In Europe, 2009 opened with an inauspicious bang. To the east, half of the European Union was freezing; radiators shut down and factories ground to a halt because Russian gas was shut off. The EU protested, held talks, negotiated, signed agreement after agreement—and still the spigots remained closed. Weeks passed with no improvement. Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin appeared on television screens worldwide brandishing his weapon: “Le gaz, c’est moi!” One after another, shivering nations humbled themselves, begging for an end to the awful game. Ultimately, Brussels gave in to the petro-czar’s blackmail: he may shut off and reopen the gas supply whenever he chooses and designate beneficiaries as he sees fit. Europeans will be warm or cold according to his pleasure. Experts predict another round of such behavior next January.
The European Commission foresaw none of this, despite recent history. On the first day of 2006, Moscow brutally raised the price of gas sold to Kiev in punishment for committing the sin of freedom in its Orange Revolution. This year, the stakes were raised a notch. Ukraine had to pay for supporting the independence and integrity of Georgia last August. The states formerly dependent on the Kremlin had to be restored to subjection, at least in the domain of energy. Europe had to acknowledge its bondage to Gazprom. Who could believe that this was strictly a matter of money? Natural gas is a political weapon, and Gazprom is the Kremlin’s henchman; Putin’s measures are not remotely mysterious. In fact, Moscow’s target is the whole EU, not merely the states nearest Russia. He who monopolizes the energy supply system holds the keys to the European economy. Even France’s natural gas utility, which depends on Russia for only 15 percent of its supply, does not believe that it can make it through the winter under “unprecedented pressure.”
There was no lack of warnings; I was not alone in sounding the alarm for the last decade. The Nabucco Pipeline was to bypass Russia and ensure European access to central Asia’s gas reserves—but it remains in limbo. Since Russia’s August aggression against Georgia, the oil pipeline that connects Baku in Azerbaijan to the Turkish terminal of Ceyhan—via Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital—remains within reach of Russian artillery. And Germany and Italy prefer to deal directly with Gazprom, since they have helped finance its gas pipelines. Putin divides to conquer.
What is the EU’s purpose if it cannot protect its citizens from the rigors of a difficult winter? What is the point of magnificent odes to Europe if it throws in the towel with half of its citizens living under the threat of freezing schools and hospitals? During the 1950s, the European Community formed around a coal and steel alliance. Yet today its still-prosperous economic power confesses its incapacity to stand up to external energy providers. Russia is not even in the best shape. Various mafias call the shots, as witnesssed by the January 19th assassinations of the young human-rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and of the intern journalist Anastasia Baburova—both in broad daylight in central Moscow. These two shared the fate of Anna Politkovskaia and so many others whose protests offended the dignity of the Kremlin. The ruble is plummeting in value, Russian oil reserves are vanishing, and oil profits are collapsing. The prime minister hides his troubles by making scapegoats of Ukraine and its president, Viktor Yushchenko (who has already survived a poisoning). Nothing but mental inertia forces the European authorities to sing Putin’s tune, to walk over the weak in order to avoid confronting the strong.
In answering the call of the Abbot Pierre to assist the homeless victims of the winter of 1953–54, De Gaulle announced that “when France is cold,” its generosity and resilience come to the fore. Today, the European Union is cold, and its elites are burying it. Too bad for the Romanians, Bulgarians, Serbs, Bosnians, and Ukrainians, who have felt the full force of the energy breakdown. Too bad as well for the Slovaks, who are considering restarting a decrepit nuclear plant. And too bad for us, the most fortunate, bundling up while we practice the politics of the ostrich.