The Corner

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pipeline

The tragic death last Saturday of Poland’s president, Lech Kaczynski, and a large number of the nation’s leadership on their way to commemorate Stalin’s cold-blooded murder of 22,000 Polish officers at Katyn Forest has stirred unhappy memories of Europe’s brutal history. It has also served to remind us that neither the unification of Europe nor the collapse of Communism has yet managed to bury the ghosts of the continent’s totalitarian barbarism — especially because, unlike Germany, Russia has neither officially acknowledged nor made amends for its role in the murder and enslavement of countless millions in Eastern Europe. On the contrary, under Vladimir Putin, Russia is again aggressively pursuing neo-imperialist policies coupled with an historical revisionism aimed at whitewashing the murderous legacy of Soviet Communism.

An early culmination of this trend was reached during the commemoration last August of the 70th anniversary of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, when Putin essentially accused Poland of starting World War II in collusion with Nazi Germany. Molotov-Ribbentrop, it will be recalled, was the cynical August 23, 1939, pact between Hitler and Stalin to divide Eastern Europe between themselves, which ushered in World War II a week later and, shortly thereafter, the violent dismemberment of Poland and the enslavement of the Baltic republics. Needless to say, since then, any German-Russian agreement that appears to be at the expense of the Eastern Europeans brings back painful déjà vu and predictable outrage.

As it happened, just such an event took place the day before Kaczynski’s tragic death, with the beginning of the construction of a direct gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. To understand why this undersea pipeline, officially known as Nord Stream, is already called by some in Poland (including foreign minister Radek Sikorski) the “Molotov-Ribbentrop pipeline,” one must realize that its primary purpose is to serve the Kremlin as an instrument for political pressure. If economic considerations and demand for Russian gas in Western Europe had been the primary motivations, a second pipeline parallel to an existing one through Baltic and Polish territory could have been built more quickly and cheaply.

But such a pipeline would not have allowed Russia to turn off the gas to its Eastern neighbors while continuing to sell it to Germany and Western Europe, and thus would have denied the Kremlin the ability to blackmail the former, as it already has on several occasions in recent years.

How important that is to the Kremlin becomes even clearer when it is realized that falling prices and declining demand for Russian gas throughout Europe — the result of burgeoning liquefied natural gas (LNG) supplies from elsewhere — and Gazprom’s inability to bring on stream its large remaining undeveloped resources in remote regions mean that neither the demand nor the supply for Nord Stream currently exists. Gazprom itself is on the rocks at present, with a market valuation a third of what it was two years ago. Despite all of this, as Nord Stream construction demonstrates, Putin and Co. are clearly determined to pay any price to maintain their oil-and-gas-supply trump as the only promising instrument of Russia’s neo-imperial ambitions. What makes Germany willing to be complicit in the Kremlin’s power schemes against its E.U. partners is a different question that Berlin will have to answer sooner or later.

Unfortunately for the Kremlin, yet another event last week may doom all of these carefully laid plans. A press release by the American oil and gas exploration company Wood Mackenzie announced the discovery of huge quantities of shale gas in Northern Poland and its imminent exploitation by American companies holding 44 licenses to do that. For Poland, which currently imports three-quarters of the natural gas it needs from Russia, the 47 trillion cubic feet of gas discovered would suffice for 200 years of present consumption. The discovery further boosts proven E.U. gas resources by almost 50 percent and will almost certainly transform Poland into a major exporter to those neighboring countries that have also been at the receiving end of Russian energy blackmail.

Even before this find, Central and Eastern European countries decided at an “Energy Security Summit” in Budapest last February to unify their gas transportation and LNG networks in order to achieve greater energy independence from Russia. With the Polish gas discovery and similar large finds of unconventional gas predicted for Hungary, Austria, and elsewhere, this energy independence could become a reality in just a few years. It would be poetic justice indeed if the Molotov-Ribbentrop pipeline is then transformed from an instrument of blackmail into an undersea white elephant.

Alex Alexiev is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.

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