November 1, 2008

Natural Gas Pipelines from Russia to Europe (2005)

This map of Russian gas pipelines to Europe is a classic, with its unmistakable likeness to maps detailing Warsaw Pact plans of military conquest during the Cold War. Going further back, there is a certain resemblance to Russia's advance into Europe to overturn Napoleon, and even of the barbarian invasions of the 5th century, when the world saw the decline and fall of just about everything.

Has Russia acted badly in its use of the "natural gas" weapon, such as it is? Perhaps in certain instances, but I don't think in the most important case. The biggest controversy arose out of Russia's brief cutoff of natural gas shipments to Ukraine a few years back. The background was a pricing dispute. Russia wanted more for its gas, the price of which had risen sharply on world markets; Ukraine wanted to keep the price of gas considerably below the world price. When the Ukrainians refused to pay, Russia refused to ship. It went something like that. It was resolved after a few days.

I don't see the basis for indignation here. The Russians did have a right to be paid a higher price. Similarly circumstanced, most nations would look to the preservation of their interests in getting that higher price.

That said, those pipelines sneaking across Europe from the great Russian gas fields are a source of serious dependence, and no doubt the Russians have on occasion behaved brusquely. Each side, of course, would suffer greatly if the gas pipelines were to have their operations interrupted, so there is a powerful interest in not pushing any advantages from such dependency. Still, the thing exists.

It's somewhat like the existence of the nuclear stalemate during the Cold War. Everyone could see that nuclear war would be madness; both sides ran the serious risk of destroying themselves if they were to launch one. But it didn't seem to follow among national security elites or even in public opinion that nuclear weapons were therefore worthless. Enough people believed that they mattered, that they mattered, if I may so express myself.

The natural gas dependency, of course, is not as bone-chilling as the prospect of nuclear immolation, but its importance to both sides makes it a conditioning factor in their relations.

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