Psychology of the Balkans War over Pipelnes: Greece, Bulgaria and Beyond


September 2nd, 2015 – 

By: Joaquin Flores for Fort Russ 


The present war in Ukraine and events in Transnistria are already serious indications that the Balkans and West Black Sea regions are correctly forecasted to be theatres of instability in the coming period.  Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Serbia are critical pieces.

Indisputably, the conflict in Ukraine greatly involves the future of Eurasian natural gas pipeline projects. These cannot be considered geopolitically distinct from Russia-Turkey bilateral relations nor from the pipeline ‘cold war’ presently taking place in the Balkans. As a general rule, the Ukraine war demonstrates that between the major power blocs, outright war is indeed ‘an option’. 

In analyzing the events, the debate primarily surrounds the viability and status of Turkish Stream/South Stream on the one hand, and ‘TANAP/TAP’ backed by the Atlanticist network. 

Atlanticist Energy Experts are Divided

Today we published on Fort Russ a very interesting opinion from Natural Gas Europe on this subject. Even though this article originally appeared in English, we republished this for several reasons.  Because of who published it, we think this makes the opinion important. If one looks at their site and views their partners‘ page, you will find it is supported by the Atlantic Council, CEPA, CER, and other ‘Western’ think tanks and policy advocacy groups.

This opinion presents an interesting picture; varying opinions about the status and likelihood of the various pipeline projects.  Reasons are given to believe that both projects are still alive. 

As we have previously discussed, both projects are not simultaneously viable and yet few decisions are ever really final. In psychology, the recency effect plays on our memories, and moreover we are prone to believe that the most recent news is the ‘update’ and therefore more accurate.

The game is in social psychology 

In reality, media itself is manipulated, and various reports and statements by officials are meant to push the debate in a given direction, for specified reasons, for a certain time.  

Even if these are later contradicted and our perceptions then changed, the previous impression may have already served its important purpose at the time it was widely believed. 

Policies and decisions are made ‘in flux’, it is a constant ‘tug of war’ over the direction of the pipeline projects.  Not only governments but also the energy and construction companies themselves seem to ‘change teams’ from quarter to quarter. 

Each new official ‘statement’ seems to contradict the last. 

In reality, a project can be lined up and even constructed under certain auspices for example as TANAP, only for the major backers and project members to suddenly decide that it is South-Stream they have built, and Gazprom gets plugged in.  It can go the other way too. 

War is a real possibility

One would expect a number of major lawsuits and assassinations to surround a last moment change in project beneficiaries, even a ‘revolution’ in one or two countries.  But the history of these projects is indeed colored with these. 

It also greatly increases the chances of a major armed conflict to resolve this ‘standoff’.  Indeed, such an outcome should probably rank in the top three likely outcomes of this dangerous gambit.

Turkey may have hoped that it could line up the Shah Denis II Consortium along with the Southern Corridor project, really separate in part from the Atlanticist project as the TANAP/TAP we know of today, and also separate from the Eurasian project.  They may have thought they could have asserted their own hegemony in the broader region.  

But chances for this appear to be dwindling in light of developments in the past year. 

Greek and Bulgarian ‘games’, but what of fear?

Bulgaria is forecasted to once again be the center of attention for the world powers.  Bulgaria and Greece work as “princesses” who attempt play one “royal suitor” off the other. The suitors (Atlanticist and Eurasian power networks) entice their objects of courtly love with the finer points of the package deal.  But a certain point, Bulgaria and/or Greece will have to ‘put out’.  The game will not go on forever. Someone will be left holding the bag, and that someone will not be without recourse.  This could lead to war. 

Between good-will and hope on the one hand, and fear on the other – people, like nations, (in IR rational-choice and game theory), tend to respond to fear more than hope.  Fear is an immediate concern based in survival, whereas hopes seem to dwell in the realm of luxury and perhaps in the future. 

The war-mongering bellicosity of the US has bestowed this ‘fear based’ power upon itself. That is, faced between ‘hopes’ of Eurasian integration vs. the ‘fear’ of a US invasion, color revolution, sanctions (etc.), countries seem more likely to respond to fear. 

Russia also has bite and was not ”fooled”

Russia’s forward and robust policy on Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, Egypt, Armenia, and Syria however, give it some element of ‘fear power’.  Governments like Bulgaria’s should be afraid of what can happen if it ‘plays the game’ for too long or tries to leave Russia ‘holding the bag’. 

The subject of Greece’s role in all of this has been a matter of significant debate, and an enlightening one. One fundamental error often being made is in misinterpreting Russia’s vision in relation to Greece, its geopolitics, and its orientation towards Europe in general. 

There is a view that Greece had ‘played’ Russia, in order to leverage for itself a better deal with Europe; that Greece all along had no real view towards pivoting towards Russia, Eurasia, or BRICS.  That question itself frames the subject at hand wrongly, but also  – even by its own logic – appears incorrect. 

By its own logic it seems unlikely as this ‘play’ only requires projecting one move ahead, whereas Russia as a rule projects at least four or five moves ahead.  When multiplied by various imaginable variables and needed contingencies, this represents hundreds of distinct outcomes that are taken into account.  Whole computer networks are dedicated to the computations involved in this, as in war. 

If anything, by this matrix, Russia wanted Greece to use the spectacle of closer ties to help Greece in relation to the EU. This would not be Greece ‘fooling’ Russia, but working with Russia. This is not ‘altruistic’ on Russia’s end but in fact helps Russia in its ability to work with Greece: a Greece with a reduced burden is better positioned to make deals with Russia.  Yet this is not how things should really be viewed.

Russia’s Real Focus – European Integration

Rather, we must review what Russia’s grand strategy is: Integration with Europe.  

This is not only an assessment made by analysts, but the public statements made by Russian official leadership on numerous occasions.  Russia envisions an economic and security integration spanning from the Atlantic to the Pacific, on the ‘world-island’ of Eurasia.  It is here that the real meaning of Eurasia is understood – it is not another word for ‘Asia’, situated to the east of Europe.  It is Asia plus Europe. 

The Russian aim is not to ‘isolate Europe’, pulling its own potential “satellite states” in Warsaw Pact like fashion away from “Europe”.  The EU Atlanticists want to ‘isolate Russia’, but Russia’s vision is not the inverse or mirror image of this.  

Russia did not and does not want Greece out of the EU, nor did they want Greece to get ‘closer to BRICS’ in a manner that is distinct from what they want for the EU in general.  

Russia’s idea for Greece is not unlike its idea for Hungary or Bulgaria.  Recall that despite political problems Russia has with Bulgaria over the South-stream project, Bulgaria and Russia still enjoy important and strong ties.  

The restrictions that Brussels imposed on Bulgaria, greatly reducing its freedom to make sovereign energy decisions with the passage of the Third Energy Package, and the resulting ambiguities and intrigues surrounding South Stream, must be considered. Nevertheless, Russia is still Bulgaria’s second largest trading partner.  The political weight that comes with this economic power should not be overlooked.  

Likewise with Hungary, we can see that Russia has no aim to pull Hungary ‘out’ of the EU sphere and ‘towards’ Eurasia, despite the government of Hungary today being generally Euro-skeptic and Russia friendly.  

Russia and BRICS has not ‘concluded’ Diplomacy with Greece

The Russian aim with Greece is and was for it to be just a piece in a larger project of ‘cases’, of ‘examples’ – which do not stand alone but must be seen all together – of ways that the EU and Eurasia can come together.  There are reasons to believe this view and effort has changed, and the strategic importance of Greece by itself may not seem significant.  But Russia cannot consider ‘each piece’ insignificant when all the pieces together are the picture of its plan.  The pieces are the plan.

One plan, the more public or obvious plan, seemed to involve BRICS ‘New Development Bank’ playing a role in Greece’s recovery plan.  We wrote about this extensively.  That Greece ‘capitulated’ entirely to the ECB seems to indicate that this plan was nixed.  But there are many ways to wire a board (or, to skin a cat, if you will). Significant increases (or re configuring) in French and/or German bilateral trade with China or India, would, however, be a similar way of accomplishing the same.  

Another more direct route would be in other French or German investments in, for example, Latin America which involve cosortia based in Brazil, the ‘Pink Tide’ states, and China. 

When the capital derived from these projects is intertwined with the ‘Greece’ picture, the final result can be quite similar to a scenario in which Greece itself took on a ‘BRICS bailout’. 

Something to keep in mind, the latest report from Germany’s Federal statistics office demonstrates that China ranks #2 a the source of Germany imports, and #4 for German exports. Thus the details in the manner by which these trade relationships are financed will give is a good indication of what is really happening. 

Many Europes, One Eurasia

Conclusively we cannot view ‘the West’ as a monolithic block. The Atlanticist current in Europe is primary, but power is distinct from the perception of power.  In reality, power is fluid, and alliances shift.  There is generally a Eurasian bloc and a European(ist) bloc.  Specifically there is a complex interaction of individual, small group, and large group dynamics at play. Power can shift hands relatively quickly, and many previous ‘firm’ positions can be abandoned once there is a ‘run’.  For players not directly or intractably tied to specific interests, positions can change even faster. 

Greece is not done ‘playing’ games – they are forecasted to pivot again towards Russia in connection with the broader management of the energy market spectacle. We should see this rise in tandem with an increased attention to Bulgaria. 

There are any number of levels involved in the possible double-crosses and intrigues that tell the story of the Balkans pipeline war. 

Europe shows a lot of signs of vacillation, even though much of this serves a scripted purpose.  What the US has failed to metabolize is that solid alliances do not just belong to the school of idealism, but are a critical part of realism in geopolitics. 

China and Russia are building a firm Eurasian bloc which has an aim of building long-term relationships built on unswerving support and unbending commitment in bot the Balkans and Middle-East. These are easy to contrast to the US’s openly professed position, based in a ‘vulgar’ version of realism, that they do not have allies, only interests.  

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