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The Washington Post

A Well-Placed Pipeline

How Russia's 19th-century policies produced some 21st-century cooperation

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

 

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S appeal to Russia last week that it move beyond a "19th-century" foreign policy appears to have had little impact on President Dmitry Medvedev. Yesterday found Mr. Medvedev in Tskhinvali, the capital of the Georgian province of South Ossetia, which Russia invaded last August and then unilaterally recognized as an independent state. Coming just six days after Mr. Obama left Moscow, the message of Mr. Medvedev's provocative visit was unmistakable: Russia has no intention of abandoning its campaign to turn its neighbors into satellites, using blunt instruments such as military force and its control of energy supplies.

 

That's why it was encouraging that yesterday also brought a multinational meeting in Ankara at which Turkey and four European countries formally agreed to route a new natural gas pipeline across their territories. The Nabucco project would carry gas from the Caspian Sea region and the Middle East to Europe through Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Austria -- thereby providing a path for European energy supplies not controlled by Russia. Though energy pipelines are not usually the subject of international politics and high diplomacy, Moscow has made them so. Twice in the past four years, it has turned off a pipeline that supplies countries across Europe in an attempt to undermine the democratic government of Ukraine, which, like Georgia, has refused to become a Kremlin vassal.

The midwinter blackmail, personally overseen by Mr. Medvedev's mentor, Vladimir Putin, has had the effect of vitalizing a project that once looked like little more than a pipe dream. Nabucco, which will extend 2,000 miles and cost more than $10 billion to construct, was championed tirelessly by the Bush administration. But the countries that would most benefit from it, such as Hungary and Austria, were more interested in negotiating new pipeline routes with Russia until recently. Now they appear to recognize that diversifying their sources of gas is essential to their national security -- and also to promoting a Russia that will not seek to use its natural resources as a means to rebuild the Soviet empire.

The new pipeline is hardly a panacea. At best it will supply about 10 percent of Europe's gas consumption, sometime after 2014. The product to fill it still needs to be found: Though Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Iraq, Syria and Egypt have all expressed interest in selling gas through Nabucco, none has committed to doing so. Still, yesterday's signing was an important step toward a more secure Europe; it is a lot more likely to produce results than Mr. Medvedev's lonely trip to Tskhinvali.

 

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