A web of hydrocarbon ties between Russia and Germany will heat the planet, but cool the conflict over Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin’s “soft invasion” of Ukraine is moving steadily ahead, perhaps on the route to fulfilling Putin’s newly discovered dream of incorporating “New Russia” (Novorossiya) into the motherland. (If you haven’t been following this new angle, Novorossiya is a huge swath of land stretching from southwestern Ukraine along the Black Sea, and including Odessa and Crimea, to parts of eastern Ukraine where Russian-backed gangs have seized control of some government buildings.) On April 17, Putin mentioned the concept, an eighteenth-century, ex-Ottoman Empire artifact, saying:
I would like to remind you that what was called Novorossiya back in the tsarist days—Kharkov, Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolayev and Odessa—were not part of Ukraine back then. The center of that territory was Novorossiysk, so the region is called Novorossiya. Russia lost these territories for various reasons, but the people remained.
Needless to say, there is no such place, but in Putin’s mind it may serve as justification to expand the massive covert operation Moscow is running in eastern Ukraine to places such as Odessa, where new violence has erupted.
It remains to be seen whether or not Ukraine can survive in its present form, but if it doesn’t—that is, if Ukraine breaks apart, Yugoslavia-style—one thing is fairly certain: the hydrocarbon bonds linking Russia to Western Europe, especially Germany, will remain unbroken. Sanctions or no sanctions, NATO or no NATO, the vastly powerful Gazprom empire will sustain itself, supplying gas to the lamps of Europe.
President Obama can huff and puff, and demand sanctions on Russia, but it’s fairly clear that Germany, the powerhouse of the European economy, won’t go along. So if a Cold War–style chill does descend on US-Russian relations—itself not too evident, since Russia is still cooperating nicely with the United States on Syria’s chemical weapons, Iran’s nuclear program and Afghanistan—the Europeans will be modest and reluctant collaborators at best, while preserving their ties to Gazprom.
Putin himself has noted that Gazprom has great influence over Europe’s views of the Ukraine crisis. According to the Voice of Russia, he said:
European countries take around 34%-35% of their gas balances from Russia. Can they stop purchasing Russian gas? In my view, it’s impossible.… Can we stop deliveries? In my opinion, this is completely unrealistic. Only by harming yourself, through blood is this possible, but I can’t even imagine this.