Russia's strategic task is obvious: cutting off Ukraine's gas currently means cutting off much of Europe's gas as well, because some of its biggest gas pipelines pass through Ukraine. By circumventing Ukraine, Poland, and of course, the Baltic countries, the new pipeline promises greater leverage to the Kremlin as it seeks to reassert itself regionally. President Vladimir Putin and his administration of ex-KGB clones will no longer have to worry about Western Europe when deciding how hard to squeeze Russia's postcommunist neighbors.
Should Europe really be providing Putin with this new imperial weapon? Worse, might Russia turn this weapon on an energy-addicted EU? That a German ex-chancellor is going to lead the company that could provide Russia with a means to manipulate the EU economy is testimony to Europe's dangerous complacency in the face of Putin's neoimperialist ambitions.
Certainly Russia's media are aware of Europe's growing dependence on Russian energy. Indeed, they revel in it: after we integrate and increase our common gas business, Russian editorialists write, Europe will keep silent about human rights. Putin expresses this stance in a more oblique way with his commitment to pursuing what he calls an "independent policy." What he means by that is that Russia is to be "independent" of the moral and human rights concerns of the Western democracies.
Perhaps some European leaders really do believe that maintaining the Union's cozy prosperity justifies silencing ourselves on human rights and other issues that annoy the Kremlin. Of course, we may speak up, briefly, about "commercial" matters like the expropriation of Yukos, but if the Kremlin puts a price on our values or criticism of Russian wrongdoing - as in, say, bloodstained Chechnya - Europeans seem willing to shut up rather than face the possibility of higher energy prices, or even a blockade like that now facing Ukraine.
As Putin shuffles his court, subordinating the Duma to his will, the EU's hopes for a growing "Europeanization" of Russia should be abandoned. The Russia that Putin is building has mutated from the post-Soviet hopes of freedom into an oil and gas bulwark for his new model ex-KGB elite. Indeed, Matthias Warnig, the chief executive of the pipeline consortium that Schroeder will chair, is a longtime Putin friend. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that Warnig, who heads Dresdner Bank's Russian arm, was an officer in the Stasi, the East German secret police, and met Putin in the late 1980's when the Russian president was based in East Germany as a KGB spy.
That Russians tolerate a government of ex-KGB men, for whom lack of compassion and intolerance of dissent are the norm, reflects their exhaustion from the tumult of the last 20 years. Now the Kremlin seems to think that what is good for ordinary Russians is good for independent nations as well: small and weak countries will be shown no mercy once Russia is given the tools to intimidate, isolate, and threaten them with the prospect of an energy blockade. As a former Head of State of newly independent Lithuania, I frequently endured such threats.
The EU has signed numerous agreements with Russia including one for a "common space" for freedom and justice. The Kremlin is very good at feigning such idealism. Its control of Eastern Europe was always enforced on the basis of "friendship treaties," and the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 were "fraternal" missions.
But look how Putin abuses that "common" space: barbaric treatment of Chechens, the businessmen Mikhail Khodorkovsky imprisoned, foreign NGOs hounded, a co-leader of last year's Orange Revolution, Yuliya Tymoshenko, indicted by Russian military prosecutors on trumped-up charges. If Europeans are serious about their common space for human rights and freedoms, they must recognize that those values are not shared by the calculating placemen of Putin's Kremlin.
The same is true of viewing Russia as an ally in the fight against terrorism. Is it really conceivable that the homeland of the "Red Terror" with countless unpunished crimes from the Soviet era, and which bears traces of blood from Lithuania to the Caucasus, will provide reliable help in stopping Iran and North Korea from threatening the world? It seems more likely that the Kremlin's cold minds will merely exploit each crisis as an opportunity to increase their destructive power and influence.