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Dependence on Russian gas worries some – but not all – European countries

Gazprom rattled the European Union by cutting – then restoring –Ukraine's gas supply this week.

By David FrancisContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / March 6, 2008

Stream Lined: In Lubmin, Germany, a worker loads pipes for a natural-gas pipeline that will link Russia and Europe via the Baltic Sea.

Thomas Haentzschel/AP



A month after Russia cut off gas supplies to the Ukraine for the first time in 2006, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the European Union – which gets 40 percent of its gas from Russia – needed to develop a common energy policy over the next 15 years to guarantee supply security.

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At the same time, Russian energy monopoly Gazprom, along with its German partners E.On and BASF-Wintershall, were deciding on "Nord Stream" as the name for a pipeline that would make Germany heavily dependent on Russia for energy for decades to come.

Two years later, rumors of a common European energy policy are again circling Brussels. Russia rattled the European Union this week when it cut Ukrainian shipments by half, prompting Ukraine to threaten –briefly – to siphon Russian gas sent to Europe via Ukraine. Gazprom announced Wednesday that it was resuming full shipments.

But individual nations continue to make deals that make them reliant on Russia for the long term. This tension between the recognized need for a common market and nations acting in their own long-term energy security interests is at the core of a growing European rift over how to deal with Russia.

On one side are countries like Germany, who view Russia as a key strategic partner and are willing to rely on Gazprom. On the other are former Soviet-bloc countries, like Ukraine, which believe Russia will continue to use Gazprom as a blunt instrument of foreign policy.

The European Union, meanwhile, is largely absent from this debate. Talk of a common energy market died soon after Ms. Merkel made her 2006 statement.

Instead, the EU has adopted a plan to cut emissions and improve energy efficiency in member states by 20 percent by the year 2020 as a means to lessen dependence on Russian fuel.

But it's up to the member states to enact this plan, and these reductions will do little to wean Germany and other EU members, including France, Italy, Austria, and Greece from their Russian energy dependence.

In Berlin, there has been little support for Merkel's concerns about overreliance on Russia. There was initially some outrage about former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's role in Nord Stream – he pushed the pipeline through as chancellor, and then took a lucrative job as chairman of the shareholder's committee after leaving office. But this outrage has died.

"There's a broader feeling in Germany that everything is fine in Russia," said Alexander Rahr, director of the Russia program at the German Council on Foreign Relations. Germans "had different expectations about the breakdown of the Soviet Union. But there is not fear of Russia."