The Paris-Berlin-Moscow Axis Back Again

Commentary No. 317, Nov. 15, 2011

It always amazes me how the world’s politicians and media spend most of their energy debating geopolitical prospects that are not going to happen, while ignoring major developments that are happening.

Here is a list of the most important coming non-events that we have been loudly debating and analyzing: Israel is not going to bomb Iran. The euro is not going to disappear. Outside powers are not going to engage in military action inside Syria. The upsurge of worldwide popular unrest is not going to fade away.

Meanwhile, to minimal serious coverage in the media and on the internet, the Nord Stream was inaugurated in Lubmin on Germany’s Baltic Coast on Nov. 8 in the presence of Pres. Medvedev of Russia and the prime ministers of Germany, France, and the Netherlands, plus the director of Gazprom, Russia’s gas exporter, and the European Union’s Energy Commissioner. This is a geopolitical game-changer, unlike all the widely discussed non-events that are not going to happen.

What is Nord Stream? Very simply, it is a gas pipeline that has been laid in the Baltic Sea, going from Vyborg near St. Petersburg in Russia to Lubmin near the Polish border in Germany without passing through any other country. From Germany, it can proceed to France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Great Britain, and other eager buyers of Russia’s gas.

Nord Stream is an arrangement between private enterprises with the blessing of their respective governments. Russia’s Gazprom owns 51%, two German companies 31%, and 9% each for one French and one Dutch company. The proportional investments (and the potential profits) are all private.

The key element in this arrangement is that the pipeline does not pass through Poland or any Baltic state or Belorussia or Ukraine. So, all these countries not only lose whatever transit fees they could charge but cannot use their intermediary location to hold up supplies of gas to western Europe while they negotiate deals with Russia.

The German press agency, Deutsche Welle, headlined its story “Nord Stream: A commercial project with a political vision.” Le Monde headlined its story “Gazprom is established as a global energy actor.” Joseph Bauer, energy expert from Deutsche Bank Research in Frankfurt am Main, opined “It’s both a political and a commercial project, and it makes sense on both the economic and political level.”

Meanwhile the Russians have told the Chinese that they will not sell them their gas at 30% below the European prices, saying they see no need for Russia to subsidize the Chinese economy. And they have made it clear to Turkmenistan, which has enormous natural gas resources, that they will not appreciate its exporting gas other than via Russia. The Nord Stream launching comes within days of the announcement by the new president of Kyrgyzstan that he expects to close down the U.S. military air base at Manas when its lease expires in 2014. This base has been crucial in U.S. supply links to Afghanistan. Clearly, Russia is strengthening its hold on the Soviet Union’s former Central Asian republics.

Both East-Central Europe and the United States are discovering that the scheme to prevent the creation of a Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis is not viable. The European Union’s central mechanisms are bending before this reality, as are many of the east-central European countries. This is most difficult for Ukraine, which is torn apart by these developments. And the United States? What in fact can they do about it?