[Viewpoint]Russian gas politics

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[Viewpoint]Russian gas politics

There is a joke Russians make to explain why their country is especially abundant in natural resources. They say that after God created the world, he flew around like Santa Claus, evenly distributing natural resources to each region. When he came to the skies above Siberia, it was so cold that his hands froze and he dropped his bag by accident. All that was left spilled out. God then quickly covered the area with ice to cover his mistake. This is why every mineral in Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic table is buried under Russian soil.

Of all the underground resources that Russia boasts, natural gas is the most important. Twenty-seven percent of the natural gas reserves of the entire world are in Russia, and the country ranks first in the world when it comes to the production and export of the gas.

Surprisingly, Russia started to export gas to Western Europe when it was still the U.S.S.R. Gas pipeline construction, which started behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1960s at the height of the Cold War, had penetrated deep into capitalist Western Europe a few years later.

Gas produced in the Soviet Union was supplied to West Germany for the first time in history in 1973. This was the result of the historic contract concluded between Leonid Brezhnev, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union at the time, and West German Chancellor Willy Brandt. Despite consistent pressure from the United States, Brandt, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971 for his “Ostpolitik” policy of reconciliation with socialist countries in Eastern Europe, accomplished a shocking deal that went against the current of the Cold War era.

Since then, gas pipelines have spread from Germany to France and then to other Western European countries like a spider web. The export network that today connects most European countries was completed at the end of the 1980s.

Gas exports to Western European countries became a solid source of funds that supported the economy of the socialist Soviet Union. The gas network in Europe, which was created mainly for economic reasons during the Cold War era, has now changed into a political weapon.

Europe has experienced its second severe gas crisis in three years, following the one it suffered in January 2006. The crisis started when Russia, in a gas price dispute with Ukraine, closed off all gas pipelines that went to Europe through Ukraine, by which Europe receives most of its imported gas.

In a cold snap that caused the mercury to drop to below 10 degrees Celsius, residents of many European countries ended up having to shiver in the cold because they had no heat. Factories and power plants stopped operation, and schools and hospitals were closed. Some countries even declared a national state of emergency.

Outwardly, this appears to be a purely economic problem. It started when Russia demanded that the special gas prices applied to former republics of the Soviet Union rise greatly to meet international standards, but Ukraine refused.

Beneath the surface, however, is the Russian strategy of using energy as a tool with which to exert political pressure. These are all part of calculated moves aimed at showing the power of Russia.

The unwilling audience to this display is Ukraine, as the former Soviet state is following a pro-Western line by pursuing NATO and European Union membership after its 2004 Orange Revolution, and its supporters in the West.

The repetitive gas crises in Europe are a cause of concern for Korea, too, as the country is pursuing the introduction of Russian gas through pipelines.

President Lee Myung-bak visited Russia in September last year and agreed to receive 7.5 million tons of natural gas for 30 years, starting in 2015. Many different methods of transport are currently under review, but the plan to construct an overland pipeline from Vladivostok to Korea through North Korea is the most promising.

If this happens, the Korean Peninsula will also be influenced by Russia’s gas politics. It will be possible for Russia to use the pipelines to press its strategic goals on the peninsula. Moreover, in the middle we have North Korea, which changes its position much more often than Ukraine does.

Before researching the feasibility of the project and concluding a formal agreement, which is scheduled for 2010, we should provide a thorough security apparatus that can guarantee a stable gas supply. There is no need to stress that energy security is just as important as national security. This is a lesson we can learn from looking at Europe.

*The writer is an international news reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Yoo Chul-jong
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