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Russia’s Pipe Dreams Are Europe’s Nightmare

Dimitar Bechev, Foreign Policy

Putin’s plans to run the TurkStream pipeline through the Balkans won’t end well.

In the ongoing showdown between Russia and the West, Russia has a trump card: natural gas exports. Despite chilly relations, in 2018, gas shipments from Russia to Europe and Turkey hit an all-time high of 201.8 billion cubic meters (bcm). And even as the EU sticks to its guns on Russia sanctions, many of its members happily press ahead with their pet energy projects. Germany, for example, continues to back the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will bring natural gas from Russia to the north German coast.

Now Russia may be using another major project—TurkStream—to deepen its influence in Europe’s backyard. The pipeline, which traverses the Black Sea between Russia and Turkey, was inaugurated last year, and the first shipments of gas are expected toward the end of this year.Trending Articles

TurkStream is a commercial and geopolitical coup for the Russians. On the commercial front, the pipeline helps cement Gazprom’s position in Turkey, its second-largest customer after Germany. From a geopolitical perspective, the pipeline bypasses Ukraine and deepens Russia’s strategic partnership with Turkey at a time when Ankara’s ties to long-standing allies on both sides of the Atlantic are fraying.

TurkStream may strengthen Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hand in the Balkans too. In its second phase, if Putin gets his way, the pipeline will transport 15.75 bcm of gas through Bulgaria and then on to Serbia, Hungary, and Austria.

It is no secret that the Kremlin has been throwing its weight around in the EU’s backyard. But its frequently discussed methods—propaganda, disinformation, and intelligence ops—pale in comparison to its activities in the energy sector. The Kremlin has failed spectacularly in its efforts to stop countries like Montenegro and newly renamed North Macedonia from joining NATO. But its ability to co-opt politicians and businesspeople by dangling lucrative infrastructure contracts and hydrocarbon profits in front of them is unparalleled.

Europe is fighting back hard. Because TurkStream will terminate in the EU, Gazprom needs to bring it into conformity with European anti-monopoly rules. These rules, largely crafted after Russia shut off gas shipments to Ukraine in 2009, are geared toward diversifying energy supplies to avoid dependence on Russia. One such rule—that energy companies can’t simultaneously own transit infrastructure and sell gas through it—presents a particular challenge for Moscow, which would otherwise allow Gazprom to both build the pipeline and then supply it.

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