2paragraphs: Given that most of the pipelines transporting Russian natural gas to Western Europe run through Ukraine, does Ukraine have bargaining power it’s not effectively using?
Jeffrey Mankoff: Though Russia’s principal gas pipelines to Europe cross Ukrainian territory, Kyiv’s ability to derive leverage from the presence of these pipelines is limited by the need to maintain political support in Europe and by Russia’s possession of alternative transit options. In 2012, the EU purchased 130 billion cubic meters of gas from Russia, which accounted for about 34% of Europe’s total gas imports. More than half of that Russian gas was supplied via pipelines across Ukraine. The presence of these pipelines on Ukrainian territory would seem to give the government in Kyiv significant leverage vis-à-vis Russia: Kyiv could just shut down the flow of gas, bringing the impact of the Ukrainian crisis directly into European homes and forcing the Europeans to broker a solution to the crisis. The biggest problem with this approach is a cut in gas supplies creates real risks for the European economy—and Brussels is unlikely to take kindly to such a step. In fact, Kyiv’s efforts to siphon off Russian gas destined to Europe to offset the impact of a Russian cutoff in January 2009 provide a window onto why manipulating gas supplies is a risky strategy for Ukraine. Moscow responded to the siphoning by halting all gas sales through Ukraine for a couple of weeks, leaving much of eastern and southern Europe literally out in the cold. European leaders reacted angrily, blaming both Moscow and Kyiv for the disruption and demanding that they sort out their problems. While the EU response would likely be somewhat more sympathetic to Ukraine today, Kyiv’s very vulnerability and need for outside financial support makes incurring European anger by manipulating gas supplies very risky.
It would also carry longer term costs on the energy front (regardless of whether Moscow responded militarily). As recently as 2009, close to 80% of the gas Russia sold to EU countries transited Ukraine. Since then however, the opening of the Nord Stream pipeline beneath the Baltic Sea and Russia’s success in taking control of the gas transit system in Belarus have diminished Ukraine’s importance as a transit state. Last year, about 20% of Russian gas sales to Europe went via Belarus, while nearly 35% went through Nord Stream–which is still operating at below its full capacity. Moscow would like to further expand Nord Stream, and to build the South Stream pipeline across the Black Sea to the Balkans and Italy. The main goal with both of these offshore pipelines is to reduce the transit risk associated with pipelines across Ukraine (and potentially Belarus as well). So for Ukraine to cut transit of Russian gas through its territory, especially during the warmer months of the year when gas demand is lower, would not have the same impact in Europe as it would have just a few years back. Moscow already has some options for supplying gas without crossing Ukraine, and drastic steps by Kyiv would likely just accelerate Russian efforts to further cut Ukraine out of the transit picture, a step that would only strengthen Russian influence over Ukraine in the longer term.
Construction of the Nord Stream pipline (2010) (photo: Gazprom)
—Dr. Jeffrey Mankoff is deputy director and fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Russia and Eurasia Program. He is the author of Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics.