Prague may seem to be the center of the universe at a few key points in 2009.
Not only is the Czech Republic the hub of the European Union, as the country assumes the rotating EU presidency…
It’s also the proposed site of the U.S. missile defense shield’s radar installation (the missiles themselves are to be set up in Poland).
In both cases, the Czechs are pivotal to NATO relations with Russia.
This May, they will host the EU energy security summit and preside over what could be a watershed policy decision—whether or not to proceed with the Nabucco gas pipeline, bypassing Russia.
Nabucco has been in the works for years, at least in the planning phases. But in May EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs and national power chiefs will decide if the 2000-mile, $10 billion pipeline project should actually get built.
From the Caspian Sea, Nabucco’s proposed route snakes through Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary to Austria, the distribution site.
Most importantly, Russia would be bypassed, and the resource and initial flowpoints would not be under Moscow’s control, as they were in the Russia-Ukraine dispute. Though Ukraine was blamed by Moscow for siphoning illegally, Europe saw Moscow as holding the ball.
In this BBC map, we see three different potential transport lines in the Balkan-Black Sea region, including Nabucco:
"With Russia, we have had sometimes very good and sometimes complicated relations. But the latest crisis most definitely changed Europe’s policy on securing energy deliveries," Commissioner Piebalgs said this month (emphasis mine).
That’s right. Even though Europe already had an energy crisis near-miss in early 2006, the Ukraine-Russia pricing dispute this year was felt more acutely. Czech Republic’s neighbor, Slovakia, was among the top few countries hardest hit by the pressure drop on gas coming through Ukraine.
Europe’s easternmost lands are most susceptible to Russian influence, as of course they were all part of the Soviet sphere of influence until the USSR’s waning years.
Aside from the gas dispute, Russia’s war with Georgia came dangerously close to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline and its parallel gas line, the South Caucasus Gas Pipeline (also called BTE for its endpoint at Erzerum).
Russia can argue that its "near abroad" is logically important to Moscow’s international integrity. On top of that, the current tenuous state of the European economy and the EU’s apparent futility in the face of Russian energy challenges mean Prague officials and those in other capitals of new, eastern EU members are uneasy.
The southeastern European Nabucco route will, if approved, pose a strategic and economic challenge to Russia and could cause a very uncomfortable period between groundbreaking and the 2013 completion target.
As it happens, 2013 is also the year Washington hopes to finish the missile shield project to protect against Iran’s improved rocketry. Vice President Joe Biden has expressed his desire to reassure Russia that the shield is not aggressive against Moscow but rather protective against Tehran.
"It is time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should work together," Biden said early in February, referring mainly to Afghanistan. He should include energy cooperation in any efforts to rapprochement with Russia.
Yet Piebalgs thinks the EU will show its resolve in May and give Nabucco the thumbs-up. The difficulty of the situation only means Europeans "need to be stronger ourselves," Piebalgs contends. "We need to agree more and take measures to survive such crises."