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European Split On Russia Threatens U.S. Policy

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin signs a section of the pipeline at the Sakhalin-Khabarovsk-Vladivostok transit station in Khabarovsk in July 2009.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin signs a section of the pipeline at the Sakhalin-Khabarovsk-Vladivostok transit station in Khabarovsk in July 2009.
U.S. President Barack Obama wants to change the nature of Washington's relations with Moscow. But analysts say that won't be possible without strong support from European countries that are among Russia's biggest trade partners. Getting it will be no easy task. In the last of a three-part series on U.S.-Russia relations, RFE/RL reports on obstacles facing a unified European policy toward Russia. (See Part 1 and Part 2.)

By Gregory Feifer

Prague's central Wenceslas Square is crammed with stores, cafes, and tourists from around the world. It's hard to imagine today how different the atmosphere here was before the Iron Curtain fell 20 years ago.

But although the Czech Republic may now be part of the European Union and NATO, Czechs are still nervous about Prague's huge neighbor to the east.

Misha Prochazkova, a fortysomething Prague resident, says that's despite the fact that Moscow no longer wields the power it did during the Cold War.

"I think it is a threat, even if not to the same degree as 20 years ago," she says.

It's no longer Red Army tanks that people worry about, but Moscow's control over vast supplies of oil and natural gas that have fueled Moscow's resurgence in the world. In January, Russia cut off gas to Ukraine during a price dispute that disrupted deliveries to many European countries. Millions were left without heat during record freezing temperatures.

It was a stark reminder of just how much Europe depends on Russian energy. Moscow supplies Europe with one-quarter of its gas. Some Eastern European countries rely on Soviet-era pipelines to deliver more than 90 percent of their supplies. Moscow is planning two new pipelines that would make Europe even more dependent on Russia.

Harvard University's Marshall Goldman says that as European countries rely less and less on their own coal supplies to meet their growing needs, energy is becoming an even more effective tool for foreign policy than nuclear weapons were during the Cold War.

"Those were almost useless," Goldman says, "because if Russia were to use them, the United States would have retaliated and some of the Europeans as well. If Russia today cuts off or threatens to cut off energy supplies, there's nothing anybody can do to offset that."

Many believe January's shutoff to Ukraine, the second in three years, was really punishment for Kyiv's drive to join NATO. Moscow's cutoff was the latest in a series of aggressive actions against former Soviet republics, including last summer's invasion of Georgia, which brought relations with the West to Cold War lows.

In Washington, the Kremlin is believed to view relations as a "zero-sum game," in which what's good for one country is seen as bad for the other. It's an outlook U.S. President Barack Obama wants to undermine by engaging Moscow on issues of common concern.


The Czech minister for European affairs, Stefan Fule -- whose country held the EU presidency during January's gas crisis -- says he supports Obama's policy as the best way to deal with Moscow.

"I don't have any reason to doubt that we need a new effort to engage Russia," Fule says, "not because we are glad and we understand or even agree with what the Russians are doing in Russia itself and the close neighborhood, but because we do not agree, we need to engage them."

When then Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek shuttled between Moscow and Kyiv in a desperate bid to resolve the gas standoff with Ukraine last January, however, his efforts were hampered by widespread disagreement in Europe over how to deal with Russia. Former Soviet bloc countries have issued loud warnings about the danger from Russia. But countries in Western Europe have been far less willing to criticize Moscow.

Political expert Kirill Rogov says that doesn't bode well for Washington's new Russia policy, which he says can only succeed with unified European support.

"There's no question about that because otherwise, opportunities for the United States will be very limited," he says. "That's because Europe is Russia's main trading partner while the United States is a more abstract interlocutor."

Russia has been working to undermine European unity by cultivating bilateral relations with individual countries, often through lucrative deals between state gas monopoly Gazprom and energy companies across Western Europe. Among them, Germany's E.ON Ruhrgas is helping build a new pipeline directly to Germany bypassing transit countries such as Ukraine. The North Stream pipeline consortium is headed by none other than former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who took the job only weeks after he left office.

Changing Attitudes?

Analysts say Gazprom has been successful in persuading countries like Germany to consider their own national interests ahead of a unified European strategy by enlisting their energy companies to act as lobbyists for Russian interests.

The strategy reinforces Moscow's view of European consensus as a threat.

"If they want to be unified, God bless them," says Viktor Kremenyuk of Moscow's U.S.A. and Canada Institute. "If they want to work out something like a unified policy toward Russia, it's their problem, not our problem. Our problem is to see, 'Is that something friendly?'"

Berlin's policy toward Moscow has been among the friendliest. Last November, Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel led opposition to the Bush administration's campaign to put Georgia and Ukraine on a path to NATO membership. At the same time, Germany blocked proposed EU regulations that would have restricted foreign companies from buying European energy utilities, a policy aimed at slowing Gazprom's drive to buy up companies in Western Europe.

Still, there are signs Moscow's recent actions are encouraging a gradual change in European attitudes. Russia's gas shutoff to Ukraine prompted new calls to diversify energy supplies, partly by backing an alternate gas-pipeline project called Nabucco that would deliver supplies from Central Asia bypassing Russia. Last March, the EU infuriated Moscow by promising Kyiv $3.5 billion to modernize its gas pipeline network in a bid to avoid another shutoff.

Czech European Affairs Minister Fule says he sees a developing trans-Atlantic consensus on Russia.

"There is a huge responsibility of the European allies of the United States within NATO and the European Union itself," he says. "And I think that in general the European Union and the European allies of the United States are keen [on] working in favor of eliminating this zero-sum-game approach which prevails in Russia."

But others believe a real consensus on Russia will develop only if people in London and Paris feel as threatened by Russia as some Czechs do on the streets of Prague.

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