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Jan 11, 2007 | 05:59 GMT

15 mins read

The Belarusian Crisis: An Opportunity for Germany

By Peter Zeihan Editor's Note: An error in the originally published version of this piece has been corrected. Picture this scenario: After months of acrimonious negotiations over energy prices, Russian leaders put their foot down and inform the government of a former Soviet republic that the gravy train has screeched to a halt — no more subsidized energy supplies. At the dawn of a new year, Moscow ratchets up prices by orders of magnitude, the former vassal state begins siphoning off Russian exports destined for customers in Europe and the Europeans complain vociferously about interruptions to their supplies. If this sounds familiar, it's because just such a sequence of events occurred in early January 2006, in a spat between Russia and Ukraine over natural gas supplies. Almost exactly a year later, the scenario has repeated itself, though this time it concerns oil, rather than natural gas, and Belarus, rather than Ukraine. But from a geopolitical standpoint, there are some important differences between the two energy crises. In 2006, Russia used the crisis with Ukraine — a state crucial to its own national security and territorial integrity — to drive home a political point to European powers. The point, essentially, was that the ability of everyday Poles, French or Germans to keep warm during the northern European winters was directly tied to their governments' support for Russia on wider geopolitical issues. Recent events involving Belarus, however, might lead to a very different outcome: a foundation for unity among European states and at least a limited assertion of European power. The Russian Sphere To understand this, it's important to consider the former Soviet region from Moscow's perspective. The natural gas cutoffs to Europe last year were all about Russia bringing a post-Orange Revolution Ukraine to heel, and enlisting wider support in its attempts to do so. By ratcheting the price dispute with Kiev into an energy crisis for Europe in the dead of winter, Moscow demonstrated that having a pro-Russian government in Ukraine would mean stable energy supplies for Europe, while the consequences of an anti-Russian government in Ukraine would be economic instability for Europe. Having made that point, Russia spent much of 2006 raking back its influence in Kiev — a process that culminated in the selection of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich as prime minister. For Russia, such events — like Moscow's defeat in the Orange Revolution before them — were core considerations. Without Ukraine in its orbit, Russia's economic and strategic coherence frays, making it impossible for Russia to function as a global power. The Russian calculus concerning Belarus, however, is quite different. Ukraine's geographic location and infrastructure make the state critical to Russia's ability to control the Caucasus, feed its population, field a navy, interact with Europe and defend its heartland. While Belarus is more economically developed than Ukraine, it has less than half the land mass and only a quarter of the population. In fact, Belarus likely would be only a footnote in Moscow's strategic planning, but for the fact that some of Russia's natural gas and oil exports pass through it en route to Europe. The Belarusians are well aware of their position. The leader of Belarus since shortly after the Soviet breakup has been President Aleksandr Lukashenko. Once a Soviet bureaucrat assigned to the USSR's agricultural cooperatives, Lukashenko cut a deal with the Russians upon attaining power: Support me with Soviet-era subsidies and I will sing your praises — and curse your rivals — loudly, reflexively and for all time. The deal served both parties fine. Russia kept an unflinching ally and Lukashenko maintained his popularity through cheap energy supplies — which fueled the local economy (both literally and figuratively, as Minsk was able to re-export Russian oil and oil products to the West at market rates). Putting a precise monetary value on the benefits to Belarus is difficult, given the murkiness of Russian accounting, but it certainly comes to much more than the Soviet Union spent annually on Cuba during the Cold War. In 2006, for example, the energy subsidies alone amounted to $5 billion. There were some ancillary benefits for Lukashenko as well. As the years rolled on, his anti-Western rhetoric was so steadily vitriolic that many of Russia's nationalists privately wished he were one of their own. Some of the more, shall we say, colorful of these nationalists took to leaking "poll results" encouraging him to run for the Russian presidency; talks soon ensued about ways to merge the two states into a new union reminiscent of the USSR. For Lukashenko, this was quite attractive: In such an arrangement, he would undoubtedly become the vice president, and — considering that then-President Boris Yeltsin was known to have the blood alcohol level of a dry martini — Lukashenko was certain it would be only a matter of time before a failed quadruple bypass made him the revered premier of a revived Soviet empire. But things changed sharply in 2000, when (the teetotal and healthy) Vladimir Putin became president of Russia. It did not take long for Putin to decide he cared little for Lukashenko, personally, professionally and politically, and relations between Moscow and Minsk steadily cooled. By the end of 2005, Putin had succeeded in reducing the influence of those Russian officials who enjoyed Lukashenko's sharp-edged rhetoric, replacing them with a new cadre of pragmatic strategists who had little desire to keep a significant "Lukashenko" line item on the accounts payable portion of the Russian budget. The Russians steadily cut back on subsidies: As of Jan. 1, natural gas prices were forcibly doubled (with more price increases in the works), and Belarus was stripped of its rights to cut-rate oil. Moscow's threats to Minsk gave way to unilateral Belarusian tariff increases on Russian exports, and from thence to siphoning of oil exports and a Russian cutoff, announced Jan. 8. With that, Lukashenko's career as the world's best-paid cheerleader came to an unceremonious end. From the standpoint of the West, however, Lukashenko is no Ukraine: No one is all that concerned about his fate. Make no mistake, Russia's decision to end energy subsidies for Belarus means that the loyalties of this decently developed state perched on the edge of Europe are indeed in play. In fact, should there be a political opening in Minsk, Belarus would be a slam-dunk destination for foreign investment and could even squeeze itself onto the short list of candidates for EU membership. However, 12 years of Lukashenko haranguing the West has taken a toll. If the Belarusian leader now wishes to plot a course away from Russia, he will be starting at square one. Crisis Averted? As to the current imbroglio, the Russians have used their many levers of influence to badger Lukashenko into backing away from a trade war. The Belarusian transit tariff that led the Russians to halt their oil exports to Europe was cancelled Jan. 10, with the Russians recommencing exports within a few hours. But, with the political loyalties of Belarus in play, there is certainly no guarantee that disruptions will not recur — and that is of no small consequence. The Soviet-era oil pipeline that carries Russian crude to Europe is the Druzhba (which, ironically in the context of Belarus, translates as "friendship"). At full capacity, the line carries 2.0 million barrels per day to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Germany and, of course, Belarus.
Shutting down that pipeline, even for a short time, presents the Russians with an atypical problem. Russia produces about 9.5 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil and gas condensates — a number that has not changed appreciably in the past four years because the state has not invested in additional export routes. Overflow production — what the pipes cannot handle under normal conditions — typically is shipped by more expensive rail and river barge networks; but, as this is winter, Russia's rivers are frozen over and the river barge option is temporarily off the table. Though Russian refineries might be able to take some of the surplus, most of that oil — at least 1.0 million bpd — has literally nowhere to go so long as the Druzhba pipeline is suspended. On Jan. 9, Putin directed the government to consult with Russia's oil magnates (some of whom were in the room with him at the time, due to Russia's ongoing efforts to nationalize its energy industry) and explore the possibility of a production cut. That would be problematic anywhere, but even more so in Russia, where energy reserves are located in regions of extreme cold. When production is halted, starting Russian oil wells back up is neither cheap nor easy; many of the wells will actually freeze solid and will have to be redrilled before production resumes. Under these circumstances, it could take the Russians as long as a year to bring output back to pre-crisis levels. At this point, an output reduction appears unlikely, since Belarus is in the process of caving to Russian demands — but there is a larger political question to be considered. Lukashenko has been humiliated and now must do some political math. His options are to kowtow meekly to Moscow, bereft of those once-generous subsidies, and mark time until he loses power — or attempt to use what energy leverage he has over Russia to make a friend in Brussels and/or Washington. For Lukashenko — who has demonstrated that his loyalty is for sale — the options are wide and the consequences are unpredictable. An Agenda Downstream With oil deliveries to five European states already having been suspended for three days, the Belarus-Russian spat obviously has implications far beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. As could be expected, the mood in Europe has been one of angered panic. Though oil — which enjoys a robust spot market and can be shipped easily by tanker — is easier to scrape together in a pinch than natural gas, it is hardly a snap to replace the Druzhba supplies. European leaders have been outspoken, issuing sound bites peppered with phrases like "destroyed trust," "unreliable," "urgent need to diversify" and "unnecessarily vulnerable." The Europeans were particularly put out that the Russians did not send so much as a notification memo that roughly 2 million bpd of crude deliveries were about to be halted. In sum, political leaders throughout Europe were soundly in agreement on the issue. This does not happen often. Throughout its history, continental Europe has been driven by ideological, religious, cultural, geographic and economic divisions. After the Cold War ended, the Europeans attempted to put those differences aside and work toward not just an economic union but also a political one. But the fiction that these diverse states could act in concert on much beyond trade issues largely was ended by their differences over the Iraq war — including the decision of many to support the U.S. invasion — and the failure of the EU constitution. This fracture has sapped much of the enthusiasm for the European Union as a concept and is a contributing factor in deepening "enlargement fatigue." The Belarus issue, however, provides the Europeans with a stellar opportunity. Energy — Russian energy, in particular — is a hot-button issue on which the EU states already share similar views. All that remains now is for some enterprising leader to turn those views into a set of policies that can bind Europe together. The question, of course, is: who? Considering the domestic situation for most of the traditional European powers (Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi has been reduced to attaching confidence votes to legislation simply to force his unwieldy coalition to vote for his policies, and the French and British leaders are both slated to leave office in a matter of months), there is really only one political heavyweight available: German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Throw in the fact that Germany holds the EU presidency until July 1 and the G-8 chairmanship until the year's end, and it is a foregone conclusion that she is the only leader who can make a serious attempt at forging a new sense of unity. It has been a long time since the Germans were a serious political player in Europe. The European mantra after World War II was not much more complicated than, "Use the French-led EU to keep the Germans boxed up economically and the American-led NATO to keep them down militarily." During his tenure, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder managed to open a crack in these long-held convictions, but ultimately he did not challenge the idea that European interests would automatically equate to German interests. Merkel, however, does. For the first time since the Third Reich, Germany has a leader who wants — and who even, in some ways, is expected by European neighbors — to stake out a leadership position for the entire continent. And now the Belarus-Russian spat has handed her an issue she can use to make that stick. The longer-term implications of this are critical. While the Bush administration is a huge fan of "Angie," the United States historically has been wary of German power. The core tenet of U.S. strategic doctrine is to block the rise of any state that potentially could exert control over an entire continent. For all practical purposes, the United States is the only major power that falls into that category, and so long as a rival does not emerge, its hegemonic position is secure. This is one of the reasons U.S. relations with the European Union as a whole have never been more than lukewarm — and those with Russia, in truth, have never been more than coolly polite. Both entities retain the potential to become such a continent-spanning rival. And as European history illustrates, whenever the Germans have ended up on top in Europe, the Americans have marched to war. To be sure, Merkel has plenty of obstacles to overcome if she intends to prove she is the woman to lead Europe as something more than a figurehead:
  • Germans might like the idea of being back in the game, but that does not mean Merkel enjoys full support at home for the details of what she will need to do. Any EU-wide energy program doubtless will involve at least a re-examination of nuclear power — which is a point of contention within Merkel's own governing coalition. If she is not able to muscle the center-left Social Democrats into line, new elections likely will result. And even if Merkel were to come out ahead in those polls, her ability to act as a coherent arbiter of European issues would stall during the foregoing campaign.
  • There is an issue of balance in energy supplies. Most of the roughly 6 million bpd of oil and oil products exported by Russia end up in Europe, and nearly half of Europe's natural gas imports come from Russia as well. Reducing those dependencies will necessitate a wrenching political and economic shift among European states. Tens of billions of dollars in new pipeline infrastructure to places such as Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Nigeria would be needed — not exactly a Who's Who of desirable partners in politically correct Europe.
  • Merkel's existing plans also could hamper her ability to capitalize on the opportunity afforded by Belarus. Before the Russian oil cutoff, she outlined a dozen major issues she planned to address during her EU presidency — all of them time-consuming and controversial. The sheer size of her agenda, and pledges of attention to the failed EU constitution, have placed her at risk of squandering her leadership opportunity by biting off more than she can chew.
That said, there is now an issue that poses a clear and immediate danger to the union, involving a matter on which member states already share common views. All that remains is for Merkel, as EU president, to set aside her existing to-do list and translate those agreements into a common policy. And this seems to be the direction she is leaning. As she stated on Jan. 9 as the Belarusian crisis deepened, "For us, energy is what coal and steel used to be." This direct reference to the European Coal and Steel Community — which provided the early glue for the forebears of today's European Union — is an excellent signal of just how ambitious the chancellor is.

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