Russia and the West
No divide, no rule
From The Economist print edition
A troubling new pipeline deal is a symbol of the West's inability to cope with Russia
THESE are bleak and unsettling times if you believe that Russia and the West ought to be better friends. By common consent, the mood has not been so icy since Soviet days. Russia says it feels encircled by NATO expansion and proposed American missile defences, patronised on human rights and assailed by double standards. The West finds Russia's pushy foreign policy, increasingly authoritarian manner and growing grip on its energy supplies alarming.
A summit late this week between the European Union and Russia's Vladimir Putin looks likely to agree on nothing; ex-communist countries such as Poland and Lithuania are determined to veto talks on a new partnership agreement so long as they are subject to Russian trade sanctions and other pressure. Visits earlier in the week to Moscow by the American secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and by Germany's Frank-Walter Steinmeier, produced only a half-hearted promise to cool some of the more heated rhetoric (see article).
Doing that is no bad thing—but the worst words have come from one side only. Mr Putin recently seemed to liken America to Nazi Germany. Ms Rice merely called trends in Russia “troubling”. The American media are harsher—but, perhaps contrary to Kremlin belief, she is not to blame for that.
The idea of Russia being tricked and humiliated by a mighty, well-organised Western camp led by a power-hungry America is preposterous. The truth is that Russia, having first scared its neighbours into NATO by its bullying behaviour, is currently outmanoeuvring a divided and indecisive West on almost every front—and especially on energy.
Last week Mr Putin struck a crucial if provisional deal with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan on routing their gas exports to Europe via Russia. Along with his recent schmoozing of Algeria and Qatar, this threatens to exacerbate Europe's energy insecurity, kyboshing the hope of importing large quantities of Central Asian gas without Russian involvement. The idea was to hook up Europe to the region's gas reserves with a new pipeline under the Caspian Sea, and then an existing one through the Caucasus and Turkey. The obstacles to the Caspian scheme are formidable; the Kremlin can offer the Turkmen and Kazakhs incentives, such as unquestioning support for their domestic policies, that the West cannot. But the existing Caucasian pipeline once looked just as unlikely; political will turned it into reality, and could still save the Caspian scheme.
Russia can hardly be blamed for maximising the economic benefits of its energy riches and geography; every other poor, resource-rich country does the same. But that does not mean that Europe should simply acquiesce. Whatever the pipeline arrangements, it should aim for greater resilience in the face of Russian pressure. It should liberalise its own energy industries, pay for better gas storage, build more interconnecting pipes and power lines, and invest more in liquefied natural gas terminals. The deeper and more liquid Europe's energy markets are, the harder it is for an outsider to manipulate them.
Most important of all, the West must resist Russia's attempts to pick and choose among its customers. The Kremlin seems not fully to accept that its Baltic, Balkan and central European neighbours are as independent as the countries of western Europe are. The centrepiece of Russian policy is to strike bilateral deals: with the big members of the EU, notably Germany, and with weakly governed new members such as Hungary, Latvia and Bulgaria. By seeming to accept this divide-and-rule policy, the Europeans undermine themselves. That is why the German-backed gas pipeline under the Baltic, and the agreement of Hungary and others to a Russian gas pipeline through the Balkans, are so damaging.
Russia's combination of ruthlessness, ambition and wealth is unique and scary. But it should not be intimidating. Europe should accept that a bad deal with the Kremlin is worse than no deal at all. Germany, in particular, needs to be less fixated on friendship with Russia, no matter what. But there is no need to declare a new cold war, whether over energy supplies or more generally. Europe's dependence on Russia for gas and oil is sure to continue, but need not be harmful. After all, it makes Russia dependent on Europe as its main market; talk of switching supplies to China is a pipedream in the absence of pipelines, which take both years and oodles of money to build. The way to bring more equality to the relationship of bullying supplier and anxious buyer is for Europe to stand united against Russian attempts to divide it.