This past Thursday, Poland took a crucial step in the road towards seeking out alternatives to Russian energy. A tanker from the United States delivered liquefied natural gas to Swinoujscie, which is Poland’s first port that has the capability of receiving gas from distant suppliers. This port is part of a new network of alternative energy sources and gas transportation routes across northern and eastern Europe.
The news of this delivery of natural gas coming from the United States into Poland, a NATO member state that shares a border with Russia, has tremendous geopolitical ramifications for the region. According to Eurostat, an organization that provides information about European Union (EU) member states, Russia is the primary source of energy in the EU, making up 49 percent of its natural gas imports and 34 percent of its crude oil imports as of 2014.
Russia’s dominance in the European energy sector has been undeniable under the reign of Vladimir Putin. Since taking over as president in 2000, Putin has used Europe’s reliance on Russia’s natural gas as leverage over EU countries. Although NATO may be useful in countering Russian military aggression, it has been unable to stop the impact of energy politics, which seemed to keep EU countries at bay when dealing with Russia. Europe’s tolerance towards Russian aggression has been most evident when taking into account how passively the EU reacted towards Moscow’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, and their annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Like many other trends that we see today in Putin’s Russia, the use of energy exports as a form of power politics over Europe has historical precedent in the former Soviet Union. During the Cold War, the Soviets began a massive campaign of economic interaction with countries in the West. The strategy of subsidizing oil to Western Europe as well as to Soviet bloc countries became known as the “Soviet Economic Offensive.” This was crucial in allowing Moscow to gain leverage over Western nations such as the United States and France and thus led to the creation of a Soviet sphere of influence. When the Soviet Union collapsed on Christmas Day of 1991, there was an era of economic liberalization that resulted in a 50 percent decrease in production, and a split of Russian energy amongst rival groups throughout the country.
The trend of liberalizing Russia’s energy sector was stopped dead in its tracks when Vladimir Putin took office in 2000. One of the top priorities of his regime was to bring the energy industry under state control. As a result, almost all of Russia’s energy sector is under control by Russia’s three massive state-controlled companies: Gazprom, Rosneft, and Transneft. The Putin regime has been very aggressive in negotiating energy deals with countries in western and eastern Europe that must rely on Russian energy, and thus pay whatever prices Russia sets for them due to the lack of alternative energy sources in the region.
In recent years, Russia has used its demand to supply natural gas throughout the region as an economic weapon. The most obvious example comes from Ukraine, where in 2013, the Ukrainian president rejected a trade deal with the EU. As a reward, Putin announced in a press conference that Gazprom would be reducing the price it charges Ukraine for natural gas by one-third. However, when a pro-Western regime was brought into power after the Maidan revolution, Gazprom announced that it would raise Ukraine’s price for natural gas by 81 percent.
In response to the issue of finding alternative sources of energy to Russia’s natural gas, the European Union has issued proposals to help member states find new suppliers to do business with. If the shipment of gas from the United States into Poland is an indication of a new trend in avoiding buying gas from Russian companies, it will be interesting to see how Moscow will respond. Russia is heavily reliant on the sale of their natural resources to power their economy. Losing business in Europe would undoubtedly result in an economic disaster for Russia, as well as a decrease in their influence.
Losing influence in Europe is Putin’s worst case scenario. No longer will he be able to act without severe consequences, as has happened in Georgia and Ukraine. The loss of leverage will inevitably result in an emboldened NATO that is determined to calm the increasingly aggressive Russian Bear.
Daniel Alonso is the founder and contributor of Politicsay. Daniel graduated from Florida International University with a double major in Political Science and International Relations, as well as a certificate in National Security Studies. Daniel focuses on American Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and Human Rights Issues.