Russia’s media, Europe’s gas crisis and the Mediterranean - analysis

Russia has been accused of using energy needs as a weapon against countries. Friendly countries like Belarus may get what they need from Moscow, but other states like Ukraine can become victims.

 Specialists perform an above-water tie-in while finishing the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas subsea pipeline onboard the laybarge Fortuna in the Baltic Sea, September 8, 2021. (photo credit: NORD STREAM 2/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Specialists perform an above-water tie-in while finishing the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas subsea pipeline onboard the laybarge Fortuna in the Baltic Sea, September 8, 2021.

Europe is in the midst of a natural-gas crisis as prices spike. The European Commission (EC) is examining claims by some EU countries that Russia is using its “position as a major supplier to propel the soaring price of gas in Europe, the bloc’s energy policy chief said on Tuesday,” Reuters reported.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, state news outlet TASS has run numerous articles making light of the situation, hinting at Russia’s glee and involvement in the crisis.

This matters because over recent decades, Russia has been accused of using energy needs as a weapon against countries in Europe and in the former Soviet Union. For instance, friendly countries, such as Belarus, may get what they need from Moscow, but others, including Ukraine, can become victims.

Europe as a whole is a huge market for Russia, and while some European countries have tended to want to work with or appease Moscow, especially Germany, others want a stronger stance against Russia. After the UK left the European Union, the bloc has been in more disarray.

The overall context is not just about gas and energy. It is about rising authoritarian regimes and their economic clout. Russia, China, Turkey, Iran and other states want to work together. They can do so via the Belt and Road Initiative or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. They all see economic policy and energy as part of national defense and diplomatic policy.

This is in contrast to Western countries that often act in a more compartmentalized way, with diplomats doing one thing, generals another and economic leaders doing something else. In short, the West is weak when it comes to dealing with important issues such as energy.

What are the Europeans saying?

“Russian supplier Gazprom has been fulfilling its sales obligations under long-term contracts but not adding more,” Reuters reported. “That has drawn accusations by European Union lawmakers that it is pushing up gas prices in Europe, which have surged to record highs amid tight supply and other factors.”

This is a very serious matter, European Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson said, adding that he is working closely with EC Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager. Some EU countries want a coordinated response.

“The EU receives most of its natural-gas supplies from Russia,” CNBC reported. “In 2020, Moscow accounted for 43.4% of the EU’s natural-gas stock, followed by Norway at 20%.”

IN FRANCE, where the leadership has been angry over recent defense deals among the US, UK and Australia, there is talk of reducing energy dependency on foreign countries. Paris knows that numerous Mediterranean countries, such as Spain, Italy and Greece, have faced struggles relating to the high energy costs. France recently signed a new defense deal with Greece.

“The front-month gas price at the Dutch TTF hub, a European benchmark, has risen almost 400% since the start of the year,” CNBC reported. “Energy experts foresee further gas-price spikes as the winter season approaches.”

At the same time, as if by coincidence, the new pipeline from Russia, which is called Nord Stream 2, was being filled with gas for tests this week. The US has opposed that pipeline and is concerned that it makes Europe too reliant on Russia for energy needs. The pipeline bypasses Ukraine to get to Europe from Russia.

Remember the context here: The US slapped sanctions on the Nord Stream project in 2019 when the Trump administration was in charge. Nord Stream 2 is still awaiting approval from Germany’s energy regulator, Reuters reported.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Paris this week to try to heal anger over a US-UK-Australia deal that led to France losing out on billions of dollars in submarine contracts. He apparently encountered a tough response from France.

“We expected better, especially with the change of administration, and especially with you,” journalist Anne-Sophie Lapix told Blinken, according to CNN. “You speak French. You are a Francophile. We expected a better dialogue.”

Clearly, the US-France rift affects European relations with Russia. This is in line with history; Anglo-Saxon countries have often worked together, while France has pursued close relations with Russia for more than 100 years since they became allies in the 1890s.

 A road sign directs traffic towards the Nord Stream 2 gas line landfall facility entrance in Lubmin, Germany, September 10, 2020. (credit: REUTERS/HANNIBAL HANSCHKE/FILE PHOTO)
A road sign directs traffic towards the Nord Stream 2 gas line landfall facility entrance in Lubmin, Germany, September 10, 2020. (credit: REUTERS/HANNIBAL HANSCHKE/FILE PHOTO)

MOSCOW APPEARS to be gloating over the crisis in Europe and the failure of traditional Western blocs and alliances to come to an agreement on what to do. Russia’s TASS has numerous articles highlighting the European energy crisis.

“The energy crisis in Europe was triggered by countries’ failure to sign long-term gas contracts with Russia in time, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said on Tuesday during his visit to Slovenia,” TASS reported.

Vucic has said Europe is in crisis because of its hydrocarbon taxes and its miscalculations this year.

“They wanted to give a boost to their industries with the cheap gas they already had in their storage facilities,” Serbia’s Tanjug News Agency quoted him as saying. “They [European countries] have run out of their supplies and did not sign long-term purchase deals with the Russians, and now… [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is the absolute ‘kingmaker,’ with the possibility to decide who [will buy] at what price and how a price should be raised.”

Serbia is an ally of Russia, an alliance that also dates back more than 100 years. Belgrade views itself as a victim of Western aggression in the 1990s during the Balkan conflicts and over US intervention in Kosovo and Bosnia. It has grown closer to Moscow and Turkey, and it wants more air-defense systems and drones from them.While the EU grew to include countries around Serbia, Western countries used to mock Belgrade for appearing to ally itself with weaker countries, such as Russia. But now, Serbia appears strong and prescient.

Russian media makes light of the record-high gas prices in Europe. Five European countries have called for an investigation into the high prices, TASS reported.

Moscow may also be looking to succeed at energy policy with TurkStream, a pipeline to Turkey, and plans to extend pipelines into Eastern Europe. Russia is “encircling” Europe with all these pipelines, according to one report.

IT’S NOT clear if Israel and its energy projects in the Eastern Mediterranean have a long-term interest in what is going on in Europe. Israel ostensibly wants to be part of the East Med pipeline concept, which could link Israel to Cyprus, Greece and Europe.

US Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pryatt said in April: “We see special prospects in the area of energy diversification, where Greece continues to build out the infrastructure but is helping the countries of the Western Balkans to escape their historical dependence on a single source of Russian gas – whether it’s the TAP pipeline, the Alexandroupolis Floating Regasification unit, the IGB pipeline or the new gas interconnector between Greece and North Macedonia.

“These are all projects that have attracted interest and support from the United States and from the European Union, but also from Bulgaria, from Serbia, from Kosovo, from North Macedonia.”

Regarding the East Med pipeline, he said: “If it were to be constructed, it would be the deepest and most expensive pipeline project ever in the history of the world.”

“I think all of us watch what’s happening with the global energy transition and the rapid shift to renewable sources, and we understand that while LNG [liquid natural gas] is going to play an indispensable role over the short term – and by short term I mean the next few decades – as a vehicle to the energy transition, it’s not the long-term answer to our energy requirements,” he added. “In fact, our climate can’t support that.”

“At least for now, the markets seem to be signaling that that pipeline is unlikely to be pursued,” Pryatt said. However, he also said the US supports Greece’s views on open energy markets.

“We’re delighted that the United States now has observer status in the East Med Gas Forum,” Pryatt said. “We also have heard clear messages from the prime minister, from Foreign Minister Dendias and from Energy Minister Skrekas that Turkey, too, is also invited to be part of the East Med Gas Forum, but it has to do so on the basis of neighborly relations and international law.”

This means an added aspect of the current crisis in gas prices and Russian-EU relations have ramifications for the Mediterranean. These are important because Russia has grown closer to Turkey in recent years. A French defense deal with Greece illustrates growing cooperation across the Mediterranean, and US-Greek relations have grown increasingly as well.

All of this matters because energy policy is part of national security policy. Russia certainly sees it that way.