Gerhard Schroeder, who less than a month ago was Germany’s Chancellor, has agreed to become chairman of the company that is building a gas pipeline from Russia, across the Baltic Sea to Germany, and on through Western Europe. In many countries, Schroeder would now be charged with the crime of conflict of interest. His apparent ethical lapse is magnified by the fact that, at this very moment, Russia is threatening to cut off Ukraine’s gas supplies if that country does not give in to the pricing demands of Kremlin’s state-owned gas behemoth, Gazprom.
Russia’s strategic task is obvious: cutting off Ukraine’s gas currently means cutting off much of Europe’s gas as well, because some of its biggest gas pipelines pass through Ukraine. By circumventing Ukraine, Poland, and of course, the Baltic countries, the new pipeline promises greater leverage to the Kremlin as it seeks to reassert itself regionally. President Vladimir Putin and his administration of ex-KGB clones will no longer have to worry about Western Europe when deciding how hard to squeeze Russia’s postcommunist neighbors.
Should Europe really be providing Putin with this new imperial weapon? Worse, might Russia turn this weapon on an energy-addicted EU? That a German ex-chancellor is going to lead the company that could provide Russia with a means to manipulate the EU economy is testimony to Europe’s dangerous complacency in the face of Putin’s neo-imperialist ambitions.
Certainly Russia’s media are aware of Europe’s growing dependence on Russian energy. Indeed, they revel in it: after we integrate and increase our common gas business, Russian editorialists write, Europe will keep silent about human rights. Putin expresses this stance in a more oblique way with his commitment to pursuing what he calls an “independent policy.” What he means by that is that Russia is to be “independent” of the moral and human rights concerns of the Western democracies.