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Beyond Pipelines: Breaking Russia’s Grip on Post-Soviet Energy Security
Thursday, August 10, 2017

By Paul Massaro, Policy Advisor,
and Andras Olah, Intern

In 2007, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing titled “Pipeline Politics: Achieving Energy Security in the OSCE Region,” which focused on energy security in Post-Soviet Eastern Europe. The hearing took place in the wake of the first major Ukrainian-Russian gas dispute in 2006 that demonstrated not only the Kremlin’s willingness to use its energy resources as a weapon to meddle in its immediate neighbors’ domestic affairs, but also the extreme dependency of much of  Europe on Russia’s energy supplies. At the time, experts and policymakers focused primarily on the enhancement of security of supply through the construction of new energy infrastructure, including pipelines, which would allow the diversification of energy imports of countries in the OSCE region.

Ten years later, the energy landscape of the world fundamentally has changed. As Peter Doran, the Executive Vice President of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), stressed at a July 2017 Helsinki Commission briefing titled “Energy (In)security in Russia’s Periphery,” new energy infrastructure been built and the regulatory environment of the EU’s energy sector has significantly improved. At the same time, the shale gas revolution in the United States and the simultaneous development of a global liquid natural gas (LNG) market offers European gas consumers more alternative options to Russian gas imports than ever before.

Most countries in Central and Eastern Europe have improved their energy security by the implementation of crucial reforms in their energy sectors. For example, in Ukraine, where for a long time “energy oligarchs” profiting from dodgy gas deals with Gazprom torpedoed any meaningful reform initiatives, a recent landmark decision has eliminated energy subsidies that have been a lucrative source of corruption for decades.

However, Moscow has resisted surrendering its monopolistic market position and is fighting back through politically motivated energy projects designed to exploit the fault lines between European countries’ differing energy policies. The most important Kremlin-sponsored projects to date have been the planned Nord Stream 2 and TurkStream pipelines, which will carry gas to EU countries by circumventing Russia’s immediate post-Soviet neighbors.

According to Doran, the Kremlin aims to end the role that neighbors like Ukraine, and to a lesser extent Moldova, currently play in the transit of gas to the EU through the Brotherhood and the Trans-Balkan pipelines. The success of Nord Stream 2 potentially could result in the loss of billions of dollars in transit revenues for Ukraine and Moldova, as well as diminishing their geopolitical importance for Europe, while subsequently enabling Russia to reassert its old influence over them by exploiting their diminished energy security.

As a result of massive infrastructure projects promoted by the EU to develop reverse flow capacities on existing pipelines and create new interconnections, Ukraine is now capable of purchasing gas from a Western direction and, for the first time, since November 2015 has ceased buying gas contractually from Russia altogether. New pipeline infrastructure projects, namely the planned expansion of the Iaşi-Ungheni pipeline, as Lyndon Allin, Associate at Baker Mackenzie, pointed out at the same briefing, might enable Moldova in the medium-run as well to reduce its dependence on Russian gas that currently constitutes almost a 100% of its total gas consumption.

Nevertheless, the effectiveness and profitability of these regional gas transit systems could be severely endangered once the transit of gas is diverted to other pipelines, potentially hampering the prospects of further gas infrastructure modernization, which is necessary for both countries to ensure their energy security. Moreover, as both ‘Stream projects’ would circumvent the region, Russian gas could become the only one that can be bought from the east as well as the west direction, strengthening Gazprom’s monopolistic market position in the region. 

While political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have been pushing recently for the introduction of U.S. LNG to the region to serve as a new ‘external solution’ to the above mentioned challenges, as Edward Chow, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), noted at the briefing, the main challenge for post-Soviet Eastern European countries remains an internal one. While the level of energy infrastructure might already be close to sufficient, the biggest problem for post-Soviet countries remains the underdeveloped nature of their energy sectors that lack harmonized and stable regulations, consistently-applied property rights, and transparency.

Additionally, as Dr. Mamuka Tsereteli, Senior Fellow of the Central Asia – Caucasus Institute pointed out, energy security could not be achieved without high-levels of cross-border market integration, even if physical infrastructures are in place. The underdeveloped nature of post-Soviet Eastern European countries’ energy sectors has been having a severe impact on the energy security of those states, in particular of Ukraine, which could be easily self-sufficient—even without the import of U.S. LNG—in natural gas if private investment was not being discouraged by the opaque, uncompetitive, and corrupt nature of its energy sector.

Once the right regulatory environment is established, Ukraine, for instance, could possess an immense gas transmission and storage infrastructure that, if properly upgraded, as well as connected to the energy networks of Central European countries, could lead to the establishment of a highly liquid East Central European gas trading hub with a spot-based gas trade. This could create increased energy security in the entire region by improving both the level of competition and the diversification of supplies.

While the West could offer the countries of post-Soviet Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Moldova in particular, alternative energy sources (e.g. U.S. LNG), these should and could not serve as a substitute for structural reforms and capacity-building, which are ultimately necessary to achieve true energy security in the region.

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