Europe Seeks to Counter Russian Influence in Caspian

European countries pursue a common energy policy in Central Asia on the eve of a major gas find in Azerbaijan.

European countries empowered the European Commission to negotiate energy policy with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan this week in an attempt to diminish Moscow’s influence in the Caspian Sea area and eventually reduce their dependence on the import of Russian natural gas.

European energy commissioner Günther Oettinger’s office hailed the decision on Monday as a “milestone in the realization of the southern corridor” which will link Central Asia with Europe through the Trans Caspian and Nabucco pipelines. Both circumvent the South Stream project which is a join venture of the Italian Eni company and Russia’s Gazprom.

Europe currently receives 25 percent of its gas from Russia. The Nabucco pipeline, which was planned in the aftermath of a series of natural gas disputes in Eastern Europe between Russia and transit countries like the Ukraine, has received political support but remains in the planning stages because there isn’t yet enough gas committed to make it feasible. An increased Turkmen supply could give Nabucco the green light.

Meanwhile, Total, Europe’s third largest energy company, announced on Friday that it had made a huge gas discovery in the Caspian off the Absheron peninsula. According to the state oil company of Azerbaijan, the newly discovered field could hold up to 350 billion cubic meters of natural gas and 45 million metric tons of gas condensate.

Azerbaijan exports small amounts of gas to Georgia, Greece and Turkey from the Shah Deniz field. A foreign consortium including BP, Norway’s Statoil and Eni is developing one trillion cubic meters of gas reserves there.

A joint European energy approach in the region could herald a “zero problems” policy in Eurasia that aims to simultaneously secure Europe’s energy needs and balance against unwelcome Russian posturing in its former sphere of influence.

Germany, which will rely heavily on Russian gas after it has shut its nuclear power plants after 2022, may dissent from a European energy policy. It is invested in the construction of the Nord Stream pipeline which will deliver Russian gas to Europe through the Baltic Sea — bypassing Belarus, Poland and Ukraine.

Different gas routes could enhance Europe’s energy independence from Russia even if Germany refused to submit to an anti-Russian stance. The rest of the union could still come together heated by Azerbaijani and Turkmen gas. An uncoordinated policy, however, would leave Russia in a position to divide and conquer among European nations, selectively playing with gas supplies through the Black Sea, the North Sea and the Ukraine.