OH, What a Tangled Web of Gas Pipeline Projects!
Journal of Turkish Weekly (JTW)
One of the causes most often given for the start of World War One is the maze of bilateral treaties that had been signed between the European powers of the day. One country was obliged to declare war against another because it had signed a mutual defense pact to come to its ally’s aid in case of an attack.
Today, it’s not tangled defense treaties that threaten European stability but rather a web of gas pipeline projects – none of which address the real problem with the continent’s energy policy.
The Russians have at least two pipeline projects on the table, Nord Stream and South Stream, which wouldprovide a direct connection to their two best European customers, Germany and Italy respectively.
Implicit in the acceptance of the Russian projects is that Ukraine, which transits 80 percent of Europe’s eastern gas supplies, is an unreliable partner.
Unfortunately, following the flare-up of another Christmas-time gas standoff between Ukraine and Russia, the Kremlin currently looks just as unreliable if not more in the eyes of its Western customers.
Even if one agreed that Ukraine hadn’t been paying for the gas it imported from Russia, why did Moscow let the debt get out of hand? Why did it respond so harshly? Why was the whole business so shady and steeped in politics?
Ukraine, of course, has not come out of the affair unscathed either. Like Russia, it forfeited a load of badly needed revenues and further soiled its bid to integrate with Europe.
And also like Russia, Ukraine has its own pipeline project, White Stream, which as one might expect goes around Russia and through Ukraine to Europe.
Then there is the American favorite, the Nabucco pipeline, which goes around both Russia and Ukraine through the darling of the Bush Administration, Georgia, and then NATO member Turkey.
No one in Washington apparently wants to consider the possibility that the Turks will get sick of applying for EU membership and replace the country’s military elite with an Islamist regime.
For that matter, neither Russia, Ukraine, the United States or anyone else seem to want to consider the possibility that Central Asia will fall under a “non-European’ influence. But considering how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are going, is this really such a far-fetched scenario?
At the very least, the leaders of countries such as Turkmenistan must have realized long ago that they own the goose that lays the golden eggs. Neighbors such as China and India are also willing to pay for hydrocarbons to fuel their developing economies.
But that’s all down the road, along with American and European plans to invest in renewable energy. Solar shields, wind farms, etc. take a lot of long-term investment. And for the time being, there is lots of money to be made from selling gas and oil.
Instead, we are hearing the always progressive-minded Europeans talking about building new storage facilities so as not to be caught in a lurch again. This strategy, of course, completely ignores the root problem of ‘unreliable’ suppliers.
Putin’s Kremlin has never made it a secret that it intends to use the country’s position as a major gas supplier to extend its geopolitical influence.
This geopolitical influence includes preventing former Soviet republics like Georgia and Ukraine from joining NATO.
The recent gas war, which didn’t bring the Kremlin the results it expected, was actually the latest in a series of moves to increase Russian control over its immediate neighbors.
The Kremlin had previously been successful in keeping European energy policy divided by cutting deals with individual countries. It also had appeared to be reversing global condemnation of its short war against Georgia.
Indeed, it’s not difficult to believe that Moscow may eventually be able to gloss over its behavior during the recent gas war. A little money and time have a way of melting the iciest of criticism.
Ukraine, unfortunately, is short of both money and time. If the world’s rich countries are reluctant to invest in alternative fuels and greater efficiency, what can one expect from cash-strapped Kyiv?
Ukraine could open up its hydrocarbon fields to international investment. Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has already managed to get rid of the shady intermediary companies that controlled gas imports from Russia.
However, it takes time for such measures to pay off.
Which brings us back to Russia.
Forget about the Kremlin’s PR effort against Ukraine in Europe. The Ukrainians are already rolling over on their own.
Rumors about what Tymoshenko had to concede to the Kremlin in order to get rid of the intermediary companies and keep import prices low were still circulating when she announced during a trip to Germany last weekend that she was asking Moscow for a loan.
Speaking to journalists, however, Tymoshenko denied media reports that she had agreed to sign an agreement yielding Soviet-era assets to Russia.
The list of other possible Ukrainian concessions is long: renewing the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s lease on its base in Crimea, making Russian an official language, connecting Crimea to southern Russia by a bridge, subordinating Orthodox churches in Ukraine to Moscow and refraining from joining NATO.
NATO membership for Ukraine has become all but a distant dream anyway, with even the Americans throwing in the towel for now.
And as newly sworn-in Vice President Joe Biden begins to formulate the U.S.’s post-Bush foreign policy, one is reminded of the days of Jimmy Carter.
Ok, they will close Guantanamo and promise to no longer torture suspected terrorists – hurray. But will the U.S. stick up for Georgia and go forward with its missile defense system or not?
I think not.
As for the Kremlin, it doesn’t have to take Tbilisi or Kyiv by storm to achieve its goals. It will work from the inside to make sure the pro-Western Saakashvili and Yushchenko are sent packing by their own impoverished people.
But even as the border between the EU and the former Soviet Union becomes more defined, it will remain crisscrossed up, down and across by a multitude of competing gas-pipeline projects capable of upsetting the geopolitical applecart well into the near future.
John Marone, a columnist of Eurasian Home website, Kyiv, Ukraine
Tuesday, 10 February 2009