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Sunday, March 20, 2005

OPI UPDATE: A PIPELINE CONSORTIUM AND THE EMERGING GEOPOLITICS OF EUROPE

Russian President Vladimir Putin stopped in Kiev, Ukraine March 19th to meet with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko. It was Putin’s first visit to Ukraine since the ‘Orange Revolution’ swept Ukraine’s pro-Russian government from power. The visit also took place just a day after Putin met with French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in Paris, and a week after the Ukrainian president visited those countries in Europe as well. So what are all these leaders chatting about?

One of the announcements made in Kiev was an agreement to include European countries –primarily Germany—in a gas pipeline consortium bringing Russian gas through Ukraine to Europe. Russia is Europe’s primary source of natural gas, and Europe is Russia’s best customer. Ukraine sits between the two, allowing it to profit from the transit of gas across its borders.

Russia previously had wished to exclude European companies from the new project project; why get Europe involved, after all, when Ukraine, then led by the more Moscow-friendly Leonid Kuchma, was willing to cooperate with Russia on the details. The new government in Kiev, however, is likely to seek as much independence from Russia as it can while still maintaining civil relations. Having GermanyRussia’s largest natural gas customer—in on the project will help Russia to secure its interests. Ukraine too is happy to have Europe involved, increasing ties with the much wealthier west.

While energy relations between these parties are tremendously important, they are also microcosmic of larger geopolitical issues unfolding in the region. It is key, for example, that Putin met with the leaders of Spain, Berlin, and Paris: schisms within the European Union regarding foreign and security policy have pulled these three countries together in deeper cooperation, increasingly in opposition to Great Britain and the newly inducted central European states, which tend to be more cooperative with the United States' foreign policy aims.

Indeed, all of these key geopolitical actors –Russia, Ukraine, and the two sides of the EU schism—are at a turning point in their post-Cold War geopolitical decision-making. They are in the process of deciphering anew their fundamental geopolitical interests.

For Russia it is striving -albeit with limited success- to once again gain the status of a world power, a 'pole' in the system, to put it in geopolitical terms. In order to do this, it must first put a stop to the encroachment of the west --i.e. the U.S. influence, NATO, and sometimes the EU-- on its sphere of influence. Second it must become the senior partner alliances that enable it to counter U.S. power.

Ukraine’s fundamental interest is to increase its independence from Russia. Its interests are thus directly opposed to Russia’s, which means that Ukraine is forced to seek help from others to secure the independence it needs. It has, of course, two choices –not entirely, but primarily mutually exclusive—when it comes to that help: Western Europe and the United States. While the United States is ultimately much more powerful, and it assisted Ukraine during the ‘Orange Revolution’, it may be too far away and too disconnected to be a dependable friend. Western Europe, on the other hand, would be much more dependable, for one key reason: much of Western Europe’s oil and gas comes through Ukraine. Coincident interests is what being an ally is all about. While the U.S. has an interest in seeing Russia’s sphere of interest rolled back, it has no other need or love for Ukraine itself.

Unfortunately, the EU is almost worthless as a geopolitical ally. As an economic ally, they could be wonderful; geopolitically, not so much. They have no military muscle, they have no real foreign policy, and developing those things is far down on their list of things to do, even supposing they can do it at all. Fortunately for countries like Ukraine, this lack of an EU foreign and security policy has not eradicated the need for the individual counties within the EU to maintain bilateral relations the world over. A state isn’t a state without bi-lateral relations, at least with those with whom it shares borders.

There has therefore arisen a split within in the EU –seen most clearly during the recent war in Iraq—between a more pro-U.S. block of European states, including Poland, the Czech Republic, Great Britain, and to a lesser extent Italy, and a –for lack of a better term—anti-U.S. block, comprising the continent's largest states, Germany, France, and Spain.

It was with the leaders of the latter block of states with whom Putin and Yushchenko met this past week, and who will likely form an ally to Ukraine in its efforts to free itself increasingly from Russian influence. So what about Russia? Not only does it need Western partners for economic reasons, it would love to have those three western European countries continue to stick a thumb in the U.S. eye in geopolitical matters. Whether or not the German, Spain, and France can do this without fracturing the EU remains to be seen.

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