"National security" is often invoked by the losing side in a commercial enterprise when the numbers don't add up. For those who would prefer that the Burgas-Alexandropoulis (B-A) pipeline not go forward, economic arguments no longer suffice. Zeyno Baran and Dimitris Apokis, writing in yesterday's National Review online, therefore try to make the case that Greece should abandon this project on strategic grounds.
Baran and Apokis argue that Greece "doesn't need the B-A pipeline." But it is clear that there are significant portions of the country's political and business communities who beg to differ. Indeed, an outside observer can identify three reasons, all of which could be easily summarized by the phrase, ‘because it's in Greece's interest.'
First, the pipeline would solidify the Athens-Skopje relationship. For the moment, the bulk of Macedonia's oil and natural gas are coming from Greece, and the B-A pipeline all but ensures that this will be the case for the foreseeable future. From the perspective of Skopje, it's a hard call; needed energy at the price of a strategic disadvantage. When it comes to the Greeks, however, it's a no-brainer. Some may argue that the best-case scenario would be a diversified energy infrastructure that would better ensure regional stability for the long-term. And while security is clearly a concern, Greece isn't interested in what's best for the region; Greece is interested in what's best for Greece. Why should it be otherwise?
Second, it is not a question of "if" but more a question of "when" there will be a disaster in the straits of the Caspian-the need for a new pipeline is a settled issue. Why should Greece advocate for the new pipeline to go through Turkey or anywhere else? The B-A pipeline would not only be a step towards Greece's goal of becoming an energy hub for the region, but it would also help balance Turkey's considerable advantage when it comes to crude oil and natural gas. Greek-Turkish relations might be good for the moment; but the prudent strategy would be to plan for the worst (or what some believe to be the inevitable). If relations do deteriorate, it would be in Greece's interest to have their own route to Russia and its resources. There is no reason why Greece should forgo another degree of autonomy as it takes increased control over its energy security.
Finally, the argument that the B-A pipeline will hurt Greece with the EU assumes that Greeks are playing a significant role in Brussels. Greece has never had a major voice in the EU; and while a relationship with Russia might irk some, another likely scenario is that with Greece's new role as an energy hub, Athens might get some added leverage when it comes to the Union.
And let's face it-this is the strategy that Angela Merkel's government in Germany has been pursuing in turning Germany into Northern Europe's hub for distributing Russian energy. Merkel is looking to manage the Russians, not cut them off. Writing in the current issue of The National Interest, Angela Stent, a leading expert on the German-Russian relationship, observed:
"Merkel's challenge is to persuade her European colleagues to engage the Kremlin, while minimizing potential energy disruptions from a Russia quarreling with its neighbors. On the one hand, Germany and its partners are increasingly focused on diversifying their energy imports and shifting away from Russia. On the other hand, Germany and Russia are building a new undersea pipeline that will increase Germany's dependence on Russian gas."
Let's not overdramatize what Merkel is doing-or put undue pressure on Greece that Athens alone is going to torpedo what would otherwise be a unified European approach.
It is also important to be honest about what the alternatives really are. Stent herself advises the United States to encourage "the EU to diversify European energy sources, moving away from Russia" but also acknowledges "that presents an enormous challenge given the paucity of alternatives."
Interestingly, Turkey itself has shown it will not hesitate to put roadblocks in the way of a search for energy alternatives to Russia that conflict with its own interests. Witness Ankara's campaign to discourage companies from engaging in oil and gas exploration on the seabed between Cyprus, Lebanon and Egypt-at odds with the position taken by U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus Ronald Schilcher. At the same time, as Greek commentator Stavros Lygeros wrote in Kathimerini on March 12-"with the construction of the underwater pipeline to the Black Sea, Turkey will be of strategic importance in conveying Russian natural gas to Europe." Before warning the Greeks not to take up the B-A pipeline, perhaps we should explore why Turkish companies have no objection to doing a thriving business with their Russian counterparts.
Finally, one item in the essay really made us sit up and take notice. Toward the end Baran and Apokis write, "As we have seen before in Lithuania, Poland and elsewhere, EU and NATO memberships are not enough to protect a country from Russian pressure."
This is an amazing statement. NATO is the world's most powerful military alliance, and member states subsist under an Article 5 guarantee of their security-including the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The United States is preparing to deploy missile defense systems in the former Soviet bloc. The European Union-in terms of its population and economic might-far dwarfs the Russian Federation, even one flush with oil revenues.
Yes, Russia is a recovering regional power, and certainly its strength has grown in recent years-but let's not get carried away here!
Energy security is an important concern, but Russia is not a "specter looming over Europe." And to suggest that Greece and Bulgaria are cowering before the Kremlin unable to think clearly about their own interests ignores basic geopolitical realities. Russia needs energy export income just as much as Europe needs fuel. Trust the markets. To the extent alternatives are commercially viable, they will find investors. The Soviet Union collapsed because of its command economy where political decisions substituted for economic common sense. Now is not the time to go back to that failed model.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest and blogs at The Washington Realist. Nicholas J. Xenakis is senior editor at The National Interest.