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Op-Ed: Europe is losing the pipeline politics of the Black Sea

By Bradley Axmith     May 11, 2010 in World
As black blood bubbles out of the cankerous wound in the Gulf of Mexico, fossil fuel traffic through the Black Sea is set to grow with the intensified struggle to secure energy corridors from the Caspian Sea region to Europe.
This contest illustrates the pushing and pulling power states have asserted in their national interest, and will provide insight into the continuing realignment of power in the strategically critical nexus where the Middle East, Asia and Europe overlap.
Part geopolitics, part geoeconomics, competing transit routes from Russia and its former vassal states in Central Eurasia have pressed the European Union constituent members’ ability to navigate between individual resource need and EU solidarity as the energy arm of Russia’s national security armour, Gazprom , successfully pulls private energy concerns into its orbit, thus undermining European designs for diversification of supply.
The Nabucco pipeline project underscores Russia’s ability to exploit European member states’ insecurity, and demonstrates the EU’s fractured and lethargic attempt to establish supply channels operating outside of Russia’s monopoly. The European Nabucco project will run 3,300 kilometers from Azerbaijan to Austria and via the Turkish Hellespont, but has to date failed to secure the necessary supply agreements from Turkmenistan or Iraq, critical hindrances that have prevented shoring up private investment.
Russia has scoffed at Europe’s attempt to slip out from under its energy thumb, picking off European member states systemically through a combination of diplomatic savvy and economic pressure by buying up utilities in central Europe, while using the plight of Ukraine to remind its clients the consequences of political interference in the free business practices of its national corporation, Gazprom.
Last month Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was in Vienna to cement the expansion of the South Stream pipeline consortium, welcoming the Austrian utilities firm OMV BG into the venture that will replace the planned extension of the Russia-Turkey Blue Stream transit system. The Russian prime minister used the occasion to poke fun at Brussels. “Before constructing something, one should sign supply contracts. Construction of the pipeline without contracts is dangerous and makes no sense. Name me just one contract for Nabucco,” he said when asked about Nabucco.
More than 60% of Europe’s gas consumption is supplied through the Ukraine, a point Brussels has been quick to recognize due to annual interruptions in delivery that have sent violent price fluctuations through the market. But Europe has been slow to react, belatedly coughing up $270 million to kick-start Nabucco by enticing wary suppliers Turkmenistan and Iraq to commit to the westbound route circumventing Russia.
In January the EU signed a strategy energy partnership with Iraq, opening up to European companies the vast reserves of undiscovered gas for extraction and transit potential.
If completed Nabucco would supply up to 31 billion cubic meters of gas a year to Europe, but more significantly it would open a channel through Turkey to western markets for Iraq, Syria and Egypt funneling them closer to the Euro-Atlantic orbit, much like the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan route threw a western lifeline to Azerbaijan.
As Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signs dozens of contracts in Turkey this week with his counterpart in Ankara, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, strategists will need to evaluate how much the increasingly independent Turkey drifts away from Nato and its commitment to EU ascension.
Perhaps as a hedge against Turkey’s submission to Russia’s geostrategy, Azerbaijan and Georgia signed an agreement with Romania April 15th to ship 7 billion cubic meters of liquefied natural gas to Europe annually when construction is complete in 2014 of a liquefaction plant and a re-gassification facility in Georgia and Romania respectively.
The flurry of recent agreements and commercially activities illustrates the fluid dynamic of geopolitics in the Black Sea. Having secured a more favourable situation with the Ukraine, which had been threatening Russia’s Black Sea fleet with expulsion from its Sevastopol base as well as providing assistance to Russia’s pesky irritant Georgia, attempts to weaken and contain Russia’s latent power have decidedly failed.
The outcome of the Black Sea contest may well influence the fate of Europe’s security if not its very survival as a politically integrated union.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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