Russia’s political bag of tricks has four tools in it that the Kremlin is employing very successfully in its attempts to destabilize former Soviet Republics, defy NATO and the European Union and otherwise act like a great power. These are: 1) the Russian military; 2) Russian energy exports; 3) information operations against Western governments and populations; and, 4) good old-fashioned subversion, bribery, blackmail and intimidation. Countering the first will require NATO nations to spend more on defense and create capabilities directed at countering Russia’s demonstrated advantages in unconventional warfare. Information warfare is best negated by an equally serious information campaign. The classic Russian tricks of corrupting and subverting foreign governments can be dealt with by a combination of counterintelligence activities, good policing and the instituting of a culture of zero tolerance for corruption.
This leaves the problem of countering Moscow’s use of its energy exports, both gas and oil, as weapons in the ongoing political conflict in Europe. Currently the three Baltic countries are roughly 90 percent dependent on Russia for oil and nearly 100 percent for gas. Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey get between 60 and 80 percent of their gas from Russia and even Germany receives almost 40 percent. As winter approaches Europe is beginning to shiver at the mere thought of a reduction in available gas supplies and the fights that will inevitably ensue if the Kremlin uses gas supplies and preferential pricing as both a carrot and a stick.
This is perhaps the most difficult of Moscow’s tools for mischief to neutralize because the solutions require both time and money. But the benefits of reducing Russia’s stranglehold over the energy life blood of the Baltic countries, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Germany are almost incalculable. A multifaceted strategy for reducing all of Europe’s reliance on fossil fuels but Eastern Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas and oil could not only restrict the Kremlin kit bag of political dirty tricks but simultaneously improve the region’s economic situation, job creation potential and response to climate change.
Some efforts are already underway. Europe overall is pursuing serious reductions in its use of carbon-based fuel sources over the next several decades. Eventually this should translate into an improved balance of trade with Russia, less vulnerability to the use of energy as a weapon and a cleaner environment.
The immediate issue is to reduce Eastern Europe dependence on Russian natural gas, particularly the Baltics, Poland and Ukraine. A corollary concern is that both the gas and electric grids of the three Baltic countries are almost completely isolated from the rest of the EU. Estonia shares its electric grid with the St. Petersburg region of Russia.
The key to blunting the edge of Russia’s energy sword in the near-term is a combination of domestic energy resilience and diversification of supply. Energy resilience means ensuring that all available storage capacity for natural gas is fully employed. It also means having in place energy sharing arrangements across the EU.
Diversification of supply will inevitably take many forms. One of the most important steps is desynchronizing the Baltic states’ electric grid from the Russian network and connecting them to the EU’s electric grid. Another is opening up Eastern Europe, in particular, to new gas supplies. A major step in this direction was taken this week with the rival floating natural gas terminal Independence in the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda. The Independence could replace all of Russia’s annual 2.7 billion cubic meters of gas supplies to that country. Just a handful of such ships could provide all the gas needs of the Baltic states and even parts of Poland and Belarus.
Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, but particularly in Ukraine, tremendous gains could be had by converting inefficient Russian made gas-fired boilers to the use of domestically produced coal. With U.S. clean coal technology, the new boilers would actually produce less environmental pollution than the current aging, leaking gas system. It would also put people in the vulnerable, Eastern portions of Ukraine back to work as coal miners with obvious benefits to that region’s political stability.
The Obama Administration has repeatedly asserted that an effective foreign and national security policy must make better use of the non-military instruments of U.S. national power. One way of doing this is to press the nations of Eastern Europe and the EU as an institution to move with all deliberate speed to reduce the continent’s dependence on Russian energy supplies. This means, in part, moderating the White House’s inflexibility on coal as a source of power. The Administration should not stand in the way of the Ex-Im bank and the IMF providing loan guarantees for gas to coal conversion projects in Eastern Europe.
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