- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 15, 2006

Blame it on global warming, but meteorologists say Central Europe’s winters are getting colder. And this winter (or one like it in the not-so-distant future), as the Danube freezes over and Warsaw is blanketed under heavy snow, 100 million people — citizens of the European Union’s newest member states and proven U.S. allies — could find themselves without heat.

This is the nightmare scenario that countries in the region — all of them heavily dependent on Russian gas for winter fuel — could someday confront if they side against Moscow on a major international policy issue.

Though such a scenario may seem far-fetched to American ears, regional anxieties about Russian energy policy are well-founded, and stem from two sources: Moscow’s aggressive use of energy in the past and its growing inclination to use gas as an instrument of state in future crises.

First, Central Europeans have good reason to doubt the reliability of Russian energy supplies. Unlike Western Europe — where Russian gas shipments have never been interrupted — Moscow has used turnoffs as a policy instrument in Central Europe many times. In the Baltic States alone, Russia cut supplies 11 times in the 1990s in an unsuccessful effort to thwart self-rule. While viewed in the West as a first, the recent energy crisis in Ukraine was therefore just the latest in a long series of politically motivated interruptions.

Second, in light of this history, Central Europeans can’t be faulted for doubting the claim that Russian energy policy is primarily economically motivated. While Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to raise gas prices in Ukraine was based partly on economics, Moscow is adept at finding other pretexts (in Lithuania, it was “technical difficulties”) for cutting supplies to countries that run afoul of its policies. At the end of the day, Moscow’s controlling stake in energy giant Gazprom translates into a potent and virtually irresistible tool of statecraft.

Russia’s position will be further strengthened by completion of a Baltic pipeline to Germany, enabling it to cut gas to, say, Poland, without affecting Western Europe. Counting on Russia to forgo using such levers in a future political feud requires a degree of faith that cannot be expected of Central Europeans.

But even if Central Europe’s fears about Russian energy policy are warranted, should the United States care? And what, if anything, can we do about it?

The answers are yes and a lot. America has a clearer-cut stake in Central European energy than commonly supposed and stands to lose a great deal if these countries fall prey to Russian intimidation. As their participation in the Iraq war shows, the countries of “New Europe” are among America’s most reliable allies. If they are coerced into neutrality or even opposition to America, Washington would lose important partners at a moment when U.S. allies are in short supply.

America’s leaders must wake up to Central Europe’s energy vulnerability and its risks to U.S. interests and develop stauncher support for our allies in the region. Three steps are needed.

First, Washington must signal Moscow that using energy as a political weapon against its allies will meet with a firm U.S. response. While the vice president’s speech in Vilnius was a step in the right direction, it was not enough; U.S. leaders must repeatedly stress American support for Central European capitals in their quest for an energy relationship free of “monopolies, price-fixing or blackmail.”

Second, the U.S. State Department should publicly respond to the Polish government’s call for a new Euro-Atlantic energy organization. Three months have passed since Warsaw announced this proposal without comment from Washington. Even if a new “Energy NATO” is an idea whose time has not yet come, the United States should indicate an interest in exploring this initiative.

Finally, Washington must work with Central Europeans to develop a game-plan for preventing a major, Ukraine-style energy move against a regional ally. While America cannot mitigate Central European dependence on Russian gas, it can encourage regional initiatives, making it harder for Moscow to strong-arm individual countries — such as the new effort to create a network of interlinking pipelines for back-up in an interruption. Lending support to this initiative — which resembles an embryonic regional version of the International Energy Agency — would help insulate U.S. allies against Russian “cherry-picking” and create a template for cooperation at a wider, Euro-Atlantic level.

Though only a beginning, steps like the ones outlined above will bring greater coherence to U.S. policy and demonstrate America’s solidarity with its allies in the region. Doing so now — as the G-8 summit gathers — could help ensure Central European winters aren’t made colder by a lack of Russian gas.

Michael Wyganowski is executive director of the Center for European Policy Analysis, a new policy institute devoted to the study of Central Europe. CEPA is an affiliate of the National Center for Policy Analysis.

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