The October 4 Russia-EU summit in London, as well as the talks Russian President Vladimir Putin held with Belgian leaders in Brussels on October 3 and with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on October 5, once again laid bare an important aspect of modern geopolitical realities: when global demand for energy grows steeply and world energy resources steadily peter out, the coveted hydrocarbons develop amazing strategic leverage. During his European tour the Kremlin leader has made clear that he is well aware of this fact and going to exploit it to the fullest.
The recent Russian-European encounter has also demonstrated the existence of two troubling trends in EU-Russia relations. First, while Russia and Europe drift closer to one another due to mutual economic interests, the two sides’ understanding of some important political matters, including democratic values and rule of law, continues to diverge. Second, Russia seems as eager as ever to resort to the old tactics of divide-and-rule: even when Putin meets with the EU as a single entity, he still prefers to do business with the European leaders one-on-one, cutting advantageous bargains with the individual EU countries.
Most Russian analysts specifically stress Russia’s growing significance for the EU not only as a key energy supplier, but, more importantly, as a principal guarantor of Europe’s energy security. Moscow’s pivotal role will only increase as the turmoil in the Middle East persists, and the offshore gas reserves in the North Sea continue to deplete.
Putin himself alluded to Russia being an “indispensable country,” when he noted, at the London news conference, that about one-third of Europe’s oil comes from Russia and that some countries depend on Russia for 90% of their gas. He added, however, that all the talk about Europe’s rising dependency on Russian energy exports is exaggerated. But at the newly formed EU-Russia forum on energy cooperation, which met in London one day before Putin’s arrival, Russian Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko predicted that by 2020 up to 70% of Europe’s total demand for gas would be met by Russian supplies. Some influential Western commentators appear to confirm the accuracy of this forecast. “Russia is a huge and expanding energy exporter and Western Europe is a large and expanding energy importer,” British ambassador to Russia Anthony Brenton told journalists in Moscow.
A number of Moscow experts argue that, strategically, one of the most important outcomes of the London summit was the EU endorsement of the North European underwater pipeline project. It was a hard-fought victory, they add, as the bloc finally approved the construction of the pipeline running from Russia to Germany, despite the overt, fierce resistance on the part of the East European countries and the Balts.
In their talks, Putin and Blair reportedly discussed the possible extension of the North European pipeline to Britain via Belgium. Remarkably, at the time of the Kremlin leader’s visit to Brussels, the Belgians announced plans to build a huge underground storage facility to contain Russian natural gas. While in London, Putin also met with a number of leaders from Western and Northern Europe who expressed their interest in increasing imports of Russian natural gas and building spurs leading from the main Baltic underwater pipeline to terminals in their countries.
The leaders from Eastern Europe – seen as irreparably Russophobic by the Kremlin – were conspicuously excluded from what is pompously billed as the EU-Russia energy dialog. “Russia is using energy to divide EU countries from each other,” remarked one Western analyst gloomily. No wonder the situation looks differently from Moscow’s perspective. The North European pipeline project, suggests a Russian expert, seems to “become a more effective instrument of Moscow’s foreign policy in Europe than the Group of Soviet Armed Forces in Germany had been in the past.”
Russia’s deft usage of its enormous energy riches in pursuing both economic and political ends indeed poses a serious problem for the EU, as it reveals the bloc’s inability to fashion a coherent common foreign policy, including a common strategy toward Russia. Symptomatically, on the eve of the London summit, a group of policymakers from Eastern Europe that included Bronislaw Geremek, currently a member of the European Parliament and former foreign minister of Poland, called on the EU countries’ leaders “to abandon any private strategies in relation to Russia,” adding that the Union “should not accept Russia’s use of its energy resources as a means of exerting political pressure on its neighbors.” It would appear, however, that for European heavyweights such as Germany and Britain, their energy security needs is the highest priority.
Naturally, Russian strategists positively view the growing decentralization of the decision-making process within the EU and the decrease in the European Commission’s authority, interpreting these trends as the byproducts of the current EU crisis. They believe Moscow’s interests will be better secured if the bloc continues to evolve more toward the liberal free-trade zone and away from the pan-European quasi-state model.
(Nezavisimaya gazeta, The Times, October 6; Moskovsky komsomolets, Vremya novostei, Vedomosti, October 5; Politcom.ru, Financial Times, October 4; Wall Street Journal, October 3; Reuters, October 2)