A foreign policy black hole under the Baltic
By Olli Kivinen
The black hole in the discussion of Finnish foreign policy is the Nord Stream gas pipeline.
Our leaders repeat over and over the mantra that the only problem for Finland arising out of the pipeline, leading from the Karelian Isthmus in the east to Germany in the west, is a worry about the environmental hazards that might be involved in its construction.
This claim is used to fend off all other considerations with such vigour that the outside observer begins to fear that the decision-makers just might believe in what it is they are saying.
In reality, Nord Stream is a question of quite a lot more than headaches for the environmental authorities.
The pipeline and the ever-increasing volumes of Russian oil shipments from the Baltic port of Primorsk have altered and continue to alter the strategic situation across the entire Baltic Sea area.
Russia's exports are almost entirely dependent on the sale of energy and of other raw materials, so the sea route through the Baltic is of vital importance to the Russian Federation.
The small and in places narrow Baltic Sea could well be compared with the Strait of Hormuz, located between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, through which tankers pass bearing the products of the oil-exporting countries of the Gulf.
The touch-paper significance of this particular stretch of water has been brought home to us over the decades through countless unpleasant reminders.
Nord Stream is a political project, body and soul. There is little by way of economic common sense to it, but the countries behind the venture - Russia, Germany, and The Netherlands - want to reduce the share of oil being transported through onshore pipelines.
These existing land pipelines have countries such as Estonia and Ukraine along their route, and these are countries with disputes with Russia that have caused problems and even interruptions of supply.
The answer to this is simply to cut the offending countries out of the loop.
If the objective were merely to find the cheapest and technically the best route in engineering terms, the solution would be simple.
In the words of an expert who has looked carefully as gas policy matters: the engineers would run the route down to Latvia, where there are adequate facilities for storage to take account of seasonal fluctuations in consumption, and from there it would go across country straight to Germany.
To the Russian administration , pipes for the transport of energy are not just any old infrastructure connections.
Energy and other raw materials are Russia's only means of compensating for military and economic weakness in the struggle to preserve the vestiges of the country's superpower status.
We have seen a good many examples of the importance of keeping the energy resources in their own hands, as foreign companies exploring for and exploiting natural resources in Russia have been discriminated against in a wide variety of ways.
Alongside this there has been a logical and consistent approach to pipelines: the Russian leadership has sought, through patient policies over the long-term, to secure control over all possible pipelines that extend outside of the territory of the former Soviet Union.
In this they have succeeded, often through some rather unscrupulous political dealings.
Against this background, it is not in the least strange that the then Russian President Vladimir Putin should have ordered that pipeline protection must be an important part of the work of the armed forces.
This year the message has been reinforced through the arranging of large-scale military exercises in the Lake Ladoga and Kaliningrad regions and in Belarus (see linked article).
Vladimir Muchin, writing recently in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta, combined the exercises directly with Nord Stream in an article under the headline "The Army in the service of the oil industry".
The same pattern is revealed in an earlier decision to allow the country's gas production giant Gazprom the right to form its own militia to protect installations.
The complete protection of a gas pipeline laid on the sea-bed is ultimately an impossible task, since it is located in international waters, where all vessels have the right to sail.
The business of protecting the pipeline does nevertheless provide a sound reason for increasing the amount of military materiel and activity in the Baltic Sea region.
It highlights the importance attributed to the Baltic shoreline states in Russia's military strategy.
In the view of some of the more devoted adherents to conspiracy theory, even the recent adventures of the missing freighter Arctic Sea were in fact a carefully-arranged operation to "prove" that the Baltic sea-lanes were becoming an unsafe area, thereby increasing the need for preventive measures so as not to allow nasty mishaps like this to occur again.
Russia's energy policymakers have been rather successful, and the country has shown itself to be quite too adept for the likes of the European Union.
Russia is seriously eroding the EU's common foreign and security policy.
It has implemented a classic divide et impera operation by separating the EU members into the "good" - with whom Russia enjoys close and cordial relations - and the "bad" - those countries grumbling over energy issues, who are marginalised by various means.
At the top of the good column is Germany, the other main partner in Nord Stream.
The success of Russian policies in this sphere owes much to the catastrophic nature of energy policy in Germany, which has driven the nation's economy into a bad state of addiction to Russian wares.
The EU's real dependence on Russia is limited, as a study in 2008 by the European Council on Foreign Relations has indicated.
The think-tank's conclusion was that the most effective strategy would be to build a single European market in natural gas.
However, this has not hitherto been possible owing to the resistance of the two energy giants of Germany and France.
As for Finland, we undoubtedly fall into the "good" file in the Russian registers.
It is too early to say as yet whether the "it's only an environmental issue" approach adopted by Finnish leaders is a wise or a foolish one.
The supporters appeal to Realpolitik: what are we going to gain by making a song and dance about something that is clearly so important to the two largest countries in the Baltic Sea basin?
Another weight on this side of the scales is the hope that Russia will change over time into a democratic market economy country, which would in turn make the pipeline just an ordinary commercial cooperative venture.
Unfortunately the development seems to be headed in the opposite direction.
The central problem - in the energy sector as elsewhere - is that Russia is more and more obviously playing the game according to different rules from the free market in the West: the Kremlin rejects foreign companies on its own soil but at the same time demands concessions in the market economy countries.
The problem with the black hole of the headline is that it sucks the oxygen out of all other discussion of the pipeline project, save that of the anticipated environmental effects.
This gives a depressing picture of the quality of the country's public debate and consideration of foreign policy issues.
The discussion of things by their real names is apparently still as difficult as it used to be.
You could put it in a nastier way, too: the public are being hoodwinked over a matter that is important from the point of view of the country's security.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 25.8.2009
Previously in HS International Edition:
Large Russian military exercise in Baltic Sea area involves tens of thousands of troops (20.8.2009)
European Council on Foreign Relations
Nord Stream - Political Aspects (Wikipedia)
OLLI KIVINEN / Helsingin Sanomat