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Poles wary of Nord Stream pact

In Poland, claims the "Molotov-Ribbentrop" natural gas pipeline is an attempt to weaken the EU and NATO, much as the Nazis and Soviets did to Poland in WWII.

A gas flare is seen at the newly opened Yuzhno Russkoye oil and gas field, some 200 km (124 miles) from the town of Novy Urengoy, Dec. 18, 2007. The enormous Yuzhno Russkoye gas field in northwest Siberia is being jointly developed to feed the Nord Stream gas pipeline from Russia to Western Europe. (Denis Sinyakov/Reuters)

WARSAW, Poland — History suggests that when Russia and Germany announce a deal that is slightly too sweet, Poland has reason to be wary.

Which is why the Polish foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, acidly dubbed a plan to build an underwater natural gas pipeline from Russia’s Siberian gas fields to Germany’s Baltic coast “the Molotov-Ribbentrop pipeline,” a reference to the pact between the Nazis and the Soviets to carve up Poland on the eve of World War II.

The Russians and Germans hail the $11 billion project as “a new benchmark for cooperation between the European Union and Russia.”

The Poles think not. They suspect the Russians of using the pipeline to pursue a classic divide and conquer strategy aimed at weakening the EU and NATO.

The Polish government has been working overtime to persuade its erstwhile partners and allies in the EU and NATO that the pipeline deal is a bad one that could undermine energy security for all, but last month (November) the final piece of the deal fell into place when the governments of Sweden and Finland granted their approval for the pipeline to cross their territorial waters.

The 760-mile twin pipeline, called Nord Stream, is a joint venture between Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled gas giant, and a group of German and Dutch energy companies. It will stretch from the Russian port of Vyborg to the coastal town of Lubmin in Germany.

For understandable commercial reasons, the Germans are happy to have a direct pipeline from one of their main suppliers. Russians are happy too, but their reasons are a bit more geo-strategic.

“If Gazprom were a normal Western company, interested in profits and building customer relations, the situation would not be so drastic, but as we have seen, Gazprom is not this kind of company; it is better understood as a tool of foreign policy for the Russian Federation,” said Dominik Smyrgala, an expert on energy issues on academic leave from the Polish foreign ministry.

Gazprom currently supplies Western Europe with nearly 30 percent of its natural gas, and most of it flows through pipelines that cross Ukraine. Political and financial squabbles between Russia and its former satellite have disrupted the flow of gas to Europe numerous times since the breakup of the former Soviet Union, and the Russians have made no secret of their desire to bypass Ukraine in their gas-transit route.

This could have been done easily and for far less money with an overland route through the Baltic states and Poland. The only reason for building the costly and environmentally questionable underwater route would appear to be to exclude Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

“The whole idea of this pipeline is to cut off the Baltic states from NATO and the EU,” said Pawel Zaleswski, who represents Poland in the European Parliament.

Nord Stream, along with a parallel project in southern Europe called South Stream, will give the Russians a commanding position in the EU’s energy market. Not only will they be the main supplier of natural gas, they will also control the transit routes.