Last week, Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia stood up to the Russian Federation over disputes in which Russian troops occupy parts of each of their countries. Russian troops are massing on Ukraine’s border, raising the possibility of a war. Russia is trying to gain approval to begin operating the NORD STREAM 2 pipeline that would supply Natural Gas to Europe, while Europe is facing high “energy” prices this winter. The USA opposes the NORD Stream II pipeline, and US Senator Ted Cruz has secured agreement for a vote on a sanctions bill targeting the pipeline.
These may seem disconnected issues, but they are actually part of the same story.
For years, energy security issues in Europe have loomed large. It doesn’t have its own oil and natural gas supplies, and climate change concerns mean that Europe is starting to shut down the coal powered energy system. Renewable energy sources are not coming on-line fast enough to take up the slack, and natural gas is seen as the bridge. But that means becoming reliant on supplies from elsewhere. One such source, Russia, raises red flags of warning in some quarters because they are likely to use natural gas as a political weapon.
Moldova demands Russia pull out from Transnistria
On December 14, 2021, Reuters published an interview with Moldovan President Maia Sandu, in which she demanded that Russia withdraw its troops from Moldova (specifically, Transnistria), and to stop meddling in Moldova’s affairs. Instead, Sandu declared it is Moldova’s choice to eventually join the EU, and for “other countries to respect that choice.”
This is a bold statement for a President of Moldova to make, given the 200+ year history of Russian meddling in Bessarabia. The historical Principality of Moldova is split by the Prut River, with one half being part of Romania, and the other half being the Republic of Moldova. In the early 1800’s the portion the Principality of Moldova between the Prut and Dneister rivers, Bessarabia, was taken by the Russian Empire starting a long history of Russian control. The most recent phase began with the fall of the USSR, and a degree of freedom from Russia. But Moldova’s attempt to rejoin Romania led to a brief war, resulting in the pseudo-independence of Transnistria propped up by a contingent of Russian military maintaining its status as a frozen conflict zone.
Pres. Sandu’s comments were on the eve of the Eastern Partnership Summit, held on December 15, between the European Union and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Each of these countries are receiving meddling from Russia, because Russia views them as part of its sphere of influence due to having been part of the USSR.
Frozen conflict zone?
Is this phrase one most of us know? I didn’t ever hear this phrase until studying Romanian history and learning about Transnistria. The practice has been used several times by the Russian Federation, but is hardly unique to Russia. The Korean War is, for example, a frozen conflict zone.
A frozen conflict is a situation in which an active conflict situation (a.k.a. war) has supposedly ended, but no peace treaty has been negotiated. Wikipedia has a list, most of which were engineered by the Russian Federation. The ones we have to talk about today are these:
- Moldova – Transnistria
- Georgia – Abhkazia and South Ossetia
- Ukraine – Crimea, Donetsk People’s Republic, Luhansk People’s Republic
The Wikipedia link has lots of details. The one I’ve studied the most is Transnistria. It was created in 1924 by the USSR, and was eventually tacked onto the Republic of Moldova in 1947ish. I’ve written several posts on Quora about the history of Transnistria.
What Russia gains from maintaining these conflict zones is leverage over other countries without having to do messy things like stage an actual invasion.
Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine speak up as well
It’s not just the President of Moldova demanding that Russia pull its troops out of the territories of its neighbors. Russian troops are also occupying parts of Georgia, and Ukraine.
Last July, a political group was formed called “Associated Trio of Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia” in which the three countries would work on mutual interests. On December 15, at the Eastern Europe Partnership summit, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine huddled on the sidelines (as they put it), and issued a joint declaration.
The declaration asserted that the three countries are strongly interested in association with Europe. In the context of a European Union summit, that means they wish to associate with the EU. As a result the countries have pledged to work on decreasing corruption, and reshaping their laws to be closer to European Union directives.
The declaration did not explicitly call for Russia to leave their territories. But it noted “continuous destabilization and violations of the principles of international law in many parts of the EaP region” (cough, cough, Russia), and “strong condemnation of the clear violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity of a number of EaP states, including incitement and support of conflicts, using disinformation and cyberattacks, increasing militarization of the region, violations of human rights, or holding elections on temporarily occupied territories.”
It should not surprise us that these countries declared their interest in joining the European Union.
Each of these were Soviet Socialist Republics, therefore were part of the USSR, and current policy in the Russian Federation sees each as part of Russia’s natural sphere of influence.
Russia and its Sphere of Influence
The Russian Federation is derived from the USSR, which in turn was derived from the Russian Empire. It covers terrain starting at the borders of Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine, and stretches from there to the Pacific Ocean. It’s mostly the old USSR, though with parts missing both in Europe and in the middle of Asia.
The actions of the Russian Federation, such as the frozen conflict areas just mentioned, clearly indicate that Russia seeks to reestablish the borders of the old USSR. There are a couple clear concrete indications this is accurate.
One is the Novorossiya concept. This name was first given to the Novorossiya Governate, in the mid-1700’s, a region of what’s now Ukraine along the Black Sea Coast all the way to Odessa. In 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin noted that the territories of Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Mykolaiv and Odessa (all Oblasts of Ukraine) were part of what was called Novorossiya. The areas in Luhansk and Donetsk, then in the middle of the hot war in The Donbas, were proclaimed as a confederation of Novorossiya, with the desire to extend this to southeastern Ukraine.
If that had happened, the impact on Ukraine would be to cut it off from the Black Sea, and remove a large chunk of its territory. A practical result for Russia would be establishing a land route from Russia to Crimea and Transnistria.
The other concrete example of Russia asserting a sphere of influence comes from NATO and Russia statements over last couple weeks.
On December 1, 2021, at a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Latvia, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg declared that “Russia has no veto. Russia has no say. And Russia has no right to establish a sphere of influence, trying to control their neighbours.” That was said in the context of Russia massing troops on Ukraine’s borders, and Russia’s demands that NATO not deploy troops or weapons around Ukraine.
By December 17, the Russian Federation released an eight-point draft treaty, that are essentially a list of demands that would establish a formalized Russian sphere of influence over Eastern Europe. One demand, that NATO withdraw troops and weapons from countries which joined NATO after 1997, would considerably shrink NATO’s sphere of influence. Another is an outright ban on Ukraine joining NATO. Ukraine cannot do this until the two countries settle their border disputes in Crimea and the Donbas, which seems like it will never be resolved.
Russia masses troops on Ukraines borders
Currently there is worry that Russia is about to invade Ukraine. This is based on satellite imagery (Politico, November 1, 2021) showing that over 100,000 Russian troops have set up bases near Yelnya, Bryansk and Kursk in Smolensk Oblast. This is very near Russia’s border with both Belarus and Ukraine, and a very short distance from Kyiv. Another report, from Radio Svboda (which appears to be part of Radio Free Europe), on November 3, discusses reports from the Ukraine Ministry of Defense. The deployment includes elements of Russia’s 8th and 20th Army and the 1st Guards Tank Army, as well as Russian forces based in Crimea.
From that position, Russia could make a quick strike quickly reaching Kyiv. Maybe. A lot depends on how well Ukraine’s military is able to respond.
But, who knows what’s actually in the cards? There are a number of balls in the air, and we still have several to discuss.
European Energy Crisis
Another issue on the table is the “Energy Crisis” in Europe this winter. In part there is a global issue with higher prices for oil and natural gas. When the COVID-19 Pandemic hit the stage, oil and gas production declined due to lowered demand. But demand rose as the pandemic started to wind down, which is part of why oil and gas prices shot up.
In the case of Europe, another issue is that Europe itself does not have local sources for either oil or natural gas. Instead it relies on supplies from elsewhere. Russia, has extensive oil and gas fields, and is a dominant source for countries in Eastern Europe.
When I last reported on this in 2015, Germany and Russia had just signed a deal regarding the NORD Stream II pipeline. The USA Government issued a statement at the time describing the deal as bad for European Energy Security. Plus, it is potentially damaging to Ukraine, because it would allow Russia to cut off its natural gas supply.
The red lines on this map are natural gas pipelines from Russian and Kazakh gas fields. Historically, the primary pipelines went through Ukraine and Belarus, and from there to Eastern Europe. Notice that the Nord Stream pipeline runs through the Baltic direct to Germany, bypassing Ukraine.
In 2013, the Congressional Research Service issued a report, Europe’s Energy Security: Options and Challenges to Natural Gas Supply Diversification, detailing energy security risks in Europe. That report claimed this issue was in America’s National Interest, which I believe to be a code phrase for saying the USA is willing to go to war over that issue. It details a number of sources from which Europe could get natural gas and oil, and raises the danger that would arise if Russia were to have control over Europe’s energy supply.
Would Russia, in other words, be willing to leverage that position for political gain?
On Wikipedia, there is a list of disputes between Russia and Ukraine over natural gas deliveries. There have been several instances over the last 15 years where disputes led to natural gas supply disruption, causing problems for Europe.
Currently, Reuters is reporting that natural gas pressure on the Yamal pipeline has fallen. Gas flows at the German-Polish border have fallen to about 370,000 kilowatt hours per hour, down from 4,000,000 kWh/h. It is not clear why this happened, whether Russia was simply unable to keep up with the demand, or something else.
Russia tries to start Natural Gas delivery to Germany
It’s now 2021, and the NORD Stream II pipeline is finished, and all technical criteria have been met. However, there is a sticking point, which may be a crucial point behind everything just said.
In mid-November, Reuters reported that EU regulations may stymie the NORD Stream II plan.
The pipeline operator, Nord Stream 2 AG, is based in Switzerland. It is required to get a business license in Germany to start operations, because the pipeline lands in Germany. The sticking point is EU rules requiring natural gas pipeline operators to be different from natural gas suppliers. The purpose of the rule is to ensure open competition.
But, Nord Stream 2 AG may not be distant enough from GAZPROM to satisfy European regulators. There are reviews underway, which will take several months to complete.
Senator Ted Cruz gets a say
This story is almost complete. The last bit is strange, but involves a Sanctions bill pushed by Senator Cruz.
Senator Cruz had placed “holds” on about 3 dozen of President Biden’s ambassador nominations. That prevented new Ambassador’s from being put in place, hampering Biden’s foreign policy initiatives.
A few days ago, a deal was reached where those holds were lifted, and in exchange the sanctions bill pushed by Senator Cruz will be put on the Senate floor for a vote on January 14, 2022.
According to Reuters, The bill would impose mandates on NORD Stream II under previous mandates.
The Biden Administration is against NORD Stream II because it bypasses Ukraine, depriving Ukraine of the revenue it currently receives, as well as increasing Russia’s leverage over Europe as described above.
An article on ForeignPolicy.com bluntly asses the situation as The West Must Deter Russia or Accept Defeat. The article describes two camps among the International response to Russia at this juncture. One camp is looking for appeasement, while the other is looking to rein in Russia’s ambitions.
What we’ve gone over is several disparate stories that appear to be aspects of the same story. Namely, whether Europe will be under the thumb of Russia if/when it begins delivering natural gas through NORD Stream II.
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