Naftogaz, Ukraine’s gas company, owes its Russian-owned counterpart, Gazprom, an estimated $4.46 billion for previous deliveries of gas. Gazprom demands prepayment for future supplies to Ukraine now and files an arbitration claim in Stockholm. On June 16, Naftogaz missed a deadline to pay part of that debt (about $2 billion), which entails three consequences. First, even though the new president was elected, Ukraine has yet rendered to be an unreliable client who fails to pay bills and thereby prompts another cut-off. Second, Ukraine has repeatedly proved to be unable to provide a reliable transit for Russian gas to Europe. Third, the need for diversification of gas supplies has become even more obvious and relevant.
No wonder, Russia has become even more bullish about South Stream, a pipe-line project designed to pipe 63 billion cubic metres of gas per year from Russia to Central and South Europe bypassing Ukraine. The pipeline will go across the Black Sea bottom from Russia to Southern Europe. Its length will be 900 km. The project is being implemented by South Stream Transport, of which Gazprom owns 50%, Italian ENI 20%, French EDF and German Wintershall 15% each. To build the land part of the pipeline, Russia has stricken agreements with the governments of Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Greece, Slovenia, Croatia, and Austria.
Thus, the project will cement Russia’s hold on the European gas market and diversify the gas supplies. However, the European Union seeks to diversify the gas suppliers (in other words, to give other gas suppliers access to the pipeline), not the methods of its supply. As a result, the European Commission postpones the final approval of the pipeline and applies pressure on the key-members of the South Stream chain. With solely a political purpose – to punish Russia.
On the one hand, Brussels sharing its part responsibility for the ongoing events in Ukraine (namely, the so called Euro-Maidan was inspired by hopes to join the Economic Association with Europe), cannot let the situation be taken over by Russia. Once the situation is under Russia’s control, Ukraine (who is physically unable to pay the debt back, because its economy is gruesomely broke) is no longer the gas-transit country, Ukraine is no longer Russia’s client at all. Russia will build a new gas pipeline bypassing Ukraine, and leave the country in oblivion. That being said, why does not the EU bail out Ukraine and helps it redeem the debt to Russia? Once the debt issue is settled, there is a chance for a new round of talks regarding further cooperation in gas supplies between Ukraine and Russia, between Putin and Poroshenko, who have numerously demonstrated their eagerness to diplomatically solve the conflict.
The European Union is not so much interested in bailing out Ukraine and even less so in its admission to the Union. It would entail further subsidies, humanitarian and financial aid, all that burden that the German taxpayers have already been pissed off by dragging Greece, Spain, and Portugal out of their debts. The problem is that there are actually two Europes: the European Union as a huge bureaucratic machine, and Europe as a conglomerate of nations. Those two Europes appear to be different. What’s more, those two Europes appear to be pursuing different interests and goals, if not conflicting goals. The European Commission is acting from a position of a universal judge who seeks to pursue justice and punish the hot-headed game-breakers. The European Commission is a “stronghold” of morality that cannot allow its members to do business with someone who violates international norms and neglects other country’s sovereignty. Fair enough. Such an approach is quite understandable from the rule of law and the world-system perspective. But the reality is more complex. The reality is that Europe is still (whether it likes it or not) highly dependent on import of hydrocarbons. The price it pays for these imports matters too – now even more than ever, given the stagnation in the eurozone. Thus, the cheapest and the most reliable gas supplier to Europe is still Russia. In fact, Russia has never let Europe down since the 1960s in terms of the energy supplies. Again, 2006 and 2009 were the transit zone blackouts. The Middle East could potentially be accounted too, but at the moment it’s major client is Asia and it’s undergoing another wave of terrorist coups and civil war turmoils. EU countries get about 30% of their gas from Gazprom, and half of that is piped through Ukraine. If Europe had alternative energy suppliers such as LNG from Qatar, Algeria, and the U.S available right now (by “available” I mean ready-installed refineries, de-liquification facilities, special storages, the money, after all, to pay for the gas shipments across the Atlantic), or if Europe had alternative energy resources (wind, solar power, water energy, etc) that could easily replace natural gas, the Brussels talks would make more sense. Sadly, the fact of the matter is that Europe does not have those alternatives handy as of yet. Nor is it going to have them available in the next two-three years. Thus, no matter how unlawful and rogue Russia’s bahavior is, Europe is nowhere near ready to wean itself from Gazprom. To sum it up, Brussels acts from its supranational, hyper-idealistic perspective and makes decisions based on the same premises that drives the EU committees to set cucumber shape regulations or obligations to put a sticker on non-GMO food-items. Meanwhile, individual European states, being guided by sheer energy security interests, have to think pragmatically and act individualistically. They need to make sure that the gas supplies are guaranteed and there is no such a situation when their citizens have to burn woods to keep their homes warm on cold winter days (as it used to be the case in 2009).
Thus, Italy’s Saipem, for instance, signed a contract worth 2 billion euros with Gazprom regarding the construction of the first submarine section of South Stream and is now ready to start the work. Right at the rise of the Ukrainian crisis, in April, Austria and its biggest energy firm OMV enthusiastically supported the South Stream project. Hungary, another land route of South Stream, is also teaming up with Russian state companies for a €10 billion deal involving the construction of two nuclear reactors.
Serbia finds itself caught between its ambitions to join the EU, with which it has started accession talks, and historical ties with Russia. Nevertheless, Ivica Dacic, Serbian Foreign minister confirmed that the South Stream project is in their best national interests. After all, whether Serbia shifts to the EU or not, does not really matter. Serbia is not the key player in the project. What does matter though is Bulgaria. The gas pipeline goes through its territory, thus its approval of the project and commitment to it are crucial for the entire venture. The European Commission figured it really quickly and started pressing Bulgaria. In the very beginning, since 2010 (long before the Ukrainian crisis, by the way) the Bulgarian part of the South Stream has been criticized by the European Commission. The latter was skeptical about the transparency of the tender. Meanwhile, the tender was won by the Bulgarian Gasproject Yug and Gennady Timchenko’s Stroytransgas. Timchenko is already on the sanctions list after Russia took over Crimea in February 2014.
In April and May, the situation in Ukraine deteriorated which only strengthened Brussels’ stiff position against Russia and elevated its desire to punish it. The Bulgarian socialist government (very loyal to Russia) was holding a staunch resentment against the EU threats – until the EU reminded Bulgaria of the 15 billion euro it promised in subsidies for the Bulgarian agricultural sector and infrastructure. On June 8, Bulgarian Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski announced the suspension of the project till matters with the EU clears up. The Bulgarian head of government made his decision shortly after meeting a US troika delegation – John McCain, Ron Johnson and Christopher Murphy. The meeting came after a public statement on the 6th of June by American Ambassador in Sofia Marcie Ries, warning that Bulgarian companies participating in South Stream maybe part of US sanctions against them due to their collaboration with the Russian Stroytransgaz. This caused the Bulgarian government to split into pro- and anti-Russian factions, and they announced early elections scheduled for September this year. Boiko Borisov, who leads the centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party, is the most likely prime minister to be, given that his party scored the largest number of seats (representing Bulgaria) in the European Parliament elections in May.
It is fair to say that Russia tries to manipulate Ukraine and tells it what to do. It is also fair to say that Russia wants Europe play by its rules and buy its oil and gas the way Russia offers them. Paradoxically, criticizing and punishing such misdeeds, the European Union acts by exactly same token. It disregards national interests of its individuals members and uses threats and blackmails to force them to do what the EU deems appropriate. Abusing the weak points of other states (such as bad economies or chances for future membership in the EU), Brussels is actually playing by the same rules it’s been fiercely opposing.