Politics & Policy

Strategic Vision or Strategic Mess?

Greece should pass on accepting an oil pipeline from Russia.

By now, almost everyone in Europe is aware of Russia’s use of energy as a political weapon. Even so, as the EU struggles to reach a common stance toward Russia, the Kremlin is about to extend its control over Greek and Bulgarian energy infrastructures–another ominous development in the relationship between Russia and the EU.

#ad#President Putin’s upcoming trip to Athens this week places the Greek leadership in a difficult situation. Greece is expected to approve the Russia-backed Burgas-Alexandroupolis (B-A) oil-pipeline project. If it permits Moscow to create such a valuable infrastructure asset, which will be 51 percent owned by Russia, Athens risks undermining not only its own energy security, but that of the entire European Union. Furthermore, the construction of B-A would strain Greece-Turkey relations.

Greece should instead take the politically difficult but strategically wise decision to shelve the project, thus maintaining its sovereignty, contributing to European energy security, and preserving the critically important energy partnership that it is developing with Turkey.

At issue are two interlinked projects:  the B-A oil pipeline and the Turkey-Greece-Italy (TGI) gas pipeline. On both, there exist ways to cooperate that would benefit European energy security and diversification away from Russia.

Increasingly large volumes of oil from Russia and the Caspian flow into the Black Sea and through the Turkish straits to world markets. Since this dangerously narrow and congested waterway cannot handle more oil-tanker traffic, all agree that there is need for at least one bypass pipeline. There are thus several competing proposals for the development of Black Sea export routes, from Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey. Of these, however, only the Bulgarian route is directly backed by the Kremlin.

B-A, which would begin in the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Burgas and end at Alexandroupolis on the Greek Aegean coast, is yet another Russian project undertaken not on a commercial basis, but strictly for political reasons. Some companies have been pressured by Russia to support B-A against their will. Although the Greek government seems to believe that it needs this pipeline for strategic reasons, the pipeline will only damage Greek–and European–interests.  

Deputy Minister of Industry and Energy Andrei Dementiyev, Russia’s coordinator for the B-A project, stated clearly at the beginning of this month, “With Transneft as the operator of this pipeline, we envisage that Burgas-Alexandroupolis would be a de facto part of our own pipeline system.” While the EU is struggling to come up with a common position in working with Russia, if two of its members–Greece and Bulgaria–give control of their pipelines to Russia, they would be damaging EU solidarity. Because the Greek government seems to be locked into thinking it absolutely needs this pipeline, it has agreed to terms that will leave it under Russian control.

Furthermore, in order to secure oil for B-A, Greece may have to agree to accept the participation of the Russian natural-gas monopoly Gazprom in the separate TGI pipeline–which would entirely negate the whole purpose of a non-Russian gas transit route to Europe. TGI is a win-win project between Turkey and Greece that will deliver Azeri gas to EU markets. Considering Europe’s tremendous need for energy supplies (specifically gas), and in light of Russia’s intimidation-based energy policy towards the EU, access to an alternative source of gas is extremely important. TGI is already making real progress, and by the end of this year Azerbaijan will already start sending small volumes of much-needed gas to Greece via TGI. In nine years Azerbaijan could export one-third of what Russia currently sends to Europe. This significant volume would free the EU to a considerable extent from Moscow’s grip.  

If Greece goes ahead with the B-A pipeline, it will lead to tension with Turkey, which prefers the Samsun-Ceyhan bypass route instead. In its attempt to reduce tanker traffic through the Straits, Turkey itself considered an even shorter bypass oil-pipeline that would end in the Aegean, but dropped it in part due to a number of environmental risks. It is now developing a much longer oil pipeline that would bring oil to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

Greece needs to be strategic:  it doesn’t need the B-A pipeline, especially not the way it is structured, but it does need the TGI gas pipeline, which is dependent on cooperation with Turkey.  

As we have seen before in Lithuania, Poland, and elsewhere, EU and NATO memberships are not sufficient to protect a country from Russian pressure. Now that this is happening again with key EU member and NATO ally Greece, will the transatlantic alliance finally say “enough”?

The Ukrainian gas crisis in January 2006 brought energy security to the forefront of the EU agenda, finally awakening European nations from the apathy they exhibited towards Russia for many years. In a sign of hope, the EU leaders under the leadership of German Chancellor Angela Merkel began to exhibit this new approach when last week in Brussels she agreed on measures to help Europe reduce its reliance on Russia by 2020. Yet, however hopeful, such measures can never be truly effective if a single member state can undermine them. If Greece does not make the right decision next week, it will surrender to the Kremlin a key piece of the EU’s energy infrastructure–turning this strategic vision into a strategic mess.

– Zeyno Baran is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and director of its Center for Eurasian Policy, where Dimitris Apokis, who co-authored this article, is an adjunct fellow.

Most Popular

U.S.

The Inquisitor Has No Clothes

This is a column about impeachment, but first, a confession: I think I might be guilty of insider trading. At this point, I would like to assure my dear friends at the SEC that I do not mean this in any actionable legal sense, but only in principle. Some time ago, I was considering making an investment in a ... Read More