Robert Bridge, an op-ed contributor for RT, in his March 28 article seemed to deny that Russia has used its energy supplies to pressure European countries during and after the end of the Cold War. Bridge’s op-ed suggested that the West “may be tempted” to use the fallout from the poisoning of ex-double agent Sergei Skripal to “slander Russia and push it out of lucrative [gas] markets” in Europe.
Bridge was referencing a statement by U.S. President Trump who said during his visit to Poland in 2017 that the U.S. was ready to help Europe reduce its energy dependence on Russia.
“America stands ready to help Poland and other European nations diversify their energy supplies so that you can never be held hostage to a single supplier,” Trump then said after talks with Polish President Andrzej Duda, adding, “Whenever you need energy, just give us a call.”
While experts question the ability of U.S. companies to help Europe substantially reduce its dependence on Russia for gas supplies in the medium and even long term, they agree that Bridge’s assertions represent speculation unsupported by either facts or logic.
As Bridge suggests, the Soviet Union and European states had a relatively stable energy relationship during the Cold War, but this has changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russian Energy Pressure
According to Jae-Seung Lee and Daniel Connolly, who researched the issue of regional energy geopolitics in the period before and after the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union forced changes in transnational energy distribution patterns, resulting in ownership and other disputes.
“It was this kind of conflict that spilled over and affected European customers in the Ukrainian crises of 2006 and 2009. It also explains Eastern European resistance to the Nord Stream pipeline,” they write.
Russia and Ukraine were both locked in a series of gas disputes in 2006 and 2009 that resulted in gas supply cut-offs affecting numerous countries in Europe, raising concerns that Moscow was using its dominant position as a gas supplier to pressure Ukraine and other European countries.
Edward Chow, an energy and security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Polygraph.info that Russia has, in fact, used its position as a dominant gas supplier to selectively pressure Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia.
European capitals thus view U.S. companies’ efforts to expand their energy market share as a way to reduce their heavy dependence on gas supplies from Russia, which in 2017 accounted for 34 percent of Europe’s total gas consumption.
But questions remain regarding the ability of the U.S. companies to do so in any foreseeable feature. The EU, for instance, estimates that supplies from LNG providers in the U.S., Norway, the UAE, and Russia could together meet only 25% of the EU gas consumption needs by 2030.
A lack of political will compounds the problem. Pavel Molchanov, an energy analyst with Raymond James, says that politicians in Europe “still pay lip service to diversifying gas supply away from Russia,” but notes that the region’s reliance on gas imports from any source is actually declining. Even then, according to the estimates in “the Roadmap of the EU-Russia Energy Cooperation until 2050,” Russia will remain one of Europe’s major natural gas suppliers.
Nord Stream 2
As part of the effort, Russia is building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to deliver gas to the European market bypassing Ukraine, which has borne the brunt of its gas supply cut-offs.
As recently as March, Russia’s Gazprom withheld the supply of $125 million worth of gas amid a dispute with Kyiv, causing a 10% gas supply shortfall for Ukraine. Garzprom also decreased pipeline pressure for gas transiting via the country to the rest of Europe.
Experts say Moscow is interested in completing Nord Stream 2 to avoid gas disputes with Ukraine and position itself as a reliable supplier to the EU. But Russia may also be seeking to undermine the reliability and position of Ukraine, which has largely weaned itself off Russia’s gas supplies for its own consumption but serves as a transit state for the gas bound for Europe.
Such disputes can therefore hold Russian gas supplies to Europe hostage, though Russia has not, according to Molchanov, directly targeted the EU in “politically motivated ways.” “…In January 2009 -- and a few other instances – Russia has sought to punish Ukraine by curtailing gas supply to Ukraine, and an indirect consequence of that was reduced gas supply to the EU. The Kremlin’s target was Ukraine, but EU countries were affected as well,” he says.
Russia Energy Weapon?
Lee and Connolly write that talking about Russia’s use of its “energy weapon” given the created energy dependencies can be misleading because it is “a complicated and multifaceted phenomenon,” as the dependencies “restrict the maneuverability” of parties involved when it comes to choosing “more extreme measures.”
Yet, this co-dependency has a twist, providing more wiggle room for Russia. Chow explains: “Russia is more dependent on the European gas market than Europe as a whole is dependent on Russia as gas supplier. However, Russia acts as one unit whereas Europe does not.”
The suggestion that Russia has not used its dominant gas supplier position as a pressure tool does not withstand scrutiny. And the op-ed speculation about a nexus between the Skripal case and the West’s alleged efforts to push Russia out of the European gas market is unsupported by facts.
The author’s evidence supporting the reasoning is a European lobbyist’s suggestion of the U.S. “getting tough” on the Nord Stream 2 effort and the German foreign minster’s suggestion that an largely unenforced U.S. sanctions law “aggressively” combines foreign policy and economic interests.
According to Chow, the Skripal case “has absolutely nothing to do with US LNG."
“The whole world suspects Russia in the Skripal case because it is the only one with the motivation and the means. It also fits a Russian pattern of behavior,” he says.
John Herbst, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine (2002-2006) and current director of the Atlantic Council's Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, says the op-ed assertions are devoid of logic. "Problem number one with this is that Britain, which took the first steps against the Kremlin, is not a gas supplier. More important, if Western companies can supply gas more cheaply than Gazprom, they will win European contracts,” he told Polygraph.info.
Herbst says the op-ed statements on the alleged Skripal nexus represent a “diversion” resting on “incorrect ideas” about the workings of the market. “It suggests that greed – something people understand – pushed the British, the Americans and twenty-five other governments to accuse the Kremlin of a bogus chemical weapons assassination attempt in the UK,” he said.
The statements, he explains, also divert attention from “Novichok” nerve agent allegedly used to poison Skripal as well as from the UK accusation of a “chemical weapons assassination” of Aleksandr Litvinenko by “a Russian state operative,” also on the UK soil, in 2006.
According to Geysha Gonzalez, the associate director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, Bridge’s reasoning involves “a series of half-truths” that ignore the instances of the Kremlin’s aggression.
“From the state-sponsored doping program to the illegal annexation of Crimea, and most recently to the use of a nerve agent in a NATO country, the Kremlin has more than warranted the expulsion of its diplomats from several nations, including the U.S.,” she told Polygraph.info.