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 , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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."

Mr. Rahr criticized Russia's political situation and expressed hope that it could change under newly elected President Dmitri Medvedev, the former chairman of Gazprom.

But unlike the United States, which chides Russians over constraints on democracy, Germans reluctantly accept Russia as it has shaped up under President Vladimir Putin. They view antidemocratic practices as the price of stability following the turmoil of former President Boris Yeltsin's final years. Berlin is willing to work with Moscow, even if payments to Gazprom bolster the Russian political machine.

"It may not be the world that we wanted to create," Rahr says of Russia, "but it's a reality. What we need is an interest-driven policy, a realpolitik."

As many Germans point out, Russia never cut supplies to Germany during the cold war. "Russia has vast gas reserves and has been a reliable partner for many years," says Nord Stream spokeswoman Maud Amelie Hanitzsch.

Central European countries see matters differently. Poland and the Czech Republic – both bypassed by Nord Stream, whose route follows the more expensive option of traveling under the Baltic Sea – warn that Russia is becoming increasingly aggressive and is retaking its cold war-era posture as Central Europe has strengthened its ties with the United States.

"The Russians don't like that someone is putting their nose in their sphere of influence," a high-ranking Czech diplomat says, referring to the planned US-Czech missile shield. This diplomat stresses that Prague views the Russians as partners. But, he adds, "We were very saddened by some Russian rhetoric … rhetoric about pointing nuclear arms at us, rhetoric about a new arms race."

US officials echo this view, but in stronger language. As deputy assistant secretary of State Matt Bryza said recently: "We don't want our European allies in a position to choose between Gazprom and freezing."

But the general sentiment in Washington toward dealing with Russia and Gazprom was perhaps best summed up at a recent talk in Washington by James Woolsey, who served as CIA director under former President Bill Clinton. "If you meet a really smart, articulate 45-year-old guy at the Noga Hilton bar in Geneva, and he says he's with Gazprom and he'd like to talk to you about a joint venture in some part of the world, he might be what he says he is," Mr. Woolsey said. "He might be a Russian intelligence officer under commercial cover. He might be a senior member of some Russian organized-crime family. And the really interesting thing is that there's a pretty good chance that he's all three, and that none of those institutions have any problem with that at all."

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