The Geopolitics of Russia’s Networked Energy Infrastructure

John R. Haines

October 2015

“I sit on a man's back, choking him, and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by any means possible, except getting off his back.”

Leo Tolstoii, “Writings on Civil Disobedience & Nonviolence” (1886)

“We intend to retain state control over the gas pipeline network in the former Soviet republics...”[1]

President Vladimir Putin


  In a recent essay, George Friedman wrote with admirable clarity about an intelligence truism that is at one and the same time elemental and frequently overlooked:

“The entire principle of strategic intelligence is to ruthlessly discard the subcritical noise that is being collected in order to identify the center of gravity of events. A tiny hint may sometimes draw attention to a major process, particularly in military affairs. Finding that tiny hint, however, requires huge amounts of time and effort, and little time is left to understand the meaning. Moreover, in many cases, the process is in plain sight. The trick is to see it, and the even harder trick is to believe it.”[2]

With that charge, the objective of this essay is to look at Russia’s network of natural gas pipelines and ethnic enclaves in its near abroad in the interest of exploring whether and how the two intersect. The initial hypothesis is that ethnic separatism is instrumental to the former in two fundamental ways. First, these enclaves are located geographically along major energy pipeline routes, often at key junctures in pipeline networks. Second, they sit atop substantial shale gas reserves, the determined exploitation of which would decisively undercut Russia's natural gas oligopoly. They constitute specific, identifiable “spheres of privileged interests” in Russian foreign policy.[3] The idea for this essay began with a conversation with a Moldovan diplomat about Transnistria, a separatist region of his country that has amassed a staggering debt—in excess of $5 billion—for the purchase of Russian natural gas. Russia's use of this debt to exert political pressure on Moldova is a story broadly understood.[4] The conversation led me to reflect more broadly about Russian geopolitical goals and actions in the region, especially the association between two factors: Russia's natural gas oligopoly and its use of ethnic enclaves and Gazprom's network of natural gas pipelines that checkerboard the region. That relationship, it will be argued, is the basis for Russia’s attempt to redraw the map of Eurasia. Political boundaries divide geographic space into political units.[5] Yet some networks—such as natural gas pipelines or ethnic groups—are dispersed across national borders. At times, these cross-border networks are so potent as to supersede political geography. When such networks are powerful, they reduce the influence of political boundaries and restructure territory based on their own geospatial dimensions.[6]

[1] Quoted in Viacheslav Morozov (2007). “Energy Dialogue and the Future of Russia: Politics and Economics in the Struggle for Europe.” In Aalto, P., ed. The EU-Russian Energy Dialogue: Europe’s Future Energy Security. (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate), pp. 43-61. The quote is from a February 2003 speech by President Putin marking Gazprom's tenth anniversary, the Russian language text of which is available at http://kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/21873. Last accessed 1 June 2015.
The main title “Where the Lions Are” is from the Polish intellectual Czesław Miłosz, who used it to describe the “white space on the map” between Russia and Germany. See: Miłosz (1983). The Witness of Poetry; The Charles Eliot Norton lectures 1981/82. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), p. 7. The term energetic pliers is taken from a paper by Cosmin Gabriel Pacuraru (2012). “The Pressure Groups Relationship in the Romanian Energetic Security Problem.” Challenges of the Knowledge Society. 2(2012). The translation of all source material is by the author unless otherwise noted. [2] George Friedman (2014). “Taking the Strategic Intelligence Model to Moscow.” Stratfor Geopolitical Weekly (2 December 2014). http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/taking-strategic-intelligence-model-moscow#axzz3Kw9VXdet. Last accessed 4 December 2014.
[3] Russian President Dmitri Medvedev first used this phrase in a 31 August 2008 interview. See: Dmitri Trenin (2009). “Russia's Spheres of Interest, not Influence.” The Washington Quarterly. 32:4. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/01636600903231089. Last accessed 16 December 2014.
[4] Nicu Popescu & Leonid Litra (2012). Transnistria: A Bottom-Up Solution. European Council on Foreign Relations Policy Brief (September 2012), p. 5. http://www.ecfr.eu/page/-/ECFR63_TRANSNISTRIA_BRIEF_AW.pdf. Last accessed 15 January 2015.
[5] Ali Haydar Alpteki̇n (2010). “Making the 'Heart' of Russian Territorialization: Railways and Moscow Railway Stations.” Thesis submitted to the Graduate School of social Sciences of Middle East Technical University (December 2010), 2-3. https://etd.lib.metu.edu.tr/upload/12612826/index.pdf. Last accessed 2 June 2015.
[6] The author adapted this definition from one offered by Andreas Hepp (2009). “Differentiation: Mediatization and Cultural Change,” in Knut Lunby, ed., Mediatization: Concept, Changes, Consequences. (New York: Peter Lang), 149. http://www.andreas-hepp.name/hepp_2009.pdf. Last accessed 15 January 2015.