case of an accident. In Russia, this is an area much in need of foreign expertise, particularly in incident detection, threat notification, employee awareness and improvement of encryption protocol standards to prevent cyber attacks.
Pipeline surveillance is crucial in preventing unauthorized digging and construction, as well as sabotage. To augment conventional aerial surveillance, officials should consider using Russian-made aerial vehicles, such as the rotary wing Pustelga remotely piloted vehicles. Satellite surveillance, such as that used by Northrop Grumman in securing Turkish and Egyptian energy infrastructure, is another under-utilized possibility. Effective surveillance can reduce the number of forces required to secure pipeline routes, shifting the requirement instead to rapid response teams acting on information collected.
Incidents associated with pipeline pressure and rupture can be significantly reduced through the expansion, modernization and hardening of existing pipeline infrastructure, such as fortifying pipes with external carbon fiber wrap. Due in part to insufficient export routes, Gazprom, the Russian energy conglomerate, has been making significant investments in pipeline modernization.
Increasing patrols by security forces, while of limited utility in difficult terrain and in extreme weather conditions, can nonetheless bolster the physical security of pipelines. One option is to expand law enforcement and military roles in guarding infrastructure, as has been the case, respectively, in increased regional Interior Ministry patrols of the Mozdok-Tbilisi pipeline in North Ossetia, and in operational-level exercises between Russian Armed Forces Rear Services and Transnefteproduct, the state-owned refined products pipeline monopoly. Some Russian experts have also lamented the lack of a legal footing for the involvement of private military contractors in securing pipelines. Pipelines can be further protected by erecting walls or fences, and by burying new pipeline projects under ground. Some Russian experts have also proposed "masking" pipelines through the building of decoy pipes and, more controversially, through the elimination of warning markers.
No single countermeasure can effectively secure the Russian pipeline system these networks stretch thousands of miles across forbidding terrain and through some of the most politically unstable regions in Eurasia. A comprehensive approach to pipeline security would need to include efforts to modernize and harden infrastructure, improve safety standards and regulations, enhance surveillance techniques, create buffer zones and increase physical patrols. In many of these areas, international expertise can be particularly valuable.
Yuri M. Zhukov is founding director of Bering Research, a Washington, DC-based defense contracting firm. The views expressed here are his own.