Tag Archives: North Stream

Moving forward

‘Стоим на краю пропасти. Надо идти вперед.’ (Apocryphal statement attributed to Leonid Brezhnev)

Russian-Western relations appeared to plummet even further into the abyss yesterday with the coordinated decision of around 20 Western countries to expel Russian diplomats as a response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in England. Leading the way was the United States, which is expelling 60 Russians. The next largest contingent of expelled Russians is in Ukraine, which announced that 13 Russians must leave the country. (I find it odd that Ukraine should take this act in response to something which happened in the UK, but not to what it regularly calls ‘Russian aggression’ on its own territory, but so be it.) Third on the list was Canada which is chucking out 4 Russians and refusing to accredit another 3 who had been due to arrive. Germany, meanwhile, is expelling 4 diplomats. Overall, about 100 Russians are getting their marching orders.

This is quite unprecedented. Diplomatic expulsions are normally a response to something which directly affects one’s own country. I can’t think of a precedent for a country throwing out diplomats for something unconnected to it. Perhaps such a precedent exists, but I doubt that there has ever been a mass expulsion across so many countries as this. It is a quite extraordinary act of diplomatic disapproval.

That said, it is largely symbolic. It will make it harder for Russian embassies to do what they were previously doing (which in some cases undoubtedly involves espionage), but in due course new personnel will arrive and get to work, and things will get back to the way they were before. Western diplomats will be expelled from Russia in response, temporarily messing up the work of the embassies in question, but likewise things will eventually get back to normal. People will be irritated. Mutual distrust will be stronger than ever. Attitudes will harden. It will have a decidedly negative effect. But real, concrete interests won’t suffer too much.

In this way, the refusal of the United Kingdom (and also of its allies) to take more radical measures against Russia is quite striking. It appears that the West isn’t too interested in hurting its own bottom line. And in that regard, Russia got some very good news today. Germany has granted all the permits required for the construction of the German segment of the North Stream 2 gas pipeline. A spokesman for the pipeline project stated that he was confident that the other countries involved – Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Russia – would similarly grant the required permits in ‘the coming month’.

Yesterday Germany expelled four Russian diplomats. But today it gave the go-ahead for North Stream 2 – a symbolic slap on Russia’s wrist, followed by a extremely valuable decision in Russia’s favour. If I was Russian, I’d be far more pleased by the latter than annoyed by the former. Perhaps, when it comes to what really matters, things aren’t quite as bad as they seem. The West is willing to stamp its foot and shake its fist, but it isn’t willing to put its money where its mouth is. Real progress on real issues may be possible after all, and we can move back from the abyss and forward in another direction.


Streaming nonsense

One of the declared purposes of this blog is to analyze irrational decision making processes in foreign policy. Rationality can be defined in many ways, but one is in terms of coherence of aims and means. Setting yourself an objective and then pursuing a policy which undermines that objective is not what most people would consider rational. Take, for instance, the goal of energy security. As I wrote in my Dictionary of International Security, this ‘implies guaranteed access to a reliable source of energy at a reasonable price.’ Opposing measures to improve such access, and preferring instead to preserve an unreliable source of energy supply, would not be a rational means of reaching that goal.

Yet this appears to be the European Union’s (EU) preferred method. For years a significant proportion of the natural gas Europe consumes has been bought from Russia and delivered via a pipeline running through Ukraine. This has proven not to be a ‘reliable source of energy.’ Continuous disputes between Russia and Ukraine over price and non-payment of debts, alleged siphoning off of gas, and so on, coupled with political tensions between the two countries, have resulted in Russia cutting off supplies to Ukraine on several occasions, threatening the supply of gas to the EU. A rational EU energy security policy would, therefore, not merely seek a cheap alternative source outside Russia (if that is possible), but also endeavour to bypass Ukraine so that any gas which is bought from Russia is not at risk of similar disruptions.

Given this, the North Stream pipeline which links Russia directly with Germany is entirely in keeping with the objective of European energy security. So too was the idea of South Stream, which would have delivered gas to Europe via the Black Sea and Bulgaria. But far from supporting these initiatives, the EU resolutely opposed them, and in the case of South Stream it eventually succeeded in forcing Russia to abandon the project. Now it is preparing to oppose a second North Stream pipeline.

Last week, as the Russian newspaper Kommersant reports:

Russia’s gas giant Gazprom signed a binding shareholders’ agreement with European energy companies for the construction of the Nord Stream-2 pipeline from Russia to Germany. … Gazprom will own a controlling stake, while Germany’s E.ON and BASF/Wintershall, Austria’s OMV and Royal Dutch Shell will receive 10 percent each, while France’s Engie will receive 9 percent. … The largest power companies in the UK, France, Germany and Austria signed the project, whose implementation will minimize the transit of gas through Ukraine … However, the agreement is contrary to the position of Brussels; according to Vice-President of the European Commission Maroš Šefčovič , there is no need for any gas pipelines bypassing Ukraine.

‘I hope those companies [who signed the deal with Gazprom] understand their responsibility for the overall security of supply for the whole of Europe, not only for parts of it’, Mr Šefčovič said. Polish president Andrzej Duda also opposed the deal, which he says ‘completely neglects Polish interests.’ ‘The insecurity in this context stems from the egoism of some nations and their complete disregard for the interest of other nations,’ Duda said. ‘That makes it hard to believe in Europe’s unity.’

I find Duda’s statement a little hard to understand. At present, while some gas comes from Russia via Poland, the Ukrainian route goes through Slovakia. Diverting gas from Ukraine to North Stream-2 doesn’t mean less money for Poland, or even a less secure supply. Likewise, the EU’s position as a whole doesn’t make much sense. The EU says that it would prefer to continue using Ukraine, but upgrading the pipeline there would require huge investments and given the turmoil in that country nobody is prepared to spend the money required.

The only explanation I can come up with for the EU’s position is that this is actually a matter of geopolitics. Russia is the current ‘bête-noire’, which must be isolated. Projects which strengthen Russia are therefore a bad thing per se. Ukraine, by contrast, must be supported. According to one account, ‘Brussels is worried that cash-strapped Ukraine would be hard hit if it lost crucial income from transit fees in the events of Russia shifting its gas to other routes.’ Propping up Ukraine, it seems, is considered more important than having a cheap and reliable source of energy. Thus, if Šefčovič and Duda have their way, under the guise of ‘energy security’, Europeans will end up paying more for their gas. Whatever else it may be, this isn’t a rational energy policy.