Hot Air

Hot Air

Russia’s stonewalling on Iran is easy to explain—Moscow wants to maintain its hold over Europe’s natural-gas supply.

It's time for a serious rethink of U.S. strategy on Russia and energy. For years, a number of assumptions guiding the current way of approaching the issue have been left unquestioned. Two of them have been:

1) Russia's dependence on central and Eastern European transit countries limited Russia's ability to wield the "energy weapon" against its former satellites, because Russia could not afford to alienate its Western European customers. (A related assumption was that Russia would be forced to subsidize the energy purchases of its immediate neighbors, such as Ukraine, in order to keep the transit lines open, meaning that the United States and its European partners could count on a major Russian subsidy to these economies.)

2) Russia's overall dependence on Europe as its main customer locked Russia into a dependence on the West for the export income needed to power its economy. Where else did Moscow have to go? (Of course, some of the logical alternatives for Europe for energy supply-not fantastic schemes of central Asians directly connecting to Europe, but more practical exploitation of existing yet underdeveloped projects in the Mediterranean, north and west Africa-never reached any level of urgency in Washington.)

Russian strategists recognized these vulnerabilities-so why, then, should we be surprised that they are taking concrete steps to change their position? Pushing forward with the Nord Stream line to link northern Russian gas sources directly to Germany via the Baltic Sea, so as to reduce Russia's vulnerabilities via the existing transit countries is a logical and entirely predictable development. So too making the argument to the Germans (and the French, and the Italians, and others) that it benefits them to have a new direct link to Russian sources of supply, free of the possibility of disruptions caused by friction in Russian bilateral relations with countries like Ukraine or Poland. (And Germany is happy to resell Russian gas via the pipeline links eastward to countries like Poland or Ukraine-but the Germans will demand a higher price and be less willing to accept IOUs.)

And the ongoing plans for shipping more natural gas eastward-to hungry markets, especially in China-changes Russia's gameplan even further. If Westerners become reluctant to invest in Russia, China is more than eager to make up the difference. And soon Russia will have the ability to shift gas and oil from one vector to another. The West wants to reduce its dependence on Russia? No problem. Redirect the energy eastward. But this also gives Russia the ability to decide that it might want to reduce the energy it sends westward. Perhaps not to well-paying customers in parts of the EU, the ones which have good economic ties to Moscow and prize good relations with Russia-but we can easily think of other countries that can't pay higher prices, and those who can't pay the ticket don't get admitted to the dance.

Perhaps the possibility of a normalization of relations between the United States and Iran-or at least something along the lines of the Libya approach-might change the game by allowing the West to fully access Iran's immense energy reserves (and finally opening the closed back door to effective and efficient transit of resources from central Asia to global markets). But is such a rapprochement likely? And why would Russia agree to support renewed U.S. efforts to pressure Iran to try and quickly resolve the nuclear standoff?

The strategic assumptions made during the 1990s about Russian energy are becoming increasingly invalid as we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century. Some uncomfortable readjustments in our strategy might be the consequence.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.