Transition Online: Europe’s Escape Routes
Russia's threat in early August to nearly halve the amount of gas it exports to Belarus over unpaid bills must have brought back bad memories for many in Europe.
Memories, for instance, of earlier this year, when Russia cut off the gas that flowed through its Druzhba pipeline to Belarus in a dispute over price hikes and tariffs. At that time, a wave of disruption surged down the supply chain.
Within days, the Czech Republic and Slovakia (who rely on Russia for around 65 percent of their natural gas) saw their shipments halved. Poland and Germany began tapping reserves, and other countries looked to increase imports from other suppliers like Norway.
It was not the first time a row between Russia and one of its neighbors had held some of Europe's energy supply hostage. A similar drama had played out at the beginning of 2006 with Ukraine.
These moves signaled a new reality for the European Union: Russia leveraging its energy dominance, not afraid to wield its power in localized disputes to get its way. The blows exchanged in those fights were felt throughout the EU, and for the world's largest importer of energy - one that relies on Russia for a huge amount of gas and oil - it was a wake-up call to just how vulnerable it was if Russia wanted to press its interests beyond its immediate neighbors.
Which helps to explain the EU's push in the past 18 months to back a series of pipeline projects, largely in the south of Europe, that aim to diversify the delivery routes for energy supplies - either by circumventing Russia's vulnerable neighbors or avoiding the energy giant altogether.
"You are seeing an attempt to enhance security by making any single supplier less important to the overall picture," said Andrй Plourde, president of the International Association for Energy Economics. "If one supplier decides it is not interested in playing by the rules anymore, the impact would be smaller if you have alternatives [in sources or delivery routes] than it might otherwise be."
Not surprisingly, Russia has been resistant to EU efforts to diversify its energy supply and has not hidden efforts to undermine it: The union's most touted project, the Nabucco gas pipeline from Central Asia, received a significant blow in May, when Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Central Asia himself and closed deals with Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to build a natural gas pipeline to tap the region of much of its gas and sell it back to Europe at a huge markup.
"Russia needs security of demand, that those who are on the other end of their pipelines will definitely buy their gas," said Friedemann Mueller, an energy expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. "This is a power game and Putin is showing every day that he is in a powerful position, and we have to adjust to this new balance."
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