Energy Security and the “Rorschach Pipeline"

Nord Stream Pipeline

Energy Security and the “Rorschach Pipeline"

Kevin Doyle
Davis Center, Harvard University

To start the new year, we'll be sharing a selection of thought pieces from Consortium Fellows who participated in our most recent Consortium Module, hosted by St Antony's College, University of Oxford.

The Nord Stream II Pipeline should be renamed the “Rorschach Pipeline” – how you view the pipeline is largely a reflection of your underlying political sympathies. To Americans and many Eastern Europeans, Nord Stream II is the “Molotov-Ribbentrop Pipeline,” a betrayal of Eastern Europe at a time when Ukraine is still deep in crisis. To Russians, the pipeline is the next logical step to avoid an unreliable transit state (Ukraine) and get Siberian gas directly to a large consumer (Germany). And to many Western Europeans, Nord Stream II is just another mundane pipeline route, one of many that brings gas on to the continent. My research is mainly focusing on the Southern Gas Corridor bringing energy from Azerbaijan, but the University Consortium was a productive time to talk to peers and academics from the West and Russia about how they viewed the often contentious subject of gas relations.

During a time when so many political linkages between Europe and Russia have been broken off, the physical gas pipeline infrastructure keeps the two parties interconnected – much to the chagrin of many policymakers in Washington. My experience talking to U.S. policymakers has shown me that America has essentially adopted a policy of “anywhere but Russia” when it comes to finding new energy for the European continent. The 2006 and 2009 Ukrainian gas crises proved to many in Washington that Russia cannot be trusted to impartially deliver something as critical as natural gas. As many of my Russian and European colleagues expressed at the University Consortium, the view is different across the pond. They point to legitimate grievances that Russia had with Ukrainian arrears and note that it is important to contextualize the Ukrainian crises within the long history of reliable gas deliveries from Gazprom and its Soviet predecessor that date back several decades.

At the University Consortium, I noticed an interesting pattern regarding perceptions of energy security. While many of the Westerners were skeptical of how Russia could feel threatened by expanding EU projects, which were primarily economic, it was much easier for Westerners to perceive Russian gas trade with its neighboring countries as nefarious. And the same held true for how many of the Russians could not see how gas trade could be viewed as a security threat, but saw EU projects as directly undermining their security. Though gas trade and EU’s Eastern Partnership are not perfect corollaries, they point to an important truth – trade ties are viewed as harmless until a perceived adversary builds them with a country.  

Natural gas is not going to disappear as a major source of energy for Europe and Russia will remain the most logical supplier. All parties, Americans, Europeans, and Russians should continue to search for ways to build trust in energy relations. Many of the European Commission’s recommendations are great starting points to mitigate perceived threats without hurting Russia: building up gas storage, creating more gas linkages across Europe, and allowing for more competitive gas markets. Gazprom has already started to comply with many of these requirements and American policymakers should take this as a sign of good faith. It is critical that neither the Europeans or Russians do anything to further damage their critical energy relationship – Russia cannot afford to lose another revenue source and Europe cannot afford to switch to a new system of energy production. The 21st century needs level-headed policymakers to come together and build a secure and affordable energy future and hopefully some of the Consortium Fellows can be those crucial policymakers.