Poles wary of Nord Stream pact

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.

Last summer, nearly two dozen former heads of states and other public figures from Central and Eastern Europe, including the former Polish president, Lech Walesa, and former Czech president, Vaclav Havel, wrote an open letter to President Barack Obama in which they criticized Russia’s “abuse of its [energy] monopoly and cartel-like power inside the EU,” and warned that “Russia is back as a revisionist power pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-century tactics.”

After invading Georgia in August 2008, the Russians did little to calm the nerves of their former satellites this September when they staged large-scale military and naval maneuvers on the borders of Poland and the Baltic states.

“This is a kind of taste of the future militarization of the Baltic, but there has been almost no reaction on the EU level,” said Zalewski.

The EU’s non-reaction is bitterly disappointing to the Poles, but it is hardly surprising. Nations pursue their own interests, and Germany is deeply interested in securing its energy supply. Germany also believes that it is in its interest to draw Russia toward Europe with as many linkages as possible — an understandable approach, but one that gives Moscow considerable leverage over Central and Eastern Europe.

“If you are sitting in Moscow, you don’t even see Poland,” said a senior Polish foreign ministry official who asked that his name not be used.

“For the Russians, we are a small irritation,” said the rueful official. “They don’t like us because we know them so well and because we speak openly about what they are doing, even though it is now clear we can’t influence EU policy toward Russia.”

What adds to the Poles’ mistrust of the Nord Stream project is the web of personal contacts that was used to get the deal done.

The former German chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia, who enjoy a warm personal relationship, are seen as the prime movers behind the deal. Schroeder’s government approved the deal — and provided nearly $1.5 billion in loan guarantees to Gazprom — just weeks before he lost the 2005 election. A few weeks before the defeat, Schroeder accepted a job as chairman of Nord Stream.

Matthias Warnig, Nord Stream’s chief executive, is a former member of the Stasi, East Germany’s notorious secret police, and served as a senior officer in the foreign intelligence section during the same years that Putin was a top KGB agent in East Germany.

“As an ordinary Pole, I’m frightened,” said Monika Michaliszyn, a specialist in energy issues at Warsaw University. “We are isolated — we and the Baltic states. It’s like the Second World War. We know that when the Germans and the Russians do something together behind our back, it’s not good.”