Nord Stream and the Reality of Russia's 'Gas Weapon'

The 8th of November 2011 marks a new beginning in energy relations between the EU and Russia. Bypassing traditional transit countries, such as Belarus and Ukraine, the Nord stream pipeline will permit natural gas to be directly delivered from Russia to Germany. Registered in Switzerland and chaired by ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, the structure behind Nord Stream AG does not appear to be clear and transparent at all. European dependence on Russian fossil fuels has always raised concern about vital energy business being turned into a political weapon. The launch of this new pipeline is set to increase these declamations, possibly exacerbating the existing talk of a new cold war.

The European Commission recently adopted the principles of Roadmap 2050, committing Europe to a new low-carbon revolution in energy policies. Natural gas has been designated the new bridge to help transfer energy production from coal and oil to renewables after 2030. It is preferable due to its “green favour” and highly efficient technologies. Furthermore, it can be seen as a response to the nuclear alarm raised by events concerning the Fukushima plant in Japan which has come to dominate energy policy discussions recently.

It is believed that the EU’s consumption demand for natural gas will increase by 2030 by 43%. Simultaneously, a decline in European domestic production will take place. This poses the question; where and from whom will the EU look for its gas supplies? The current trend of increasing Russian gas predominance in Europe, which already accounts for half of all gas imported, is expected to grow over 60%, but this is highly questionable. Russian influence does however look likely to last well into the future.  Examination of Russia as a reliable partner is therefore absolutely crucial and should dominate the discussion, rather than be addressed through speculation about what is clearly an inevitable position.

The interesting origins of today’s situation offer insight into the Cold War. The very first contracts in energy partnership between Soviets and Western partners (namely Italy and Austria) were apparently signed only six weeks before the Warsaw Pact’s armies entered Czechoslovakia, in 1968. The then new, giant pipeline “Brotherhood”, bringing gas from Siberia towards West Europe, demonstrated another interest of Moscow; to keep the central European countries behind the Iron Curtain. Within two years West Germany and others began negotiations for gas supplies. This “hidden integration” demonstrates how the significance of gas business prompted strong ideological, political and military differences to be overcome. Continuing demand for natural gas from Western Europe paradoxically created competition within the Soviet Union itself.  The lack of technology and a large pipeline system meant frequent disruption for gas users, but not in the democratic West. Moscow’s delicate decision had been to not break its export commitments and, instead, sacrifice the gas supply to industries and households within its own borders.

This situation has not changed and even in recent years we have witnessed Russian citizens short of gas in winter when a choice has to be made. This demonstrates the importance of the gas revenues coming from the EU. Therefore it is essential to talk about mutual dependence rather than simply the EU’s vulnerability. Real apprehensions appeared during the Ukraine-Russia disputes in 2006 and 2009.

The economic aspect of this conflict over the price of gas and transit fees, as claimed by Moscow, seems somewhat unjustified, as Russia’s loyal ally Belarus continued to pay the same low price throughout. Sensitive political issues such as the “Orange Revolution” and Ukraine’s NATO and EU ambitions more likely illuminate the political motives behind Russia’s cut-off. The situation must be put in the context of Ukraine’s unique historical, cultural and strategic position; none of the EU countries is as deep within the Moscow sphere of interest as Ukraine is.  Disruption on a principal energy route is not an attractive option for Russia given that the country’s image is likely to be harmed vis a vis prospective EU investment which is hugely needed for the opening of new fields related to Siberian gas.

It is unlikely in a regular conflict situation that Russia would use its “gas weapon” against Europe. The price Russia would have to pay is simply too high. The unsatisfactory nature of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy needs to be regenerated in order to produce an adequate Energy Policy. A possible threat to the EU’s energy supplies may occur when considering the market for competition from major players such as East Asia. From this perspective we must consider also future and essential diversification of European gas imports, and not only debate the irrelevant neo-imperial pressure from Moscow.

Martin Paletar is studying for a BA International Law and International Politics at London Metropolitan University