by Andrew Korybko
Russia wasn’t bluffing when it said that Turkish Stream would be the only route for Ukrainian-diverted gas shipments after 2019 , and after dillydallying in disbelief for over six critical months, the EU has only now come to its senses and is desperately trying to market a geopolitical alternative. Understanding that its need for gas must absolutely continue to be met by Russia for the foreseeable decades (regardless of trans-Atlantic rhetoric), the EU wants to mitigate the multipolar consequences of Russia’s pipeline plans as much as it feasibly can. Russia wants to extend the Turkish Stream through Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia, in a project that the author has previously labelled as “ Balkan Stream ”, while the EU wants to scrap the Central Balkan route and replace it with one along the Eastern Balkans via Bulgaria and Romania, the so-called “Eastring” line.
Although Eastring could theoretically transit Caspian gas being shipped through the TAP pipeline, the proposal being thrown around most lately is for it to link to Turkish Stream instead, likely because the possibly projected 10-20 bcm a year from the former (Azerbaijan’s reserves may not be capable of meeting the demand without Turkmen assistance, which is far from assured at this point) is dwarfed by the guaranteed 49 bcm from the latter. If Europe does intend for Eastring to connect to Turkish Stream, then Russian gas supplies would reach the continent regardless of the route involved (Central Balkans or Eastern Balkans), meaning that it’s a win-win for Russia…supposedly. The strategic differences between Eastring and Balkan Stream are actually quite acute, and coupled with the implied motivational impetus revealed by the EU’s Eastring-Turkish Stream connective proposal in the first place, it means that they must be analyzed more in-depth before anyone jumps to a predetermined conclusion about Eastring’s ‘mutually beneficial’ nature.
The article begins by identifying the underlying strategic differences between Eastring and Balkan Stream. After having established that, it uses the acquired insight to interpret Brussels’ motivations and implied regional forecast for the Balkans. Finally, it touches upon the prolonged Greek debt crisis to illustrate how the Hellenic Republic’s current turmoil has evolved into a Western attempt at indirectly forcing Tsipras out of office as punishment for his country’s energy cooperation with Russia.
One would be absolutely mistaken for assuming that Eastring and Balkan Stream are strategically similar projects, as even if they both ultimately transit Russian gas to Europe, they promote two completely different long-term visions on behalf of their European and Russian backers, respectively.
The EU envisions that this proposed route will eliminate any of the geopolitical advantages that Russia could potentially reap from Balkan Stream (to be described soon), stripping the pipeline down to nothing more than a skinny natural gas tube devoid of any impact or influence. It’s capable of achieving this goal simply through the fact that the pipeline would be travelling through Bulgaria and Romania, two reliable EU and NATO member states whose political elite are firmly in the unipolar orbit. As an added assurance that Russia could never use the Eastring for any intended multipolar purposes, the US plans to pre-position enough heavy weapons and equipment for 750 troops in both of the Eastern Balkan countries, further strengthening the sub-NATO Black Sea Bloc that it’s been building over the past couple of years. If the US succeeds in sabotaging Balkan Stream and thus forces Russia to ultimately defer to Eastring as the only realistic Southeastern European alternative for shipping gas to Europe, then Moscow would be in just as miserable of a strategic position for its energy shipments as it was by relying on US-controlled Ukraine, thus negating the entire purpose of the Balkan pivot in the first place.
The Russians take the entirely opposite approach to pipelines than the Europeans do, in that they understand the geopolitical utility behind them and seek to use such infrastructure investments as strategic instruments. Balkan Stream can be understood as a multipolar counter-offensive into the heart of Europe , and it’s for precisely these reasons that Russia is completely averse to falling back on Eastring as its sole Southeastern European energy route to the EU. Moscow plans on using Balkan Stream as a magnet for attracting BRICS investment into the Balkans and supplementing China’s Balkan Silk Road from Greece to Hungary . It’s thus no coincidence that American-supported Albanian terrorism has returned to the region after a decade-long hiatus and specifically targeted the Republic of Macedonia, the Balkan Stream chokepoint . Russia is betting on Central Balkan transit for its proposed energy route because it knows that Serbia and Macedonia, both of which are not EU or NATO members, can’t be as directly dominated by the unipolar world as the US’ Bulgarian and Romanian satellites, and it also sees Greece as a ‘wild card’ that’s on the verge of falling out of favor with its Western overlords. These factors in turn make the Balkan Stream route exceptionally attractive for Russian geostrategists, who correctly recognize that the three states along its path (Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia) represent the Achilles’ heel of unipolarity in Western Eurasia, which if given the proper push, can lead to the eventually collapse of the entire structure.
Reading Brussels’ Mind
The very fact that the EU is proposing Eastring as a possible component of Turkish Stream reveals quite a lot about what Brussels is thinking at the moment. Let’s take a look at what’s being expressed between the lines:
Russian Gas Is A Must:
Brussels acknowledges that it must receive Russian gas one way or another, and that the Southern Gas Corridor more than likely will not fulfill the EU’s future consumptive demands on its own (for both the EU as a whole and the Balkan region in particular). The US also understands that this is the case, hence why it wants to engineer a scenario where Russia is forced to rely on the unipolar-dominated route through the Eastern Balkans so that the project is neutralized of any multipolar residual influence, and Washington can continue controlling Russian resource transit to Europe for the indefinite future.
Unipolar Vulnerability In The Central Balkans:
The proactive suggestion that the Eastern Balkans could substitute as an alternative pipeline path for Balkan Stream implies that the West admits the unipolar vulnerability that they have to a Russian route running through the Central Balkans. This is because the successful construction of Balkan Stream would lead to a strengthening of Serbia’s geostrategic position through its emergence as a regional energy hub. Belgrade could then capitalize off of this advantage to slowly and strategically (not politically!) reintegrate the lands of the former Yugoslavia, albeit under indirect Russian multipolar influence.
As a result, the Balkans, the European region which has inarguably received the shortest end of the Euro-Atlantic stick, would be presented with an attractive, non-Western opportunity for co-development with BRICS. Russia’s Balkan Stream would bestow them with secure energy supplies, while China’s Balkan Silk Road would grant them access to the larger global marketplace, thus threatening the economic stranglehold that the EU currently has over the peninsula. If Europe is no longer economically alluring to the Balkan states (its cultural and political attractiveness is a thing of the past due to ‘gay marriage’ and Brussels’ excessive bullying over these past few years), then it loses the last of its soft power sway and the only alternative model becomes BRICS, which would use the region to cut a multipolar beachhead all the way up to the core of the continent before anyone realizes what happened.
The EU clearly does not see Greece, at least in its present leadership, as being a reliable geopolitical tool for its interests. While an Azeri-sourced pipeline through the politically fickle country is acceptable, one from Russia isn’t, as it can be used as a staging ground for further multipolar inroads through the Central Balkans that can lead to the rapid retreat of Brussels’ Balkan influence (as described in the grand strategic scenario above). If Greece were fully under unipolar control, or the West strongly felt that this would be the case by 2019, then there wouldn’t be a need to cut the country out of the mix. Although there remains the possibility that a sliver of Greek territory could be used to construct a gas interconnector between the it and Bulgaria to facilitate Eastring, this still isn’t the same as a pipeline traversing half of the country’s northern territory and proceeding along a route that lays outside of unipolar control (unlike the proposed Bulgarian alternative). Thus, Eastring’s proposal says a lot about the dismal geopolitical outlook that Brussels holds in regards to Greece’s 5-year forecast, although this conversely can be read as a confirmation of the multipolar opportunity that Russia had earlier identified in the country.
Balkan Proxy Wars:
More than anything, Brussels’ Eastring proposal can be read as a desperate backup plan to secure much-needed Russian gas supplies in the event that the US successfully renders Balkan Stream’s central peninsular route unfeasible through a series of destabilizing proxy wars. As was earlier explained, the EU needs Russian gas no matter what (something that the US begrudgingly acknowledges), so it absolutely has to have a backup contingency plan on the table just in case something happens to Balkan Stream. The Russian coffers need the revenue, while the European factories need the gas, so it’s a natural relationship of mutual interest for both parties to cooperate via some route or another. The contention, of course, comes down to which specific path the Russian gas will travel through, and the US will do everything in its power to make sure that it falls under the unipolar-controlled Eastern Balkans and not the multipolar-susceptible Central Balkans. As such, the ‘Battle for Greece’ is the latest episode of this saga, and the future route of Russian gas shipments to Europe presently hangs in the balance.
A (Greek) Fork In The Road
Although the debt crisis was long an issue since before Balkan Stream was even conceptualized, it’s now become intimately intertwined in the New Cold War energy drama unfolding in the Balkans. The Troika wants to force Tsipras to capitulate to an unpopular debt deal that would surely lead to the rapid end of his premiership. Right now, the main factor tying Balkan Stream to Greece is the Tsipras government, and it’s in Russia and the multipolar world’s best interests to see him remain in power until the pipeline can physically be constructed. Any sudden or unexpected change of leadership in Greece could easily endanger the political viability of Balkan Stream and force Russia into relying on Eastring, and it’s for these reasons why the Troika wants to force Tsipras into an inextricable dilemma.
If he accepts the current debt conditions, then he’ll lose the support of his base and likely usher in early elections or fall victim to a revolt from within his own party. On the other hand, if he rejects the proposal and allows Greece to default, then the resultant economic catastrophe could kill all grassroots support for him and prematurely end his political career. That’s why the decision to hold a national referendum on the debt deal was such a genius move, because it ensures that Tsipras has a chance of surviving the forthcoming political-economic firestorm over its democratically obtained results (which look to foretell a debt rejection and imminent default ). With the people on his side (no matter how narrowly), Tsipras could continue presiding over Greece as it crawls into an uncertain and troubling forthcoming period. Additionally, his continued stewardship of the country and the personal chemistry that he has with the BRICS leaders ( especially Vladimir Putin ) could lead to them extending some form of economic assistance (probably through the $100 billion BRICS New Development Bank or equally large currency reserve pool ) to Greece after their upcoming summit in Ufa in early July, provided that he can hang on to leadership until then.
Thus, the future of Balkan energy geopolitics currently comes down to whatever happens in Greece in the near future. While it’s possible that a Greek Prime Minister other than Tsipras could continue moving forward with Balkan Stream, the likelihood is significantly less than if Tsipras stayed put in office. Creating the conditions for his removal is the indirect way in which the US and EU prefer to influence the course of Russia’s future energy shipments through the Balkans, hence why such pressure is being applied on Tsipras at this moment. His referendum proposal clearly took them all by surprise, since real democracy is practically unheard of in Europe nowadays, and nobody expected him to directly refer to his constituents prior to making one of the country’s most pivotal decisions in decades. Through these means, he can escape the Catch-22 trap that the Troika set for him, and in doing so, also save the future of Balkan Stream.
There’s more to the Eastring pipeline proposal than initially meets the eye, hence the need to unravel the strategic motivations behind in it in order to better comprehend its asymmetrical impact. It’s clear that the US and EU want to neutralize the geopolitical applicability that Balkan Stream would have in spreading multipolarity throughout the region, which explains their tandem approach in trying to stop it. The US is stoking the flames of violent Albanian nationalism in Macedonia in order to obstruct Balkan Stream’s intended path, while the EU is handily proposing an alternative route through the unipolar-controlled Eastern Balkans as a predetermined ‘way out’ for Russia. Both Euro-Atlantic forces are conspiring together in indirectly trying to topple the Greek government through an engineered election or internal coup in order to remove Tsipras from office, knowing that this singular move would deal the greatest and most immediate blow to Balkan Stream. While it’s not clear what will eventually happen with Tsipras or Russia’s pipeline plans in general, it’s irrefutable that the Balkans have become one of the main and repeated flashpoints for the New Cold War, and the competition between the unipolar and multipolar worlds in this geostrategic theater is only just beginning to play out.