Russian Energy and Northern Europe: How Much Scope for Political Pressure?

By
F. Joseph Dresen

"The scenario I am going to present may develop into a concrete example of Russian political pressure against a West European EU member state in an energy-related issue," announced Krister Wahlback, former security policy advisor to Prime Minister Carl Bildt from 1991 to 1994 and a former ambassador at the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The scenario outlined by Wahlback at a 23 October 2006 lecture cosponsored by the Kennan Institute and West European Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center, is the possibility that Sweden may refuse permission for the gas pipeline that Nord Stream—a Russian-German company with Gazprom majority ownership—wants to build on the seabed within Sweden's exclusive economic zone in the Baltic Sea.

The Baltic Sea gas pipeline issue received renewed attention recently in conjunction with the recent decision that Gazprom would develop Russia's Shtokman gas field without partners. In announcing the decision, Gazprom chairman Alexey Miller emphasized that gas from Shtokman would be routed through the Baltic Sea pipeline, which is currently planned to run from Vyborg, Russia to Greifswald, Germany. Wahlback noted that the longest stretch of the pipeline by far on this route would be built along the continental shelf outside of Sweden's territorial waters, but within its exclusive economic zone.

While the development issues surrounding the Shtokman field have been widely discussed, the Swedish dilemma has received little attention, according to Wahlback. Major media reports have taken for granted that once the Russian and German parties agreed on the pipeline project, the only remaining issues would be technical in nature. "That is not the case in view of the responsibilities imposed on Sweden by international law," Wahlback declared. Under international law, Sweden is responsible for environmental damage within its exclusive economic zone, and the risk of damage from this project is considerable, he said.

The project, Wahlback explained, would require a lot of dredging and seabed rectification near the Swedish coastline, dislodging the top layer of sediment, which contains dangerous pollutants. In addition, submerged into this top layer are tens of thousands of tons of chemical munitions dumped after WWII, as well as tens of thousands of conventional explosives, mainly depth charges and mines, many of which are still active. Wahlback acknowledged that environmental problems exist in other underwater projects, for example in the North Sea. But the Baltic Sea presents special problems, he stressed. The Baltic Sea is very shallow, and there is very limited water circulation with the ocean. The pipeline, despite its limited height, would have a barrier effect on the inflow of salinated water through the Danish sounds. The consequences of pollutant release are therefore much greater than in other waters.

Sweden has no interest in impeding Russian gas exports, and would like to contribute to the integration of Russia with Europe economically and otherwise, Wahlback said. "However," he continued, "these two powers have prepared the project without asking for Sweden's views about the intended route."

While the project poses environmental risks for which Sweden is responsible, there is no direct benefit from the project for Sweden, which makes it even more difficult for the Swedish government to approve. Wahlback noted that Sweden's new government is particularly sensitive to the domestic consequences of the project, should it go forward. The current coalition has only a slim parliamentary majority, and the Green Party, which is outside the coalition, would have every incentive to use the project as a political issue in the next election in 2010. "It does not require much imagination to envisage the scene in the Baltic Sea in the summer of 2010 if big pipe-laying barges are scurrying up and down the seabed and defacing the waters along the coast of Sweden's favorite vacation island, Gotland, while the media are busy measuring the increasing phosphor and heavy metal content of the waters," Wahlback stated. "No Swedish government could survive in September after such a summer."

Onshore pipelines, whether running through Belarus and Poland, or through the Baltic countries and Poland, would be less risky. Whether they would be as profitable as an undersea route is another matter that must be fully examined before the undersea route goes forward, Wahlback argued.The concern is that political, not economic, considerations are driving the decision. The undersea route, according to Nord Stream, "avoids political and economic instabilities." This rationale is of concern to Sweden, according to Wahlback, because it implies that the Baltic countries and Poland—all of which are full EU member states—are unstable countries, and this rationale seems designed to subvert the principles of solidarity underpinning the EU.

What if the Swedish government concludes at the end of the day that it cannot take on the responsibility of permitting the seabed route? "I think Moscow would try to mobilize other EU states, especially Germany, which are eager to receive Russian gas," concluded Wahlback. "In that case, it would develop into a test of the cohesion and solidarity inside the EU."

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