Putin can afford to cut off the gas; the EU cannot afford to be left without it
Yesterday, Italy’s Saipem, the gas division of the energy giant ENI, signed a 2 billion Euro contract to build the first line of the offshore section of SouthStream, the gas mega-pipeline, which Russia’s Gazprom has planned specifically to export natural gas to Europe bypassing Ukraine. On an ordinary day, this would be interesting business news; however, yesterday, the EU and the United States and other NATO countries (including Canada) announced a series of sanctions against key figures in the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The sanctions were slapped because Russia was accused of holding the region of Crimea (since 1954 formally part of Ukraine but largely Russian in ethnicity) under military occupation during a referendum that resulted in an overwhelming approval of joining the Russian Federation. Western governments – with varying degrees of enthusiasm – rejected the referendum (whose vote was 93% in favor of joining Russia), pushing for economic sanctions. For his part, Putin retorted that the referendum “complied with international law”.
Far from weak, Putin has emerged from the Crimean situation as the strong leader, who understands and plays the ‘realpolitik’ game better than any of his western counterparts. Putin has been nationalistic but decisive, while those Crimeans who voted in favor of a union with Russia, perhaps observed what has become of Egypt, Libya or Syria, whose people followed western encouragements to ‘freedom’. Putin’s Crimean claims did not emerge from a sudden whim. Russia has had real and historic interests in Crimea for over two centuries; he was defending Moscow’s access to its Black Sea fleet in Sebastopol (the birthplace of the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev). Not surprisingly, the West has acted erratically in the crisis; indeed, it had no horse in this race and the sanctions being mulled in Washington, London or Paris (less so in Berlin and Rome) are being motivated by idealism rather than realism. Certainly, while Putin is pursuing Russia’s genuine national interests, the West is not. Russia for historic reasons has always pushed its western border as ‘far west’ as possible. In the 1990’s, the Soviet Union, collapsed releasing the buffer zone states of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Ukraine from Moscow. The first three have joined NATO, which contributed to tensions in other Russian republics such as Chechnya. Now, Putin is worried that the breakaway Ukraine, will inspire or revive more secessionist movements in Russia itself from Chechnya to, Karelia and the regions in the far east.
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What are the West’s interests?
For starters, key NATO countries need Russian gas. The ENI/Saipem deal with Gazprom has come as an ironic reminder, on the day that the White House announced sanctions, that Russia is a global energy powerhouse. Saipem and Gazprom have agreed to start construction of the first submarine pipeline linking to the SouthStream pipeline’s four mainland lines – each over 931 km long – from Russia to Bulgaria as well as Austria, Croatia, Greece, Slovenia, Hungary and Serbia. Ukraine would no longer be involved. This means that whatever the issues between Russia and Ukraine over gas supplies (which has been the major trigger of Russo-Ukrainian crises such as in 2006 and 2009); the pipelines to Western Europe would not be affected. Just a few days ago, the European Commission tried to stall the South Stream pipeline consortium, freezing talks with Gazprom. Yet the consortium, controlled 50% by Gazprom (the rest being Eni 20% and 15 % each by France’s EDF and Germany’s Wintershall) had announced plans to sign a number of contracts before the end of March to start work on the project. Alexey Miller, Gazprom’s CEO, reiterated that “the South Stream project will be completed on time. There is no doubt that the gas will start to flow in December 2015”. Moreover, the blocked GreenStream pipeline from Libya to Italy – Libya being near collapse and wrought with risks that have driven away oil and gas explorer – and the continuing economic difficulties in Europe have emphasized Russia’s importance and Russia’s energy giants have the economic power to keep western Europe in check.
Russia is the EU’s main gas supplier yet the international community still dares to threaten the Kremlin with an economic embargo. This leaves more political risk for Europe than it does for Russia. So far, Europe plans a three-step sanctions program. 1. The EU will suspend talks to ease visas for Russian visitors; 2. The EU will block the accounts and issue travel bans for key figures close to the Putin governments; 3. Should Moscow pursue the Crimean crisis into eastern Ukraine, the EU plans an economic embargo. Yet, the three-step program may well be a mask or a bluff from NATO, which is actually rather powerless.
Europe’s energy transition away from nuclear power and the as yet limited reach of alternative or clean energy sources have created an ever greater reliance on Russian gas. Gas generated electricity is more acceptable than coal and Chinese pollution levels are a warning sign of the relationship between economic growth and pollution and of the need to find alternatives. So, alternatives to gas are very limited while alternatives to Russian gas are also limited. The Nabucco project – an attempt to transfer gas from the Caspian Sea region, bypassing Russia, to Western Europe – failed last year. That idea has been supplanted by the South Stream gas pipeline from Russia to Italy. Two years ago, the EU blocked the North Stream pipeline, which runs from Russia to Germany. In other EU countries, although there are LNG terminals, the price of gas varies greatly while availability is limited and the infrastructure is insufficient.
Could Norway take over? Perhaps, but it lacks the sheer amount of gas available from Russia. Surely, the spring has arrived in Europe and if Moscow were to turn off the gas to retaliate against EU sanctions, it would not have a dramatic effect – now. In the long term, EU member states would have to make heavy investments to obtain sufficient gas from other States or increase expenditure to promote a faster energy transition but the period required to achieve such shifts would cripple Europe economically. In sum, of Russia wanted to hurt the EU and keep it in economic recession – if not depression – all it has to do is stop the gas flow, Putin can afford it, even if this will leave Russian coffers empty.