While we try to keep our content as tightly focused on Central Asia as we can, the state of the world today sometimes requires us to extend our gaze farther afield. Since it is difficult to discuss Central Asia’s energy markets and politics without also discussing Russia, and doubly difficult to discuss Russia’s local interests without considering its larger ambitions, both within Europe and in a global sense, sometimes a discussion must be much more global in outlook, while maintaining a definite interest for our geographic specialty.
Steve LeVine, whom I consider a kindred spirit in his obvious frustration at the U.S.’s strategic nonchalance in the face of a Russia with clearly expansionist ambitions on the energy—and especially natural gas—markets (see here, here, here, here, and here, for starters), points to an interview Foreign Policy conducted with Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor and the single American most responsible for the mijahideen and, eventually, al-Qaeda (he says it was worth it).
FP: Will Russia’s influence on the European Union continue to grow? There have been many dire warnings about EU member states’ reliance on Russian energy. Do you believe this is a threat, and can Europe wean itself off Russian energy?
ZB: It’s a potential long-range threat. It is not yet a threat. If Europe and the United States jointly do not do what is needed to obtain great diversification of access to energy, Europe could become politically vulnerable. This is why it’s important to the West to see access to the Caspian Sea energy resources and beyond the Caspian to Central Asia. This is why the West should promote such projects at the Nabucco pipeline through southeastern Europe to central Europe.
Nabucco only gets you so far, however. At the moment, gas must traverse Russia pipelines to reach it. LeVine’s solution—one he shares with a number of people, including this author, is the trans-Caspian pipeline, which has been more or less stillborn for a while now. That’s not to say it’s dead, but these things take a lot of time.
Russia, meanwhile, is pushing through Nordstream.
Notice how that pipeline goes along the seabed of the Baltic. Such a thing is hellishly expensive to build, especially for 1200 km. Building it overland, through Lithuania and Poland, would be much cheaper.
Cost, however, is only one consideration when it comes to big, national oil projects. The BTC pipeline, for example, was not the cheapest solution to avoid clogging the Bosporus and breaking Russia’s monopoly on Central Asian energy exports—running a pipe through Iran was. Similarly, a trans-Caspian pipeline is not the cheapest solution to making an end-run around Russia: going through Iran is. Of course, doing anything to acknowledge the potential of a positive role for Iran is more or less verboten in American politics these days, even if using their shiny new port on the Gulf of Oman might offer some good commercial leverage with Pakistan.
Russia is simply, and naturally, uninterested in doing the most economical thing to get its gas to Northern Europe. They want to sell to Germany at a discount, and gouge the rest of the former Eastern Bloc into economic submission—much as they have tried with Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. This is not a moral consideration, at least primarily. It is just smart, and damnably clever, geopolitics.
Seen in that context, the leadership of Nordstream is a fascinating beast: within a month of his resignation as Chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schroeder was installed as a high-ranking employee of Gazprom, the state-owned Russian gas company building Nordstream. It is the only time I am aware of a head of state has become the million-Euro-a-year employee of another state’s government-owned corporation. It is a stunning arrangement: the equivalent of George W. Bush going work for Halliburton on February 10, 2008, right after securing them a massive new contract in Iraq. It was a move so shocking the Washington Post at the time wondered if this employment bargain was the result of Schroeder’s dogged refusal to condemn Vladimir Putin’s constant erosion of Russia’s civil liberties—the conflicts of interest were that severe.
But the intrigue of Nordstream’s executive leadership is almost beside the point; what matters is that this pipeline will be a geopolitical disaster for the EU, as it would essentially lock them into being dependent on Russian energy beneficence for the foreseeable future. Perhaps emboldened by their recent “soft” success over the fallout of the Statue Riots (which mistakenly turned them into the poster child for how advanced countries can be victimized by next-generation “fifth wave” warfare), Estonia has begun resisting the Nordstream, especially now that Russia has announced its intentions to secure the pipeline’s construction through Russian naval forces. But there are difficulties in opposing the pipeline’s construction, especially at sea: in 1995, both Estonia and Finland voluntarily receded (pdf) their sea borders by 3 miles to create a 6 mile wide international sea lane in the northern Baltic, and this is where Russia will construct the first stage of Nordstream. Either or both can revoke its side of the treaty on 12 month’s notice, but such a move is unlikely given the way Russia has positioned itself.
What matters for Central Asia is that this dagger at Europe’s throat (as LeVine vividly draws it) will be built on the back of cheap Central Asian gas. Despite its nearly 50% price hike last June, Turkmeni gas still largely subsidizes Russia’s pipe network, as it is so much cheaper than many of their Siberian fields and makes for handy (and profitable) export to wayward vassals like Ukraine. Similarly, Nursultan Nazarbayev has displayed a curious apathy at his increasingly Russia-monopolized gas stocks, in particular the Kashagan field everyone seems to be salivating over.
Where all of this will head is unclear. Europe remains crippled by its lack of a coherent, EU-level energy policy—the resultant bilateral deals Gazprom has shrewdly negotiated will keep piling up into a tangled mess no one will be able to solve without a drastic step like (I am speculating) nationalization. But even then, the dependency Gazprom will have built up will create enormous headaches. Similarly, Russia, through Gazprom, is playing for keeps. The United States is not, and so long as that mismatch in national priorities persists the Kremlin will continue to outmaneuver the White House as it corners global energy markets.
Update: Ben at neweurasia.net weighs in with a lot of good thoughts, and a plea for temperance.