These days the amount of reports on alleged Russian interference in Western democracies would suggest that Moscow is focused on digital warfare. Together with boots on the ground in Ukraine and Syria, Russians seem to be back on the international arena in full force since its demise after the breakup of the Soviet Union in the ‘90s. However, the deep and complicated energy relationship between Europe and Russia is a much overlooked fact. Together with current developments, energy politics is arguably one of the most important and enduring aspects of Russian-European relations.
Russia supplies approximately 35% of the European gas consumption of which Germany is the biggest customer with 36% purchased from Moscow. However, Eastern European countries have the highest dependency due to historical reasons with some countries such Slovakia and Finland importing almost 100%. The negative fallout of the Soviet past has led to a strong anti-Russian sentiment in these countries. Especially after the crisis in Ukraine. Maintaining independence from Moscow and ensuring integration in the energy sector and defense cooperation with the EU is a top priority.
Currently the bulk of natural gas import from Russia comes through Ukraine. However, the contractual obligations for the use of the infrastructure ends in 2019. Moscow has repeatedly made clear its desire to bypass this country through the construction of new routes. In 2015 South Stream, a massive submerged pipeline connecting Russia via the Black Sea with European infrastructure in Bulgaria, was cancelled due to legal and financial obstacles at the start of the escalation of the Ukraine crisis. Russia has continuously sought alternatives to meet its goal of bypassing Ukraine. First by signing an agreement for Turk Stream, a smaller version of South Stream to the Turkish mainland submerged via the Black sea, and second, Nord Stream 2 to connect Russia with Germany via the Baltic Sea.
The construction of the latter has proven to be a thorny issue in European politics where Eastern European states, supported by the European Commission, have opted for cancelling the project. Berlin, however, has shown interest in the project, which would make Germany a distributing country in the heart of Europe while earning billions in transit fees.
Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, has sought to carry out this project with European partners such as Shell and French utility company Engie. After some setbacks such as heavy protests from Eastern European member states, these partners have chosen only to participate financially with Gazprom owning 51% .
The discussion concerning the construction of Nord Stream have been given an extra dimension now the US legislation has decided to enter the arena. The US senate has decided to implement new sanctions against Russian energy companies to complicate the construction of Nord Stream, because ‘the project is damaging to the energy security of the EU and Ukraine’. Germany and Austria, however, have reacted by condemning the move. According to German minister of Foreign Affairs Sigmar Gabriel: “energy politics of Europe is a matter of the EU and not the United States of America” (Mazneva & Donahue, Bloomberg; 2017). These German speaking countries accused the US of using European energy security as an excuse to export US LNG.
At the moment, the construction of the massive pipeline project seems to be a fact as almost all obstacles are overcome. However, some loopholes remain and it is not clear when construction of the infrastructure will start. Much is said, but a lot more is yet to be decided.
Vanand Meliksetian for ApricotLawyer.com
image: Getty Images (taken from BBC.com)