Brussels, Moscow and energy security – a struggle on equal terms?

By on July 11, 2016

Despite an economic downturn, Moscow is increasingly trying to re-position itself as a global actor by attempting to control its neighbors and weaken Europe. In part, it aims to achieve its foreign policy goals towards both the EU and the former Soviet Union (FSU) states through the instrumentalization and, arguably, weaponization of energy projects. By pitching hydrocarbons transportation projects to individual EU member states, Russia seeks to undermine both the union’s CSFP and the nascent Energy Union so it can thwart EU and transit states’ efforts to diversify away from political and economic dependence on Russian natural gas. However lucrative for local elites, Russia’s pipeline plans in the Black Sea region and Southern Europe should not be treated as legitimate business initiatives proposals, but as political manoeuvring. In addition, Moscow seems to increasingly attempting to force the EU’s hand on the energy issue by sowing instability in the South Caucasus and Central Asia. It does so in order to undercut supply to – or acquire leverage over – energy projects which it does not control or believes it will not benefit from itself. Ultimately, the EU today competes for access to hydrocarbons on Russia’s terms. If Brussels wants to compete on a level playing field, it must involve itself much more resolutely in the security arrangements of its partner states in both the South Caucasus and Central Asia.


The trend

The TAP (Trans-Adriatic Gas Pipeline) and TANAP (Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline) projects, which together constitute the European Union-backed SGC (Southern Gas Corridor), both rely on access to pipeline-borne natural gas carried westwards from Azerbaijan via Georgia. Therefore, the SGC is bottlenecked in the South Caucasus and in the Anatolian peninsula. Meanwhile, the long-term economic viability (and relevance) of high-capacity pipelines in the region depends on future access to gas from east of the Caspian Sea, i.e. Turkmenistan. As a consequence of a political geography wherein both the supply and transhipment states neighbor Russia, a no-strings-attached transfer of natural gas from Central Asia and the Caspian basin westwards is impossible. That is, unless Georgia and Azerbaijan are able to independently choose their trade and foreign policy priorities – which is not the case today. Both states are currently acutely vulnerable to manipulation by Moscow. Russia’s illegal invasion of Abkhazia and South Ossetia continue to put pressure on Tbilisi, while NATO refuses to provide a membership action plan (MAP) or extend any security guarantees to the country. As regards Baku, Moscow makes sure the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains unresolved, and does not hesitate to rile up separatists when it deems useful to do so.

The Turkey-Georgia-Azerbaijan troika is acutely aware of these common challenges: it is upgrading the trilateral format, investigating a potential harmonisation of foreign and security policies, as well as future prospects for energy and transportation projects. But Moscow is unwavering and increasingly eager to contest the viability of the SGC by planning to build own energy infrastructure and attempting to insert itself into the security arrangements in the South Caucasus. If Russia succeeds, it will gain leverage over the European Union – which it hopes will grant it greater freedom in its increasingly aggressive foreign policy towards its neighbors. In addition, Russia would be able to wrestle back some of the control over the foreign policies of the South Caucasus and Central Asian states which has gradually waned over the past 25 years.


The state of play

Russia’s South Stream, and later Turkish Stream, were proposed based on the rationale that constructing new high-capacity pipelines, which would be ready before the SGC, could obviate the European Union from the diversifying its energy suppliers. Rather than economically viable projects, both are clearly political tools. If completed, they would maintain the EU’s dependence on Gazprom and allow Moscow’s gas to circumvent Ukraine. The Memorandum of Understanding between Russia, Greece, and Italy on the proposed Poseidon gas pipeline is driving another wedge between EU member states, thereby weakening economic and political support for the SGC. In addition, Istanbul’s and Moscow’s creeping rapprochement after the Su-24 incident appears to be preconditioned on a revival of the long-buried Turkish Stream project, in some shape or form. It is evident that regardless of the specific partners or political circumstances, Moscow wants a pipeline built in the Black Sea as it has done with Nord Stream in the Baltic.

In the Caspian Sea basin, Russia and Iran are adamant on keeping the sea’s legal status delimitation unresolved, both in order to hinder additional gas volumes from reaching the SGC from further east and to retain unchallenged naval supremacy. Moscow and Tehran are also actively militarizing the landlocked sea, which has prompted rapid symmetrical response from their neighbors.

In the South Caucasus, using political influence as well as arms exports to both Azerbaijan and Armenia, Russia has sought to open an opportunity for itself to insert additional security forces in the region via the segue of “peacekeeping” in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Despite its claims of constructive engagement, Moscow will not allow the conflict to end – rather, it uses its seat in the OSCE Minsk Group to stall talks.


Where do we go from here?

European firms such as BP, Edison and ENI have not shied away from committing to energy projects in both regions, such as TAP, TANAP and SGC. Meanwhile, the EU has sought to respond to the wishes of the South Caucasus states by offering them economic and political association via the Eastern Partnership, including the Association Agreement, the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, and visa liberalization. As regards the Central Asian states, the EU has signed multiple partnership and cooperation agreements (PCAs) as well as an enhanced PCA with Kazakhstan. None of these agreements imply any commitment towards joint conflict resolution that goes beyond human security, monitoring and capacity building. In order to compete on energy security on equal terms with Russia’s Gazprom in the region, the EU must find the political will to ramp up engagement in its hard security issues – either by expanding the existing frameworks of cooperation, or negotiating new ones.

Author: Boris Ajeganov
Boris is a Junior Research Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute – Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, based in Stockholm, Sweden. He is also Assistant Editor of the CACI Analyst. Boris is an MA candidate in Political Science at Stockholm University, Sweden and has a background in Caucasus, Central Asia, Russia and Ukraine area studies. He has previously worked with the Eastern Partnership countries as intern with the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and with internally displaced persons as intern with UNHCR Ukraine. His research interests include European energy security, frozen conflicts, and the European integration of post-Soviet states.

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