Russian gas pipeline in snow

Book review: ‘The Bridge: Natural Gas in a Redivided Europe’ by Thane Gustafson

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Energy links between East and West provide a perfect metaphor for changing geopolitical relationships.

The relative stability with which trade in natural gas between Russia and Western Europe has survived the tumult of the decades since it began at the height of the Cold War embodies the way in which shared economic interests can withstand any amount of geopolitical buffeting.

As Thane Gustafson puts it in his comprehensive analysis ‘The Bridge: Natural Gas in a Redivided Europe’ (Harvard University Press, £31.95, ISBN 9780674987951), the underlying driver is simple: “Since Russia has gas and Europe needs gas, the gas trade services both sides profitably.”

The 'bridge' of Gustafson’s title serves as a convenient metaphor for physical and political links between these often unwilling partners. On a physical level, he rates the construction of the Russian and European gas infrastructure as one of the most important engineering and commercial achievements of the past half century. A simple but high-​technology fuel, natural gas is underpinned by a structure of technological innovation that includes pipelines; compressors; high-quality steel; computerised control systems, and combined-cycle gas turbines. It has grown into a massive network moving gas from Russia to thousands of factories and millions of consumers.

On a political level, the upheaval following the demise of the Soviet Union and subsequent rise of Russian nationalism under Vladimir Putin occurred alongside expansion of the EU with its liberalising agenda and the increasing awareness of environmentalism. Now, three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe faces a new era of East-West tensions. Russia’s initial enthusiasm for a market-led economy gave way to a nationalistic version of state-led capitalism in which commodities like gas were a weapon and any vision of a modern Russia integrated into the world economy and aligned in peaceful partnership with a reunited Europe has abruptly vanished.

“Over the years, the gas bridge has served a shared economic interest that has stood the test of time,” says Gustafson. “It has been successfully adapted to changing technologies, regulatory and commercial regimes and ideologies.”

However, he argues that the political rivalries that capture the lion’s share of media attention must be viewed alongside multiple business interests and differences in economic ideologies.

By tracking the role of natural gas through several countries – Russia and Ukraine, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway – ‘The Bridge’ details both its history and its likely future. This isn’t just a historical account, however. Focusing on a central question of how the Russian-European gas trade has managed to endure despite changing circumstances and aggravated geopolitical conflict, Gustafson suggests that future threats are likely to come not from ideological challenges but from ‘marketisation’ and whether the industry’s traditional structure built on long-term relationships and contracts can survive.

There are reasons for optimism, he concludes, but whether the ‘gas bridge’ can ultimately survive the dual threat of mounting political tensions and environmental challenges remains to be seen.

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