Europe fumbles away another opportunity, and keeps handing advantages to other powers
Nebojsa Malic is a foreign policy analyst and blogger, working in Washington, DC. A columnist for Antiwar.com and Strategic Culture Foundation, he occasionally appears on RT.
This article was first published as an Op Ed for RT.
Russia's decision to cancel South Stream came as a surprise, though it should not have been.
Yet the pipeline's demise creates more questions than it answers – for Turkey and the Balkans more so than Europe and Russia.
A year after the ground-breaking ceremonies in Serbia and Bulgaria, the South Stream gas pipeline is no more. Monday's announcement by President Vladimir Putin – on a state visit to Turkey – that Russia was abandoning the project due to continued obstruction by the EU came as a shock and surprise to many. It shouldn't have been: Brussels has been against the pipeline from the very beginning, and Washington even more so.
South Stream was envisioned as a way to supply Central and Western Europe with Russian gas without the risk of Ukrainian obstruction. On several occasions – most recently in 2009 – Kiev's refusal to pay for gas caused interruptions in deliveries to Europe. Rather than, say, promote “regime change” in Kiev or set up a puppet government – the preferred solutions of its Western “partners” - Moscow decided to build bypassing pipelines. The first, Nord Stream, became operational in September 2011, linking Russia and Germany via the Baltic Sea. South Stream was supposed to run through the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary into Austria and westward.
Washington attempted to counter South Stream by proposing another pipeline, called “Nabucco” - linking Austria, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria with Turkey and Azerbaijan. But as it failed to secure funding and – more importantly - a source of gas, Nabucco was scrapped in mid-2013. At that point, US and EU officials began applying pressure on Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria to drop South Stream as well. Officially, Russia's Gazprom owning both the gas and the pipeline was against EU laws – passed, mind you, after the agreements on South Stream's construction.
The three countries responded in different ways. Hungary was defiant. Serbia – not a member of the EU but governed by EU loyalists eager to jump at every bark from Brussels – waffled and dragged its feet. After some strong prodding from Washington – in the form of Senator John McCain – Bulgaria rolled over and said the pipeline deal would have to be changed to comply with EU laws.
By that point, Moscow had had enough. Announcing the project's cancellation, Vladimir Putin said Bulgaria had been “deprived of the opportunity to act as a sovereign nation,” laying the blame squarely at the feet of Washington and Brussels. Instead, Russia would make a gas deal with Turkey. Yes, Turkey – Russia's historical foe and the place where the Cold War arguably began in 1947, with the inauguration of the “Truman Doctrine.”
One can only speculate why the Turks have decided to basically defect. Perhaps it was the being taken for granted by Washington and Brussels; or the decades-long accession talks with the EU, clearly intended to last forever without a result; or that Washington's designs left little room for Ankara's own plans for Turkey's regional dominance. Whatever the reason, the Turks have opted to make a deal with their former foes rather than uphold the dictates of Brussels and Washington.
Considering that Turkey has been not only a key NATO ally, but also the linchpin of all American efforts to bypass Russia with oil and gas pipelines (Nabucco, Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan), Ankara's gas deal with Russia makes the demise of South Stream a stunning defeat for Washington. Brussels was losing either way: Europe has no alternative to Russian gas, so its opposition to South Stream was always about the politics of extortion, never about economic logic. Serbia and Bulgaria will face the bitter consequences of acting like banana republics. Hungary will also suffer, but the blame for that lies with the EU rather than Moscow.
Turkey's defection may also reshuffle the cards in the Syrian crisis: while Moscow has been a principled backer of the government in Damascus, Ankara has been on board with US efforts to overthrow it. But as the Syrian rebellion morphed into the “Islamic Caliphate” - which Washington used as a pretext for an illegal air campaign in Syrian territory – Turkey has been reluctant to join the action. Part of the reason is that ISIS was fighting the Kurds, who had been in rebellion for decades demanding autonomy and even independence for several southeastern provinces under Turkey's control.
A Russo-Turkish alliance, even if just economic, also opens up new questions in the Balkans. Already impoverished and unstable due to constant EU and US meddling, Serbia and Bulgaria now have to contend with the possibility Turkey may be making a Balkan comeback - a century after the Russian-backed alliance of Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece crushed the Ottoman armies in battle and liberated most of their kin from Turkish rule. Current Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoglu was open about his Ottoman nostalgia several years ago, when he was Foreign Minister.
Moreover, the possibility that the new Russo-Turkish pipeline may branch off to Europe via Greece opens the question of how it would get there, as the routes to Italy and Serbia are blocked by the fanatically devoted clients of Washington, ethnic Albanians.
When the smoke from the announcement of South Stream's demise clears, all of these questions, and more, will be waiting.