The earth is getting warm, the days are still torrid, while sanctions, threats and warnings keep streaming to and from every cardinal point. Our consolation is that none of them is meant for us and that there is no point in splitting the hairs. Protectionisms wend their way home, British airplanes play the Battle of England not far from Constanţa, Mamaia and Neptun, billions of lei will cross the Atlantic, as a response of the Romanian taxpayer to the American one, who invests millions of dollars in their missiles at Deveselu. Putin is attending a wedding, so as to practice his spoken German and listen to Cossacks songs in Austria and so on. The evolving security environment, connoisseurs would state, baffled by the scenery unraveling before their eyes and philosophizing with a local savor – in the absence of any references for the future world order – could be worse. Yet, above all else, winter is coming to Europe and it does so as always, unannounced and relentless.
Global warming does nothing to prevent the perspective of Siberian frost. Hydrocarbons reemerge in the pipeline for energy security and, as a result, the Western policies step down closer to the daily concerns, more worried about the need to warm the population during winter time. Russian gas has become commodity. In its wait for warmer times, Europe adjusts its tone for a few months. Come spring, the gas will once again turn into geopolitics, and the strongmen of Europe will resume the raising of public awareness with regards to such emotional topics as the diversification of resources, energy independence, alternative energies, etc.
Energy resources have always been included on the list of riches that have set the world in motion. World War II has brutally established the role of oil in development. In the following decades, practically the entire global military infrastructure has envisaged nothing else but the protection of oil fields and the assurance of an unobstructed oil flow towards large consumers, in formulas that have become the standard on maps and deemed taboo. Only later have other considerations emerged. A dangerous exception has recently been created, around Iran, who, due to sanctions imposed by the US, will be basically prohibited from exporting its oil. Therefore, an increase in fuel prices may be on the menu upon the winter threshold. The impressive deployment occurring a few years back, generated by the acts of piracy of a few fishing boats against huge oil tankers on one of the most important oil fuel delivery routes still ring vividly in the public memory. Were they warning signs? Even movies on have been shot.
Oil has become the synonym of welfare and it is hard to assume that major malfunctions may occur in the near future within the established formulas. Alongside with natural gas, oil is necessary, among other things, to generate warmth in winter, and coolness during summer time. Even if global warming will provide new commercial routes, the grand scheme of things will not be disrupted. Opportunities may become available where there have been no opportunities before, and movements have already begun in order to occupy the vacancies in the front seats of Arctic Ocean, but all will be interested in considering them a chance for prosperity. Given normal situations, the only issues that may arise are caused by speculation, including geopolitical speculation, which influences the price of commodities, still a symbol of the free economy. In general, the topic of energy resources is still accompanied by numerous hypocrisies, speculations, overstatements and understatements, and evermore sophisticated misleading, etc. In short, an informational war permanently raging for the purpose of concealing the dynamics of geopolitics. We are also faced with the dispersion of figures that nobody believes in, not even when people settle their invoices, yet such figures also reflect geopolitical calculations.
Beyond the reasoning provided by civilization, religion, history or strategy, the Middle East has remained for several decades the Gordian Knot of world peace and it cannot be severed, nor undone due to the fact that it rests on so much oil. There is, however, a recent example of reverse energy-geopolicy. Not long ago, the states bordering the Caspian Sea signed a treaty on the status of this closed sea. Negotiations had begun along after the colapse of the USSR, so a couple of decades ago. It may be a speculative coincidence, but success has only become a possibility after information started circulating on the market that the reserves in the area are far from the estimations once made, and that the natural gas in Turkmenistan has long been leased, with cash up front, to China.
It has come to natural gas to play its part in geopolitics, as a commodity generating serious income, but also as a vector for political combinations, as oil had done before it. For the time being, Europe is in the spotlight, as a large consumer of natural gas, and Russia is there as well, great Eurasian producer, but the rest of the world is not far behind. In order to earn its place, oil required two world wars and numerous local ones. After extended prospecting for alternative energies, the world was convinced that natural gas remains one of the most environmentally friendly and reliable sources of energy, so, let’s get to work! The other sources, including renewable sources, have quickly shown their limits, as nuclear energetics generates other long-term complications, dependencies and vulnerabilities not anyone can assume, and prosperity requires evermore energy on a daily basis.
The geopolitics of natural gas is manifested both within the established formulas for oil, as well as within the existing pipelines, pipelines under construction, or still in the design phase. All the hot conflict situation throughout the world today are based on the more or less stated motivation of natural gas. The most recent example is Syria. The situation abruptly took a turn for the worse when the US realized that the only thing they can do to oppose the Russian pipelines in Europe is to generate warnings, threats and sanctions. However, we are facing a peculiar situation when the US is trying to reemerge as The First without subtlety, threatening to take their toys and leave a playing field primarily of their own making. Yet certain estimations state that the US are to become the main producer and exporter of natural gas worldwide, so colossal amounts will come into the fold and things become more clearer. All participants on the gas market engage in geopolitics – exporters, consumers, actual or virtual transit areas – each with their own plays, arguments and hopes.
Similar to oil, it is a geo policy done by pen, well, keyboard, measured in billions of cubic meters, taking into account concrete figures, consumptions or actual and perspective productions, investments, distances, reserves, risks, etc., mostly considered by the producer and the consumer. Misleading, informational wars, rumors are also employed, yet the figures, relative as they may be, are still ruthless, and the stakeholders are well versed in drafting differentials, beyond the propaganda, geo-strategy, ratio of forces, etc. Natural gas can also become a hybrid threat at any point, and the situation will last until a viable replacement for it is found. The relationship between the supplier and the customer is quite interesting. Both aim to preserve it for safety reasons, and at the same time, both talk about diversification, the supplier – about an outlet, so about new revenue streams, the customer – of the sources and both continue to act toward their respective end.
According to certain public information, the consumption of natural gas in Europe in 2017 recorded 510 billion m3, of which 200 billion have been delivered by Russia, the rest from internal production and Algeria. Certain estimations show that the necessary amount will increase by 5% per year and will reach approximately 700 m3 by 2030. The International Energy Association estimates that, during the following years, Europe will be faced with a decrease in demand of approximately 10 billion m3, and also a decrease in internal production, especially for Norway. Moreover, the export of natural gas from Russia is facing fierce competition from the internal Russian market, undergoing serious transformation. Gazprom statistics shows that in 2016 the margin of Russian gas from the total consumption of certain European states was the following:
– Greece -96.4%;
– Slovenia -81.4%;
– Latvia -76.5%;
– Serbia -73.9;
– Austria -70%;
– Poland -64.2%;
– Germany -61.9%;
– Turkey -58.9%;
– Czech Republic -57.7%;
– Italy -38.3%;
– France -37%;
– Romania -14.2%.
Moreover, in 2016, the USA exported 500 million m3 liquefied gas into Europe, i.e. a margin of approximately 13%. The American institutions estimated an increase of exports to 45 bn. m3 by 2020, which would mean almost half of the internal production.
Ukraine was the first transit state for Russian natural gas who tried to play its European geopolitical position card. It inherited from the USSR a transport system with a capacity of approximately 100 bn. m3 per year. The terminals are located on its western border with Slovakia. Due to the long term agreements concluded, those would be the points where the final figures were generated for the exported gas, so the entire responsibility fell to Gazprom. The gas crisis of 2009 represented a moment of warning reference for Russia. The European beneficiaries accused them of failing to observe their contractual obligations, as the terminals at the western border of Ukraine did not receive the contracted amounts. Gazprom demonstrated that their export was not decreased, thus avoiding, for political reasons, to point the finger at the one actually responsible for managing the transport system and whom, also for political reasons, was excluded from any dialog by the European beneficiaries. It was a simple issue between the buyer and the customer, no politics involved.
In short, Ukraine demonstrated its role in ensuring the energy security of Europe, but the crisis did not end without consequences, consequences for the future. Russia made a public topic out of an issue that had been known behind closed doors for decades, namely that the Ukrainian fissure was widening, and that a break was inevitable. Ukraine continued to benefit from the substantial support of Europe, who was quickly joined by the USA in all the episodes of the Ukraine-Russia relations following the events of 2014, and the situation is probably bound to last for decades to come. Ukraine still benefits from multilateral support, even if Russia remains the largest investor in Ukrainian economy, as well as its chief commercial partner. By 2015, Ukraine had ceased importing natural gas from Russia, ensuring its necessary amount via an import formula from Europe, i.e. also largely based on Russian gas, but more expensive, due to the fact that it crosses larger distances until is received again from Slovakia or Hungary. At about the same time, the US Vice President had begun prospecting for gas in their neighboring state.
However, in the field of natural gas, rapid mutations occurred after the crisis of 2009, with the massive involvement of Europe and the perspective interesting geopolitical combinations. In the beginning, there was North Stream, a Russian and German initiative that was quickly brought to fruition, regardless of the scrutiny to which it was subjected. It has a capacity of approx. 55 bn. m3 per year and it comes as a continuation of the transport system in north Russia, along the base of the Baltic Sea, so outside EU jurisdiction, and into Germany. The same period coincided with the announcement of the South Stream, which was to deliver gas to the south of Europe, via the Black Sea and Bulgaria. Bulgaria withdrew after it had commenced the construction and also paid a few fines for failing to observe the agreements concluded. Gazprom announced they were forced into cessation of the project due to EU pressure, because it lacked the power of Germany to support it. Bulgarian officials have recently shown interest in the old project. Regardless, the Black Sea has not been abandoned, and Turkish Stream followed, comprising of two pipes with an approx. capacity of 15.75 bn. m3 each. Both pipes are undergoing construction, and one will deliver gas to Turkey and the other to Europe. They are scheduled to run at full capacity by the end of 2019.
However, the most intense geopolitical disturbances in Europe, far surpassing Ukraine, was generated by the Russian – German intention to double the capacity of the Baltic pipe, namely the North Stream-2 project. All agreements have been received, except for the one from the Danish authorities. Gazprom announced that it had begun the installation of the pipes. Given the strained commercial relations between the European Union and the USA under the Trump administration, the topic quickly started to point at European security aspects. Germany supports it regardless of scrutiny, considering it as a business deal. It was also approved by the European Energy Commissioner, subject to certain conditions related to EU regulations. The USA vehemently opposed it and threatened not only Russia, but also the participating European companies with sanctions, but to no avail. During the meeting in Helsinki, President Trump recognized the right of Germany to the business deal, but stated to the Russian president that they would provide competition for his gas on the European market with liquefied gas, and that the sanctions were not going to be lifted. Reconciliatory in the discussion with the US president, the German chancellor defended the project, but also agreed to build a second European terminal for American liquefied gas. This would be added to other terminals, not used to capacity. The project is also opposed by the Baltic States and Poland, intent on stopping Russia by any means necessary. An idea is circulating in Poland according to which the purchase of natural gas from Russia is to cease in 2022, being replaced with liquefied gas from the USA. A pipe with the capacity of approx. 10 bn. m3 per year is located in Poland. The US Ministry of Energy estimates that the US could not influence the dominant role of Russian gas on the European market in the following two decades.
It is interesting how competition will be done in terms of economy rules. Liquefied gas requires significant processing before reaching the beneficiary and is approximately 30% more expensive than gas transported by pipe. Currently, the main outlet for the US is Asia, where maximum profit is achieved. When faced with harsher winters, they preferred to purchase cheaper gas from the Russians, in order to maintain their export figures in Asia. The outlet is increasing much faster than the production. China will become the biggest importer of natural gas in the world. In turn, Russia is increasing its capacities for the production and export of liquefied gas in Asia, but does not eliminate the European terminals from the equation. Therefore, the more gas, the lower the prices will be for the end user. Or will they?
It is hard to say if Ukraine hinted at what it would unleash by playing the transit space card and how much it will contribute to the new tendencies within the Euro-Atlantic security space, where statements foreshadowing important polarizations are heard. The US president is asking for money to remain involved and will invoke new threats in order to be more convincing, but he also stated that it seems unfair that a small state such as Montenegro should drag the USA into a war. The French president is talking about an EU reform, even invoking a strategic partnership of the organization with Russia for the purpose of facing future challenges. The USA believes that the EU is worse than China. The German chancellor has another vision for the reform but also states that the EU must obtain sovereignty in defense. Other players, coming from the East, provide perspectives of their own. Poland is asking for an American military base on its territory and is even willing to contribute billions of dollars to that end, Romania is advocating for increasing NATO presence at the Black Sea, probably believing that the bases on their territory are insufficient. The Baltic States, are asking the same for their area. Aspiring Ukraine renounces its neutrality and institutionalizes its European and Euro-Atlantic option, but until its acceptance, it is asking the US not just for weapons, but also for direct intervention, including military intervention in its dispute with the separatists. Up to this point, NATO has avoided expansion into spaces not stabilized in advance by political treaties and there is no sign they will renounce this principle. Russia has resorted to important strategic reconfigurations on own territory and in the east of the Mediterranean Sea and is organizing military exercises with direct reference to its western borders in the Far East. Turkey is sending Europe amicable messages, while defying the US, and its contiguity with Russia continues even with the risk of sanctions. In a short-term perspective, both Turkey and Germany could become the main distributors of Russian natural gas in Europe, without also becoming transit spaces. Therefore, the Russian-Turkish contiguity should be of no surprise to anyone, even in the strategic field, nor Angela Merkel’s resorting to more moderate tones. The economic perspectives are far more tempting.
For the time being, the calculations show that the cessation of the transit of Russian natural gas via Ukrainian pipes would generate losses of approximately 3% of the GDP, about the same amount spent on defense given the more difficult present conditions. The EU insists that in order for the transit to be maintained after 2019, when the agreement expires, Gazprom declares that it is possible to transit 10-15 bn. m3 per year, if economically feasible, with the Ukrainian officials declaring that 40 bn. m3 are required for the same reason. Therefore, three party negotiations are underway. There remains, however, the relentless background of reality that the completion of the new pipes will only provide a minimum increase in the amount of Russian natural gas on the European market, while generating conditions for the elimination, at any moment, of the Ukrainian transit, thus depriving Ukraine of an important European asset. Moreover, the development of the pipe system towards sole recipients is also subject to vulnerabilities. Regardless, winter is coming and, paradoxically, natural gas could provide a chance for European peace, as the entire deployment dynamics until now is aimed at the very circulation of gas, not the stopping thereof.
After almost two decades of the administration in massive doses of the drug called the new security paradigm, the public perception has become oblivious to it. The respective model was based on flexibility, development, education, free movement, respect for the individual, pluralism, all manifested within principles of democracy. As time goes by, the world discovers that democracy died where it was invented, in ancient Athens, when the voters were left with insufficient places on the rock at the foot of the Acropolis to directly express their vote. Since then, several principles have been mixed, in the shape of a preamble to important documents, but only to be invoked by the strong. Without thinking too hard about questions, every day we witness a stream of new realities, namely the over-verified mechanisms of the power relations, based on their classical and inevitable dimension – the military one. But the conditions are completely different, at least in Europe. There are few European states truly holding credible modern military potentials, and the dynamics of their establishment are extremely different. This creates inequalities difficult to surmount and dependencies difficult to break.
The military gap between the great powers of the world and the other actors is deepen not so much due to military budgets, but to the new philosophies for generating and using military instruments in a selective, focalized and optimally effective manner. Cosmic space will reduce the number of credible military actors to just a few, they’re only a handful. The others will play war games during the peace time and will be cannon fodder in times of war, but they are the very ones sounding the trumpets of war the loudest.