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The Pipeline Weapon

I’m grateful to the commenter John who guided me toward this link for the report sponsored by the Swedish Ministry of Defence on energy security and the North European Gas Pipeline, otherwise known as Nord Stream.  I was a little too hasty and did not see the link in the New York Times story.  One reason I may have missed this one is that it was published in back in 2006 – meaning we would certainly have to add to the quoted number of times (55) that Russia has cut energy supplies to apply political pressure.  At any rate, here is the section from the paper that details the methodology of coercive energy policy.

Russia’s Coercive Energy Policy in Aggregated Terms

If these cases are penetrated and put in a wider context, a pattern emerges, namely that the energy lever can be used in several ways and serve several purposes. By and large, these actions can have military, political, social, economic or other non-military foreign-policy related underpinnings. The imminent reasons or drivers could be several, i.e. relate to a will to enforce some kind of political concession in ongoing negotiations, enforce infrastructure take-over, enforce economically favourable deals and make a political statement. 151 All incidents where Russia has used the energy weapon are political statements in one way or another, but in the 1990s, the driver of enforcing concessions was common. The findings further draw attention to the fact that Russia’s previous usage of the energy tool has taken many forms, namely:


  • supply interruptions (total or partial),
  • threats of supply interruptions (covertly or explicit),
  • pricing policy (prices as carrots or sticks),
  • usage of existing energy debts,
  • creating new energy debts,
  • hostile take-overs of companies or infrastructure,

There have been over 55 incidents (cut-offs, explicit threats,coercive price policy and certain take-overs) since 1991 (of which onlya few are unconfirmed). At least twenty of these have occurred duringPutin’s reign. The frequency has thus not been reduced dramatically.Only eleven of the incidents occurred without any politicalunderpinning. The majority has both political and economicunderpinnings. There are long-term strategic underpinnings in almostevery case.

Over forty cut-offs of energy supplies have occurred against theBaltic and CIS countries since 1991 (three unconfirmed and technicalfailures or sabotage not included). Fifteen of these were duringPutin’s tenure. In addition, there have been serious threats on atleast three occasions that were put forward by Russia without anyactions taken. Incidents where Russia has put forward political demandsin connection to its energy policy (or exerted clear punishment forunwanted actions) is a matter of discussion and definition, but onseven occasions appear to be the case.

The argument is often heard that Russia’s interruptions orinfrastructure take-overs are market-driven actions. Indeed, this istrue in some cases, but the argument basically rests on the assumptionthat the Russian companies can be characterised as market actors in thewestern sense and that there are neither political nor otherunderpinnings to their actions. To Russia’s defence it must be saidthat acting in the grey zone between business and politics is apractice that exists also by Western states and energy corporations. Animportant difference is that importers of energy are willing to givepolitical concessions in return for energy while Russia demandspolitical concessions as payments for a certain energy policy. Thisgives Russia a strong lever.

The Kremlin and the energy firms act in tune when it comes to manyprojects of strategic nature. Russia for example focuses onstrategically important but economically questionable infrastructureprojects. Basically, Russia is willing to take economic losses toattain political gains, but if the whole process is taken intoconsideration and in the wider context, also the politically driven actions have an economic rationale.