by Harm de Blij
Since New Year’s Day, a troubling series of events has caused Europe to wonder just what kind of neighbor Russia plans to be. By virtue of a network of pipelines leading from Russian reserves to European consumers, Europe has become strongly dependent on Russian natural gas, now accounting for nearly one-quarter of all of Europe’s energy requirements. Russia, through its state-controlled monopoly Gazprom, also supplies gas to its former Soviet neighbors at prices much lower than Europeans pay. While Gazprom wants $ US 220 to 230 per 1000 cubic meters, it has been selling to Belarus at $ 47 and to Ukraine at $ 50.
But wait. Last year, Ukraine held a presidential election that pitted a Moscow-supported easterner against a Europe-favored westerner (that’s how Ukraine’s political geography fragments the country). A fraudulent first round, “won” by Russia’s favorite, precipitated mass protests. People by the hundreds of thousands took to the streets in what became known as Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution”, demanding an internationally-observed rematch. And in that rematch, the westerner, Victor Yuschenko, emerged victorious. He immediately declared his intention to guide Ukraine toward Europe and to seek ways to make it possible for Ukraine to join the European Union. In Belarus, meanwhile, Aleksandr Lukashenka kept his Soviet-style regime in power and subservient to Moscow as if the USSR never left the scene.
Take a look at the map: Ukraine and Belarus lie between the European Union and Russia. Trouble in either means problems for Europe when it comes to gas supplies: the pipelines cross these border states, and 80 percent of Europe-bound gas crosses Ukraine. And it was not long before President Putin (he whose soul was seen by George Bush) did the ham-handedly predictable: he retaliated for Ukraine’s second presidential election by raising gas prices to “market” levels. When Ukraine sought to negotiate a lower price and a transition to that new level, Putin ordered the flow reduced. When Ukraine continued to siphon off gas for its needs, European countries were the losers.
Get this: Russia is set to take the (rotating) leadership of the G-8 (G7+Russia) industrial nations this year. There is little objective justification for Russia to be a member of this group, but President Putin charmed other leaders as he did President Bush. Participation in this group of economically successful democracies, it seemed, would have favorable effects in a reorganizing Russia. Now, even as Putin’s bullying tactics raise energy concerns in Europe, Russia is also obstructing international efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Putin has repeatedly stated that he intends to restore Russia’s superpower status, and he wields his control over the gas and oil industries as an international weapon even as he concentrates power in the presidency at home. A few contradictions (supporting Islamist extremists in Iran while killing Islamic opponents in the Transcaucasus) do not detract from this goal. But in Europe, look for sensible leaders to begin thinking about an EU less dependent on the whims of Moscow. There should be a new dawn for nuclear power.
Harm de Blij is the author of Why Geography Matters. He is also Distinguished Professor of Geography at Michigan State University, former editor at the National Geographic Society, and former Landegger Chair, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. Visit his website: www.deblij.net.
Read his post “Uncle Sam Wants You…To Study Geography” HERE.