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NATO summit highlights U.S.-Europe divide on Russia

Opposition to Ukraine and Georgia's US-backed membership bids, led by Germany, is widely seen as an effort to preserve Europe's growing energy ties with Moscow.

By David FrancisContributor / April 4, 2008


The defeat of Ukraine and Georgia's US-backed bid for NATO membership this week in Bucharest, Romania, highlights an energy-driven fault line between the US and Europe: how to deal with Russia.

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Europe's strong opposition to admitting the ex-Soviet states, led by Berlin, was widely seen as an effort to preserve ties with Russia. Moscow firmly opposes further NATO expansion in its backyard and has growing energy ties with Europe, especially Germany.

"Undoubtedly there are those from the business community who have business interests [with Russia] who are weighing in on the side of delaying Ukraine and Georgia membership," says Clifford Gaddy, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "They don't want to antagonize Russia."

Washington often portrays Russia as a dangerous partner that is using energy as a manipulative foreign-policy tool. But only a smattering of European countries, such as the Czech Republic and Poland, share that view.

Many Western European diplomats and politicians argue that individual European nations are becoming more and more comfortable dealing with Russia. They see it as a strategic partner and are moving to strengthen ties with Moscow.

At the same time, tensions with the US over the Iraq war have strained US-European relations. Europeans argue that Russia needs Europe as much as Europe needs Russia.

"The Russians are weak without energy revenue. This is why they need Europe. And Europe is becoming more and more comfortable dealing with Russia," says Jörg Himmelreich, an expert on Russia at the German Marshall Fund. "The relationship between the United States [and Europe] has gone sour in recent years, and Russia has stepped up as a better partner."

Today, Europe gets roughly half its natural gas and 30 percent of its oil from Russia. Those ties are growing.

Indeed, deals such as the Nord Stream pipeline, which would run under the Baltic Sea, are as important to Russia as they are to Germany, says Mr. Himmelreich. He points out that the energy revenues which have fueled Russian economic growth after the ruble crashed in 1998. This revenue – which helped Vladimir Putin to rise in popularity over the course of his presidency – has come primarily from Europe.

This codependency is especially true in Germany's case. Russia has steadily supplied German gas for nearly four decades. Now, Russian energy monopoly Gazprom, along with its German partners E.On and BASF-Wintershall, are building the Nord Stream pipeline that would make Germany nearly entirely dependent on Russia for energy.