[Letters] Gas and geopolitics: Prospects for Russia

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[Letters] Gas and geopolitics: Prospects for Russia

Russia possesses the world’s largest proven gas reserves. It is also the largest producer and exporter of natural gas. Since Europe is short of hydrocarbons, it relies on Russia for much of its natural gas requirements. Russian gas constitutes more than a quarter of natural gas consumed by the European Union. Besides, Russia’s bilateral ties with transit nations like Ukraine and Baltic states also play a determining factor in the continuity of gas supplies to Europe. The Russia-Ukraine gas dispute in early 2009 very well exposed the vulnerability of Europe to disruptions.

Even though the West is backing the proposed Nabucco gas pipeline, connecting Turkey to Austria, in an effort to reduce European dependence on Russian gas, serious doubts remain on its political feasibility and economic viability, owing to its diverse gas sources such as Iraq, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Moreover, the pipeline is planned to pass through restive areas of the South Caucasus and Eastern Turkey. Therefore, security is a major hurdle circumscribing the prospects of this project. To further undermine Nabucco’s prospects, Russia, along with Italy, has launched a rival South Stream pipeline project. It will transport Russian natural gas via the Black Sea to Bulgaria and further to Greece, Italy and Austria. The project being executed jointly by Russian giant Gazprom and Italy’s Eni is expected to go on full stream by 2015, much before the proposed commissioning of Nabucco in 2017. Even if completed in time, Nabucco could only feed a limited number of countries.

These pipelines are bound to make Russia the undisputed energy feeder to Europe, making it capable of enjoying an unprecedented influence over the continent at a time when all of its major economies are reeling under serious debt crises. To quote the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during the launch of Nord Stream, “It marks a significant step in relations between Russia, the EU, Germany and a number of other countries that participated in the project.”

Expanding the scope of its energy diplomacy of late, Russia has tried to diversify its gas exports by finding new customers. In this attempt, a pipeline has already been laid to China. Russia has proposed to lay a pipeline to feed the Korean Peninsula in an effort to reduce tensions between the North and South and give a boost to the impoverished North Korean economy. Plans are also underway to take supplies to maritime neighbor Japan as well as to Southeast Asia. The Eastern Siberia?Pacific Ocean oil pipeline is already pumping Russian crude to Japan, China and Korea. Since Asian economies’ appetite for energy is huge, this diversification of supplies to the Asia-Pacific will ensure guaranteed demand for Russian gas. It will also enable Moscow to have a greater say in the affairs of the region, which is certainly the most important geopolitical hotspot at present. It’s an opportune moment for Russia whereby, by wisely and judiciously making use of its geography, it can establish itself as a strong pole in the emerging global order.

Sameer Jafri, a political analyst based in India
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