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Defusing Russia’s Energy Weapon

COPENHAGEN – As winter approaches, many people in Central and Eastern Europe remember the chill caused last winter by Russia’s deliberate cut-off of gas supplies. That shutdown was a harsh reminder that gas is now the Kremlin’s primary political instrument as it seeks to re-establish its privileged sphere of interest in what it thinks of as Russia’s “near-abroad.” If Russia is allowed to continue imposing Moscow rules on Europe’s energy supplies, the result will be costly – not only for Europe, but for Russia as well.

So it is past time that the European Union stopped treating energy as a bilateral issue, with some of the larger member states trying to protect their own narrow interests at the expense of the common European good. The EU urgently needs to build a common energy policy and a single market for natural gas. Until both are established, there is a grave risk that Russia will use new blockades to continue the kind of divide-and-rule policy that the world has witnessed since Vladimir Putin came to power.

The planned Nord Stream gas pipeline on the bottom of the Baltic Sea is a good example of the problems that everyone in Europe is facing. The pipeline has been established as a Russian-German-Dutch consortium, but it is the Russian energy giant Gazprom that is in the driver’s seat with 51% of the shares. Nord Stream will enable Russia to deliver natural gas directly to Germany without using the existing land-based connections.

At first glance, there seems to be no problem. But the real reason Russia wants to build Nord Stream – which is more expensive than the existing gas-pipeline network – is that it will enable Russia to interrupt gas supplies to EU member countries like Poland, the Baltic states, and neighbors like Ukraine, while keeping its German and other West European customers snug and warm.