Claudia Iris Comandini
Imagine February 2023 Ukraine is surrounded by four battalions of troops. Gusts of wind are blowing so fiercely that even the heavy tactical gears worn by Russian soldiers seem like rice paper umbrellas. One could count 175.000 heads deployed on ground and sea, if there was any other than a civilian out there to actually give testimony. The war had been announced and more than ever Ukraine was on the verge of witnessing how the European Union had not kept its promises of being a beacon of democracy.
Such a gloomy scenario may seem like an excerpt from a dystopian novel. However, a recent U.S. Intelligence document leaked by The Washington Post points towards a situation where Russian mobilization can be a sign of a quick and unexpected Blitzkrieg. The silent borderization process of Russia is similar to what has happened in Abkhazia and South Ossetia since 2008. On the one hand, every night Russia continues to move further along the barbed wire line that divides its territory from the occupied ones in Georgia. On the other hand, a potential invasion of troops in Ukraine appears every day more likely since the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 quickly spread to Donbas.In essence, Russia has been long trying to scorch the earth around Ukraine.
The warfare repertoire of the ex-KGB spy is expanding its mixture of material and immaterial tactics to unfold his hegemonic intentions in the Eastern front of Europe. Putin opposes at any costs the NATO memberships of former USSR states and to destabilize their internal institutions the deployment of armed troops is not sufficient. The Hungarian communist leader Matyos Rakosi coined in the 1940s the term “salami tactics” as a new version of Ceasar’s Divide et Impera that aims at gradually annihilating the enemy. This eclectic term refers to a sophisticated approach of compounding the destabilizing power of information operation (via hacker attacks and targeted disinformation propaganda); orchestrating diplomatic operations to take advantage of international uncoordinated responses; and lastly, exploiting any possible advantage of resources that can become an exchange good.
In the European context this last tactic has become increasingly meaningful as Nord Stream 2, the gas pipeline that should supply Russian gas to the EU through the Baltic sea, is now a weapon of geopolitical power. There is no doubt that since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Europe’s reliance on Russian gas has spurred debates among the European leaders on a strategy to detach Europe’s energy dependence from Russia. From then on, the European Energy Security Strategy has sought to strengthen the internal market for energy by boosting internal production and fostering replacement mechanisms in the event of external shocks. The full gas pipeline picture clearly shows the main corridors originating from countries like Egypt, Azerbaijan and Turkey.
The association with these illiberal democracies begs the question of whether energy supplies are coupled with the respect of human rights in a meaningful way. Energy market security is being used as trade goods by those economic partners who trade resources in exchange of no interference with their domestic politics.
Due to its highly controversial nature, Nord Stream 2 presents Europe with three fundamental conundrums.
First, the EU’s efforts to diversify the energy market clash with the attempt of maintaining an unbiased position between the US and Russia. Russian gas still represents roughly half of all the imported gas, supplying Europe mainly via three corridors: Brotherhood, Yamal and Nord Stream 1. Should these names recall battlefields, it appears clear that the EU cannot just turn the back on Russia and nod benevolently to the US because it risks ending up in a cold energy war. On the one hand, the US has an interest in selling its liquified natural gas and therefore opposes the cheaper gas carried through NS2. On the other hand, Biden, following Obama’s strong opposition to Nord Stream 1 at the time, is framing the gas question as a security threat. Hence, subjugating the EU external reliance for gas to this very awkward partner would mean for Russia scoring another point in its Salami game.
Second, the energy mix designed by the Commission to achieve a net-zero economy by 2050, should be put into question. Despite gas being framed as a transitional fuel thanks to its reduced greenhouse emissions, accessible supply sourcing and its synergy with renewable energies mixes, its skyrocketing prices have been undermining household and industry recovery in the post-pandemic world. Gazprom, the Russian state-owned multinational energy corporation, can decide from one day to the other to cut its supply directed to the EU, which for the third quarter of 2021 has produced electric energy using coal. Shouldn’t the Commission think about a less volatile transitional fuel?
Third, there is also a matter of domestic politics at stake. Thus, the future of NS 2 and Europe’s foreign policy depends in large part on the new German coalition, which could either stand more on the side of Ukraine (namely, the US and NATO) or bow to Russia’s pressures. NS 2 would double the energy carrying capacity from Russia to Germany and not even the greenest of the German Grosse Koalition seems likely to dismiss it nonetheless its anti-democratic and polluting outcomes. Indeed, if Angela Merkel strongly supported it, even her heir Olaf Scholz has not openly manifested any sabotage of the pipeline, should Russia invade Ukraine.
For the moment, the pending judgment of Germany’s energy regulator holds the fate of Ukrainian civilians, who are hanged by a thread: Nord Stream 2. And not of minor importance is the dilemma of whether the EU will leave aside its environmental and human rights pledges just to show yet again that it is a union based on economic interests.
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Editor’s note, “Why Nord Stream 2 is the world’s most controversial energy project”, The Economist, 14 July 2021
Horton, J. “Europe gas prices: How far is Russia responsible?”, BBC News, 18 October 2021
Belladonna, A., Gili, A. “The Geopolitics of Gas in the European union” 21 Febbraio 2020
Harris, S, Sonne, P. “Russia planning massive military offensive against Ukraine involving 175,000 troops, U.S. intelligence warns”, The Washington Post, 3 Decemebr 2021
Shaishmelashvili, G. “Russia’s permanent war against Georgia”, Foreign policy Research Institute, 2 March 2021
Liboreiro, J. , De Filippis, A. “Why Europe’s energy prices are soaring and could get much worse, Euronews”, 28 October 2021