- The Washington Times - Friday, April 21, 2006

Russia, which has demonstrated its willingness to use energy as a political weapon, is tightening its grip on supplies to Western Europe, with projections showing it will provide 70 percent of the region’s natural gas by 2025.

Until recently, members of the European Union were split into two “zones” of dependence on Russian gas and oil. Russia has a virtual monopoly on supplying gas and oil to new EU members, mostly former Soviet satellites. Old Europe, on the other hand, is less dependent, but that dependence is growing.

“Old Europe’s independence is rapidly deteriorating. The two de facto zones are being equalized in the worst possible way,” said Vladimir Socor, a Munich-based energy analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.

Mr. Socor, in a telephone interview yesterday, said Europe’s growing demand, the depletion of North Sea gas and oil fields and Russian moves to buy up infrastructure in Europe are leaving the Continent ever more dependent on Russian supplies.

Janusz Bugajsky, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said at a Black Sea energy conference earlier this month that the European Union imports about 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia and predicted the figure could reach 70 percent in 20 years.

He noted that the state-owned Russian gas company Gazprom was expanding its transport routes through the Balkans, the Baltic area and Eastern Europe, and said it was imperative for Ukraine, Serbia and Moldova to seek ways to minimize their dependence on Moscow.

European leaders were put on notice in January, when Gazprom abruptly cut back supplies during a price dispute with Ukraine, at the same time reducing supplies to some EU countries.

That prompted sharp rebukes from the Bush administration, which questioned Russia’s fitness to serve this year as chairman of the Group of Eight, an organization of leading industrialized countries.

Alarm was raised again this week during talks with ambassadors of the 25 EU countries in Moscow when Gazprom chief Alexei Miller issued what was taken as a threat to divert its gas to other markets.

Gazprom is “able to satisfy reliably growing gas demand in Europe,” Mr. Miller was quoted as saying. “Nevertheless, one cannot forget that we are actively developing new markets such as North America and China.”

The meeting took place in the context of reports that Britain may seek to block Gazprom’s latest move into Western Europe, an attempt to take over the British gas supplier Centrica.

“Russia is using energy as a geopolitical instrument, as a lever to advance its geopolitical agenda and strategic interests,” said Mr. Socor, who warned that the development has grave strategic implications for the Continent.

“By maximizing Europe’s energy dependence, Russia gains financial and political leverage. It can erode the solidarity of NATO and split Europe from the United States and NATO,” he said.

European officials are increasingly aware of their vulnerability, but Russia’s growing control over the distribution network, including supply routes from Central Asia, leaves them with few alternatives.

One option discussed at the Black Sea conference was to begin buying more gas from suppliers in the Caspian Sea and North Africa.

European energy ministers also have agreed to begin work on a common approach to energy, with a draft policy to be published this summer and a final agreement due next year.

Mr. Socor said that is not enough.

“Everyone says the winter crisis [over Ukraine] was a wake-up call and Europe beginning to stir itself into action. But it is waking up too slowly. There is no European Union energy strategy, as such,” he said.

Instead, Russia is pitting EU nations against one another by signing bilateral energy agreements, he said.

Some hope is being placed on the 2,050-mile Nabucco gas pipeline project, a $5.55 billion undertaking that will deliver an annual 25 billion cubic meters of non-Russian gas from the Caspian Sea and Middle East to European markets.

Conceived in 2002, the pipeline will run through Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary to Baumgarten in Austria. Construction could begin in 2008 and be completed by 2011.

Tom Carter contributed to this article.

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