The recent agreement between Russia and the European Union over the terms of the «winter package» of gas shipments to Ukraine provides a certain window of opportunity to the countries of Central and Southeastern Europe. In this new environment they will be able to draft a wider range of projects for transporting Russian gas, to serve both their own needs as well as for further transit into the EU, and also coordinate those projects with each other, as well as with Moscow and Brussels.
However, in order to avail themselves of these new opportunities, Belgrade and other capitals in the region must still ascertain their priorities in terms of cooperation with Russia as a key provider of primary energy resources to Europe.
As Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak reiterated after negotiating with Maroš Šefčovič, a Vice-President of the European Commission, Russia is doing everything it can in order to promptly resolve disputes related to the energy security of Ukraine and of Europe as a whole. The Russian minister noted that the key issue is how to «get through the winter» without difficulties. He claims that Russia is prepared to offer Ukraine a discount on the price of gas for the winter season, charging only the rate at which it is sold in neighboring countries, such as Poland.
In turn, Alexey Miller, the chairman of the board of Gazprom, stated that his company is ready to negotiate with Ukraine about the transit of gas through that country even after 2019, when the current contract expires, but that Gazprom will not settle for conditions that company finds unacceptable.
At the same time Russia is also seeking to make maximum use of the northern route for shipping gas – through the first and second legs of the Nord Stream pipeline. It became necessary to build the second branch of that gas pipeline because of the choices being made by European consumers themselves, who are using only half the existing capacity of that fuel line. The Russians are not to blame for this: Nord Stream-1 is filled to 80% capacity with Russian gas, but previously it operated at up to 100%.
This fact also prompted the parties involved – Gazprom and the major European energy companies – to sign an agreement to build the second leg of the gas pipeline, which will end at the gas hub in Baumgarten, Austria. The agreement to build the Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline system, in order to increase gas shipments to the European Union, was signed at the first Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. The project will entail the construction of two branches of an offshore gas pipeline, capable of carrying a total of 55 billion cubic meters of gas per year, running from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea.
As the director of Gazprom noted, «Nord Stream-2 will double the capacity of our modern, ‘transit-free’ route for shipping gas across the Baltic Sea. These shipments will essentially consist of new quantities of gas that will be much needed in Europe, given their own declining production». And, Alexey Miller added, «participation in this project that is overseen by the titans of global energy highlights its importance for ensuring a reliable supply of gas for consumers in Europe».
Since the advantages seem obvious, one would expect that all the countries involved would simply tap into this newly created architecture of European energy security, through regional projects and the construction of «linkages». But instead, some were quick to see a «betrayal» of their interests in the new agreements.
Of course, the European public has had a long time to get used to what can only be diplomatically described as Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s inadequacy. It was no surprise that on this occasion he hastened to proclaim that the construction of the Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline jeopardizes the security and continuity of gas shipments to the countries of Southeastern Europe, neglecting to mention that it is precisely the theft of Russian gas by Ukrainians that has repeatedly undermined «the security and continuity» of those shipments.
But on a visit to Kiev, Robert Fico, the Slovak Prime Minister, quite unexpectedly joined the chorus criticizing Russia. And his indignation knew no bounds. «The European Council negotiated for many months about the necessity of helping Ukraine remain a transit country and about helping it survive the difficult winter months. And suddenly out of nowhere came the announcement that Gazprom is signing a contract with Western European companies to build yet another branch of Nord Stream. They have made fools of us! ... They betrayed an EU member state – Slovakia – and contravened the political discussions with Ukraine and the European Council», stated the Slovak PM.
To some extend this can be understood. The European Commission’s anti-Russian stance has already become so much the norm that any move by a major European business that does not fit this pattern can cause a shock. However, Europe’s energy security, which the Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline should ensure – goes beyond the European Commission and certainly beyond Ukraine. And the sooner Eastern Europeans understand this simple truth, the more gas they’ll have in their homes.