In response to the Ukraine crisis, the European Union is rushing ahead with sanctions against Russia and will take extra measures to reduce its energy dependence on Russia. According to Energy Post editor Karel Beckman these policies are misguided and based on spurious arguments. He argues that Europe should see Russia as a rival, not as an enemy. “Putin only did what any western leader – certainly any US president – would have done in his place.”
I will start this article with full disclosure: I am not a fan of Putin or the Russian government. I am sure they’re quite repressive and corrupt, as many governments in the world are. But I don’t think they’re much of a threat to peace, at least not as much as some other States. Allow me also to add that this article represents my personal viewpoint, not that of “Energy Post” or anyone associated with this publication.
Let’s get our facts straight before we start to argue. Ukraine had, until recently, a democratically elected (but of course corrupt) government and President. Faced with massive protests against his policies, the President, Viktor Yanukovych, on 21 February made a deal with the leaders of the opposition parties in Ukraine, agreeing on (constitutional) reforms and including new elections to be held in December. The deal was brokered and approved by Germany, France and Poland.
However, it was never enacted, because subsequently the government was overthrown by demonstrators and Yanukovych fled the country. Russia regarded this action as a coup d’etat, which is exactly what it was. Yet western governments rushed to recognise and support this new, clearly undemocratic and illegal government.
They had an excuse for this. After the political agreement had been made, 20 protesters were shot in the streets. The problem is that it is not clear who was responsible for this massacre.
What is clear is that the street protests had gotten very violent. This violence was the work of extreme right-wing, nationalist, anti-semitic Ukrainian groups like Svoboda and Right Sector. Svoboda, which now hold 8 posts in the Ukrainian coalition government, reassuringly means “freedom”, although the party was founded in 1991 under the name of the Socialist-Nationalist Party of Ukraine with a symbol that resembled a swastika. Its leader, Oleg Tyagnibok, who has been received by US Secretary of State John Kerry, was earlier expelled from the Ukrainian parliament for denouncing the “Jewish-Muscovite conspiracy” against Ukraine. Look him up on Wikipedia and you will get some idea of what this man stands for.
Svoboda openly boasts of its association with such extremist parties as Forza Nuova in Italy and Front National in France. You can look it up on the party’s website. Right Sector is apparently even more extremist. The leader of Right Sector, Dmytro Yarosh, is described by the New York Times as one who during the Kiev protests, “made a name for himself as an expert with firebombs”. This ultra-right-wing “bombing expert” (you will note that such people are called “terrorists” if they are enemies of the west, but some other name if they terrorise Russians) is now Deputy Director of Ukraine’s Security Council. Even in this role, he is “not about to disband [his] paramilitary units”, the NYT reports.
One day after Yanukovich was overthrown, the “new” Parliament (Yanukovich’s supporters had gone into hiding) passed a bill banning the use of Russian as a second official language throughout Ukraine, including Crimea, which has a majority Russian population. The legislation was later vetoed by the executive branch, but it sent a chilling message to the Russian-speaking people in Ukraine.
Against the background of this coup d’etat and the real threat of right-wing Ukranian nationalists, Russian president Putin took steps to secure the Crimea. He even organised a referendum which showed that the population was overwhelmingly in support of this. Strictly speaking, Putin’s action was a violation of international law, although from a historical perspective, there are many reasons why his move was understandable and justified.
I won’t go into the history of the Crimea – anyone can look that up for himself. But is it really necessary to point out the breath-taking hypocrisy with which US and European leaders are condemning Putin’s actions as in breach of international law?
International law? Did the United States care about international law when it invaded Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Panama, Cuba, Grenada, Vietnam, Cambodia, when it supported coups and ruthless dictators in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Iran, Argentina, Chili, Indonesia, Iraq, when it rained drones on defenceless people in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, when it had people tortured and locked up without trial in Guantanamo? I apologise to the people of the two dozen or so countries that I am forgetting to mention here who have been victims of US aggression. (Oh, and how about keeping Israel to international law for a change?)
The well-known liberal author Matthew Yglesias has written in all seriousness that “One of the main functions of the international institutional order is precisely to legitimate the use of deadly military force by western powers.” Quite so. Are we really surprised then when people outside of the west do not feel they have to keep to this kind of “international institutional order”?
All of this is so obvious that it hardly needs further discussion. It is nonsense to take sanctions against Russia for doing what it did. No Western leader – certainly no US president – would have acted any differently (with this difference that Putin at least took great care to limit casualties and chaos – US invasions tend be a lot less delicate). If the EU in particular had been concerned with international law, it should not have recognised the new Ukrainian government. By doing so, it helped set in motion the course that Putin took.
As Putin himself put it in a speech he delivered on 18 March: “Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle “If you are not with us, you are against us.” To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organisations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.” Who could argue against this?
This speech was described by the western media as aggressively nationalist and revanchist. I suggest you read it and judge for yourself. I find it completely reasonable.
What does all this mean for energy policy? In the western media, particulary in the US, a lot of noise is now being made by people who say Europe should develop its shale gas domestic resources and start importing LNG from the US as quickly as possible, to reduce our dependence on Russia.
They accuse Russia of using its oil and gas as a political instrument. The conservative National Review for example complains that “Putin has used his country’s energy wealth to support his aggressive foreign policy”. Gosh. So does every country that I know of. The only difference is that some countries have oil and gas, others take it when they don’t have it.
Another conservative publication, the American Spectator, even bemoans what it calls “the West’s unilateral disarmament over energy”. I like that one. It shows just how much energy and foreign policy are intertwined in this particular world view.
Revealingly, these same voices are also lashing out at Europe’s allegedly deluded promotion of renewable energy, which somehow – in their minds – has made Europe more dependent on Russian gas. In Rupert Murdoch’s neoconservative newspaper Wall Street Journal, author Rupert Darwall wrote that Europe’s “green politics” – especially the German greens – have made Europe vulnerable to Putin!
Let me quote Darwall at some length, so you can see what kind of thinking is at work here. He writes:
“(…) the most significant driver of German energy-related foreign policy has been its powerful Green Party. Other countries considering letting domestic or foreign policy be determined by environmentalists would do well to consider where Germany’s embrace of environmentalism has led.
Germany’s Greens first emerged as a political force at the end of the 1970s at a time of acute East-West tension. In response to deployment of Soviet midrange SS-20 missiles, NATO decided to station Pershing missiles in Germany. Massive, sometimes violent, demonstrations against nuclear power and nuclear missiles swept Germany. Whether consciously or not, the protesters were doing the Kremlin’s work in trying to split the Atlantic alliance.
The protests turned the German left into the voice of radical environmentalism—a historical shift. Old Nazis and neo-Nazis had been the bearers of Germany’s culture of ecological politics, which had been marginalized with Hitler’s defeat. German environmentalism was antidemocratic and anticapitalist. The Nazis were Europe’s greenest party, passing laws to extend protected forests and banning animal vivisection while performing hideous experiments on human beings.”
You have to read it to believe it. The German Greens are really neo-Nazis who no doubt would resort to perform “hideous experiments on human beings” were it not for the neoconservative stalwarts at the Wall Street Journal who keep a close watch on them.
Here is the payoff from Mr Darwall:
“The Greens’ biggest triumph came with Germany’s adoption of its Energiewende, the transition to renewable energy. The policy is a long-term bonanza for Gazprom. It means that Germany will buy more and more Russian gas because it cannot depend on electricity from unreliable wind and solar to power its industries and keep the lights on.”
Of course only an ideologically blinded hater of renewable energy could make the preposterous claim that more renewable energy will somehow make Germany more dependent on Gazprom. But the point I want to make is not that some writer in the Wall Street Journal has no clue (and no interest) in what goes on in the real world here in Europe – the point is that European leaders are (again) following the agenda of people like that.
The European Council (i.e. the leaders of the EU member states) on 21 March adopted “Conclusions” that are regrettably hostile towards Russia and leave little room for negotiation. In these “Conclusions” EU leaders say that: “The European Council does not recognise the illegal referendum in Crimea, which is in clear violation of the Ukrainian Constitution. It strongly condemns the illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol to the Russian Federation and will not recognise it. The European Council asks the Commission to evaluate the legal consequences of the annexation of Crimea and to propose economic, trade and financial restrictions regarding Crimea for rapid implementation.”
The Council also says that “in the light of this and in the absence of any steps towards de-escalation the European Council agrees to expand the list of individuals to be subject to visa ban and asset freeze. The European Council decides to cancel the next EU-Russia Summit and notes that Member States will not hold bilateral regular summits for the time being. In addition, the European Council and the Member States support the upcoming G7 countries’ meeting in The Hague. They also support the suspension of negotiations over Russia’s joining the OECD and IEA (International Energy Agency).”
In addition, the European Council calls on the European Commission “to present by June 2014 a comprehensive plan for the reduction of EU energy dependence”. This plan “should reflect the fact that the EU needs to accelerate further diversification of its energy supply, increase its bargaining power and energy efficiency, continue to develop renewable and other indigenous energy sources and coordinate the development of the infrastructure to support this diversification in a sustainable manner, including through the development of interconnections (…) In addition, further action should be taken to support the development of the Southern Corridor, including further spur routes through Eastern Europe, to examine ways to facilitate natural gas exports from North America to the EU and consider how this may best be reflected in TTIP, and increase the transparency of Intergovernmental Agreements in the field of energy.”
Now of course “energy diversification” is an eminently sensible policy for the EU to follow for simple commercial reasons. As a buyer it is not a good idea to have only one supplier. Much better to have as many of them as possible and play them off against each other. This of course has long been part and parcel of the EU’s energy policy and no new “plan” is needed. (And the best diversification policy is to develop domestic renewable energy, Rupert Darwall notwithstanding.)
Within the European market, the best protection against monopolistic practices is a well-functioning internal market with many participants. That too has long been on the EU agenda. For this too no new policy is needed – all that’s needed is the implementation of existing policies by EU leaders. The envisioned EU internal energy market has clear rules, such as third-party access requirements and unbundling requirements that are intended to guarantee competition. Needless to say, Gazprom and anybody else should be strictly held to those rules, as I have argued elsewhere.
As long as the EU pursues diversification (including decarbonisation and energy efficiency) and competition, there is nothing wrong with being “dependent” on Russia. Such “dependence” – which is of course mutual – may go a long way towards avoiding destructive wars that some people are bent to push Europe into. That would be a dreadful mistake. Yes, it would be foolish to expect charity from Russia. But it would be equally foolish to start treating Russia as an enemy. It is only an enemy if we turn it into one.