NEW YORK — Just days before Russian, Ukrainian and European Union officials met in Berlin to open discussions on an “interim solution” to the gas crisis in Ukraine, a Columbia University energy institute issued a report saying future U.S. gas exports to Europe are unlikely to play much of a role in moderating Russian, U.S. and EU foreign policy.
The reason for the pessimism is that U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) would not start flowing to Europe before the end of the decade. Even then, the volumes will probably not be large enough to affect Russia’s gas embargo on Ukraine that went into effect this summer, after the United States and EU states put sanctions on Russia. This leaves Ukraine – which relies heavily on Russian gas – in a dangerous bind and caught in a tug-of-war.
Since March, fighting between the Moscow-backed eastern Ukrainian rebels and the NATO-backed nationalists has led to thousands of Ukrainians dead and hundreds of thousands displaced after Russia annexed Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula transferred to Ukraine in 1954 and restored to Russia by means of a March 16 referendum which Russian President Vladimir Putin defended as a resounding plea for reunification because of the regions’ ties to Russian history and even ethnicity.
Further, the grim discovery of mass graves in southeastern Ukraine a few weeks ago implicates the NATO-backed Kiev regime, which could be investigated further for war crimes. According to recent media reports, at least three such burial sites have been uncovered in the past month, following the withdrawal of Kiev’s military forces from the areas under its control as part of the ceasefire deal to scale down the violence.
At the same time, Russia has been supporting separatist rebels, whose fighting with the Ukrainian army has simmered down in the aftermath of a Sept. 5 truce.
Despite the recent truce, however, there isn’t any assurance that the situation will remain quiet. NATO’s encroachment in Russia’s backyard and its backing of the Ukraine government’s bombardment of the eastern part of the country have created concern among many analysts. Some watching the situation — including the anti-imperialism activistism group Code Pink — are worried that it threatens not only a new Cold War, but an armed conflict between Russia and NATO-aligned countries for influence over Ukraine and the newly annexed Crimea, which holds important seaports for trade and shipments.
A U.S. cheerleader
There are indications that the Ukrainians have procured heavy weapons and haven’t hesitated to use them. On July 30, CNN quoted a “U.S. official” as saying it was unclear if the Pentagon would release satellite pictures that would support allegations that the Ukrainians have been firing short-range ballistic missiles at rebel-held areas.
Although the source of the missiles may not be known, a pair of U.S. senators — Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Bob Corker of Tennessee — introduced a bill, The Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014, which would provide $350 million worth of military hardware for the Ukrainian Army.
But the U.S. relationship with the Ukrainian rebels can be traced further back to February of this year, when Arizona Sen. John McCain and other State Department members’ troubling ties to the ultra-nationalist Svoboda — the party led by Oleh Tyahnybok which helped to overthrow the pro-Russian government of President Viktor Yanukovych — surfaced, according to Salon.
Photos and video of McCain addressing a Euromaidan rally alongside Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and meeting with the leader of the pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic Svoboda party this February went viral, raising concerns about whether the U.S. was supporting neo-Nazi groups to overthrow the current pro-Russian government in order to install a more U.S.-friendly administration.
Thus, given the increasing firepower that the Ukrainians are amassing from the U.S., it’s possible that future hostilities could be worse than what’s been seen so far. Currently, clashes are sporadic. But “food availability remains fragile in these areas,” says a Sept. 19 situation report from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Warmth: a threatened necessity
Meanwhile, warmth will be the next human necessity to reach the U.N.’s “fragile” list, as Russian gas shipments, halted since June 16, account for nearly two-thirds of all the gas consumed by Ukraine.
Domestic wells supply 37 percent of the country’s gas supply, with the rest supplied by a pair of Russian (Gazprom) pipelines which cross the entire country and eventually reach distribution hubs in Turkey and Europe, where they deliver approximately 3.0 trillion cubic feet of gas per year.
With winter just around the corner, Ukrainians are undoubtedly hoping that the Berlin parley, which started on Sept. 26, will yield an agreement which persuades Gazprom to resume its deliveries to Ukraine. The EU, which imports two-thirds of its gas, wouldn’t have much to spare for emergency relief.
If negotiations fail to re-open the pipeline valves, many Ukrainians will have to endure winter without much – or any – gas to heat their homes. MintPress was unable to reach anyone at the Ukrainian embassies in Washington or Ottawa to request an estimate of Ukrainian gas inventories in storage and how far into winter those inventories would last.
US, NATO and Russia’s tug-of-war leaves Ukrainians behind
U.S.-backed Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a law last month allowing future sanctions against Russia, which would include a ban on the transit of Russian gas, as well as sanctions against Russian banks.
Gazprom, which ranks 21st among the world’s richest companies, says it shut off the deliveries to Ukraine because of a financial dispute, according to The New York Times. Russia, however, claims the deliveries were stopped because Ukraine wasn’t paying its bills.
But official U.S. policy has taken the side of the newly elected, NATO-backed Ukrainian government. For example, in a March 26 press release, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu said it was particularly important to start shipping LNG to Europe to help provide a gas-supply option for Ukraine, “which,” the senator added, “has fought so long for its freedom.” (Her remark was presumably an allusion to the loss of Crimea.)
Others around the world, including Carlos Pascual, regard the Russian gambit as an illegal annexation. The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2000 through 2003, Pascual was one of several participants in a panel discussion on the LNG report released Sept. 22 by the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.
Report questions “political rhetoric”
The Sept. 22 LNG report is titled “American Gas to the Rescue? The Impact of U.S. LNG Exports on European Security and Russian Foreign Policy.” It questions the “rhetoric” from politicians who assert that LNG exports from the U.S. could challenge Russia’s dominance of European gas markets while forcing Moscow to back off its efforts to keep Ukraine – which signed a trade agreement with the EU earlier this month – firmly in its geopolitical grasp.
Additionally, the panelists discussing the report questioned the value of sanctions as leverage for foreign policy changes. Although Russia has been hit with sanctions in response to its behavior toward Ukraine, the reality is that “sanctions don’t work against countries with $2 trillion economies and nuclear bombs,” said Pascual, who acknowledged that the prospect of U.S. LNG exports may have had a subtle impact on Russian energy policy.
For example, Russia’s May 30 agreement to sell gas to China took 10 years to hammer out, and the terms (such as gas prices) “indicate Russian weakness – not strength,” said Pascual, alluding to the possibility that U.S. LNG exports will start flooding into Asia by the end of the decade — a market risk which might have pressured Russia into striking a deal with China.
Not enough “pain” from LNG exports
While Russian energy policy is one thing, its foreign policy is another. “Our LNG exports wouldn’t inflict the amount of pain necessary to force a change in their foreign policy,” Jason Bordoff, a co-author of the report and a former energy advisor to President Obama, said during the panel discussion.
The “pain” to which Bordoff referred is the estimated $24 billion loss in revenue that Russia would incur if U.S. LNG exports displaced 9 billion cubic meters of EU imports – which total 291 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year.
Russian gas imports account for 138 bcm of the annual EU total, so U.S. gas imports – while providing a dose of competition in the European gas market – would not displace enough Russian gas to serve as a “trump card” in foreign policy negotiations with the Russians, Bordoff said.
Moreover, U.K. Energy Minister Edward Davey said in remarks delivered prior to the panel discussion, “We’re not trying to provoke a fight with Russia. While it’s vital to stand up to any sign of Russian aggression, the [EU] sanctions were only intended to send a clear message that Russia crossed a line by violating the sovereignty of their neighbor.”
But Russia argues that the United State’s meddling in Ukraine by arming, funding and backing the new Kiev government violates its neighbor’s sovereignty.
According to WikiLeaks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned Washington as far back as 2008 that U.S.-EU-NATO interference in Ukraine could split the country in two.
“Following a muted first reaction to Ukraine’s intent to seek a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the Bucharest summit (ref A), Foreign Minister Lavrov and other senior officials have reiterated strong opposition, stressing that Russia would view further eastward expansion as a potential military threat,” read the 2008 classified cable by William Burns, then-U.S. Ambassador to Moscow and currently the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State.
“NATO enlargement, particularly to Ukraine, remains ‘an emotional and neuralgic’ issue for Russia, but strategic policy considerations also underlie strong opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. In Ukraine, these include fears that the issue could potentially split the country in two, leading to violence or even, some claim, civil war, which would force Russia to decide whether to intervene,” the cable said.
The Russian foreign minister had emphasized that Moscow was convinced that the alliance’s enlargement was not based on security reasons, but instead was a legacy of the Cold War and basically amounted to poking Russia with a stick. He also warned that NATO membership is unlikely to strengthen democratic governments.
“Russia understood that NATO was in search of a new mission, but there was a growing tendency for new members to do and say whatever they wanted simply because they were under the NATO umbrella – e.g. attempts of some new member countries to ‘rewrite history and glorify fascists,'” the cable said.
Davey acknowledged, however, that it may not be possible to wait for political chess games to play out. “There are indications,” he said, “that the crisis in Ukraine will drive events in the near term – with the prospect of gas shortages driving some unknown, U.S. and European responses this winter.”