Russophobia hurts Europe: Poland blocks gas to EU to “spite” Gazprom

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March 13, 2017 – Fort Russ – 

Rostislav Ishchenko, RIA Analytics – translated by J. Arnoldski – 

The Polish Petroleum and Gas Mining Company, or PGNiG for short, 72% of whose shares are owned by the Polish state, has won against the European Commission in the European Court. The court has suspended auctions on 40% of the Opal gas pipeline until 2018. As a result, Russia’s Gazprom loses the opportunity to use Nord Stream at full capacity.

The situation is now back to where it was at the end of last year. Gazprom could only use 50% of the Opal pipeline’s capacity. Back then, the European Commission was sure that anything more would contradict the EU’s Third Energy Packet, but by the end of 2016, the commission decided that the Third Energy Package would not suffer if 40% of the pipeline’s capacity could be auctioned off. Moreover, the European Commission perfectly understood that Gazprom is the only company interested in transiting gas through Opal. In other words, the decision was made  to improve the transit of none other than Russian gas through the northern route.

There is nothing surprising here. Europe was faced with problems with Ukrainian transit in the winter of 2014-2015 and 2015-2016. Both times, the EU was compelled to pay for the gas consumed by Ukraine while Kiev blackmailed Europe by confiscating transit (European) gas from the pipe, and even stopping transit altogether.

The EU does not want to receive less gas than it needs in wintertime. Europe has had enough of paying Gazprom half a billion dollars every year for Ukraine. The EU has perfectly understood that this money, issued like a loan to Ukraine, will never be paid back by Kiev. 

Ultimately, increased northern transit is in the interests of Germany, who has become the main distributor of Russian gas flowing into the EU. It is no accident that Berlin, despite all the anti-Russian sanctions, has a very constructive approach to the Nord Stream 2 project which is supposed to be in operation in 2019. Meanwhile, it has skillfully removed itself from the EU’s Third Energy Package. Berlin even pushed forward the European Commission’s “epiphany” on the Opal pipeline. 

In fact, Poland has not been so much against Gazprom as it has been against the possibility of a German gas strategy. For the nth time in history, Warsaw has tried to block Russian-German cooperation. All past attempts have ended in national catastrophe for Poland. 

Why are Poles risking everything again? After all, they do not have the best relations with Ukraine. Warsaw’s affirmation that Opal working at full capacity might hurt Poland’s gas-transport system’s transit of Russian gas (this motivated PGNiG’s European Court lawsuit) is not worth a penny. All bypassing pipelines were considered solely as a means for circumventing the risks of Ukrainian transit. And substituting for Ukraine’s pipeline’s capacity will be possible only once Nord Stream 2 and Turkish Stream are in operation. According to the most optimistic estimates, this will happen only in 2019. Meanwhile, the European Court’s decision is valid only until 2018.

We can understand Warsaw’s position if we shut ourselves off from purely economic issues and focus on the problem of traditional Polish foreign policy over the last 25 years.

Poland believes that an extending German-French hegemony to be German-French-Polish hegemony can give the EU a stable foundation. Warsaw is supposed to become the third, equal power center alongside Paris and Berlin. But Poland does not have the economic, political, or demographic resources for this.

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Warsaw sees the establishment of Polish leadership in Eastern Europe as a problem-solver. Only by speaking on behalf of the total Eastern European community can Poland pull political weight comparable to Germany’s.

The imposition of Polish leadership in Czechia, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania has been met with passive, but still insuperable resistance. Poland is also feared in the Baltic states. In addition, the Eastern European countries of the former socialist community and the Baltic states are members of the EU themselves who have their own capabilities and no fewer ambitions than Warsaw.

For the whole post-Soviet period, Warsaw has been the most active and consistent Western player (excluding the US) on the Ukrainian and Belarusian fronts. In Ukraine, Poland supported Banderism even though its ideologues see not only Russians, but Poles as their enemies. In Belarus, Poland, together with the US, has actively tried to undermine Lukashenko’s regime and replace it with some kind of “Euro-integration” project. 

But Warsaw’s window of opportunity is rapidly closing. If it does not block the northern transit route and it is given full capacity, then Poland will lose all influence on the EU’s gas policies, and a German-Russian alliance would become the key question. Poland, from the point of view of political capabilities, would become another Romania.

Under these circumstances, Warsaw is grasping at the last straws being provided by the Ukrainian crisis and the escalating economic conflict between Minsk and Moscow in which gas also plays a key role. The blocking of the northern transit route by Poland is supposed to, on the one hand, strengthen Minsk and Kiev’s negotiation positions in relations with Russia, and on the other, put them in a position dependent on Poland within the EU. But Warsaw’s claims on Opal and the space for maneuvering for Ukraine and Belarus are all rapidly narrowing.

In building its anti-Russian strategy in post-Soviet space, Poland is opposing itself to the interests of not only Germany, but the whole EU. First of all, as said before, Germany is eager to become a “gas hub” for the whole EU and thereby strengthen its dominance in the union. Secondly, supplying gas through the northern route is cheaper. So by defending its selfish interests, Poland is contributing to rising gas prices for European consumers (who will also be paying for more expensive delivery). Thirdly, it is no accident that Germany and the European Commission have become interested in the northern route, as 2014-2016 showed that Ukrainian transit is extremely unreliable and can be cut off at any moment.

It cannot be said that Poland’s actions (PGNiG’s lawsuit could not have been launched without the Polish government’s approval) do not hurt Gazprom. They hurt, but not critically. However, they deal much more serious damage to Germany and the EU.

All the while, the idea that it was wrong to accept Eastern Europe into the EU is gaining popularity in “old Europe.” The notion of returning to the European Union with only Western and Northern Europe is now being discussed. This Polish move might be the final straw.

Poland was partitioned in such cases across two centuries. Now morals are different, capabilities are different, and mechanisms for action are different – more pragmatic. By trying to jump higher than their resource bases allows, states simply displace themselves into the margins of world politics.

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What this leads to can be seen in the example of Ukraine. It is worse than occupation and partition. Foreign domination gives rise to the legend of a Golden Age of independence and a desire to return to it, consolidate the nation, and gives hope hope for state revival. But state insolvency leads to the people’s disillusionment and a desire to join anyone on any terms.

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