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Circumvention Tactics: Although Russia's Energy Projects May Minimize its Dependence on Ukraine, Moscow's Tough Position Toward Kiev Can Affect Its Image Worldwide

Last week's launch of the North Stream energy project ­ a pipeline seen by many as a move by Russia to bypass traditional transit countries like Ukraine, Belarus and Poland ­ has exacerbated the ongoing gas spat between Russia and Ukraine. Many experts see North Stream as both a political and an economic success, since it will enable Russia to transport its gas directly to Europe. Others, however caution that despite the pipeline's big economic potential, Moscow's uncompromising stance toward Ukraine may further fuel fears in the West that Russia will use its energy resources as a political pressure tool.

Last week, Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin launched the North Stream pipeline in Vyborg the Leningrad Region. Russia has been working on the project since 1997 and sees it as a way to minimize the likelihood of another "gas war" with Ukraine by diminishing Russia's dependence on its neighbor's pipeline. Russia currently exports between 70 and 80 percent of its gas to European customers through Ukraine. But with the North Stream pipeline in place, Kiev is expected to lose about 30 percent of that volume next year, as Russia delivers more gas directly to German consumers. Meanwhile, another Russian energy project, the South Stream, slated for completion in 2015, will transmit gas through the Black Sea directly to Italy and Austria, depriving Kiev of yet more gas transit volumes.

However, despite the hype that the energy projects are a political and an economic breakthrough, Russia's reputation may be on the line, especially with European countries. Previous gas spats between Moscow and Kiev resulted in a gas switch-off in 2006 and 2009, and left Ukraine and other European countries without heating, sometimes in biting cold winters. In the past, such measures have led Western mass media to denounce Moscow and have also dented Russia's credibility in the West as a reliable energy supplier.

Alexander Rahr, Director of the Berthold Beitz Center for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia, warned that Russia's strict stance toward Ukraine in the current gas confrontation may undermine Moscow's credibility in Europe and put all of its achievements, including its current energy projects, in jeopardy. "To tell the truth, I don't understand Russia's position in the recent conflict with Ukraine. Tactically, it is not the best way to deal with the situation," Rahr said. "Russia had better make some concessions in order to improve its controversial image abroad, instead of imposing maximalist requirements on Ukraine." He added that the West will denounce Moscow because it is used to doing so, even though Russia is technically in the right from the legal and political points of view.

Other analysts, however, see Western criticism of Moscow as a question of old habits. Europe and the United States have a certain perception of Russia, and seem be reluctant to change their negative attitude, said Yevgeny Minchenko, a political analyst with the International Institute of Political Expertise. "However, there is no reason to believe that North Stream and South Stream will negatively affect Russia's reputation abroad," Minchenko said. "Russia's energy projects will rather have a positive impact on Moscow, because they will minimize political and economic risks in collaboration with gas resellers, such as Ukraine."

The delicate situation in which Russia finds itself is clearly demonstrated in correspondences between European diplomats and their American counterparts recently published by WikiLeaks. Moscow must work on its image, the diplomats said, after expressing concerns about the implications of Russia's North Stream and South Stream projects, for Russia's relations with Europe and the United States. Rahr noted, however, that the documents published by WikiLeaks mostly reflect the views of the former U.S. administration under President George Bush, and not necessarily those of the current administration.

Rahr sees Russia's poor image in Europe as stemming from the American attitude toward the country. "North Stream and South Stream projects are not in the interests of the United States because they are looking to preserve NATO's dominating role in Europe and prevent European countries from collaborating with Russia," Rahr said. After all, the United States has been traditionally pursuing its own geopolitical interests in its attempts to discredit Russia in Europe and to undermine its growing influence, and the European Union understands this, Rahr added.

Likewise, Germany has been split on whether it should collaborate with the United States or support Russia's energy projects, Rahr said. Pro-American circles are warning against establishing a partnership with Russia, a former geopolitical enemy, while Russia's supporters are trying to work with Moscow despite its legal nihilism, poor human rights records, a strict policy toward Ukraine and reluctance to compromise.

Russia, Oil, Gas, Nuclear, Energy - Russian News - Russia - Johnson's Russia List

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