Will MH17 be our 9/11? (24) Repetition of moves following new sanctions against Russia

In many respects the new sanctions against Russia that the US Congress has adopted with an overwhelming majority, resemble the sanctions that were imposed three years ago. This time they have been packaged along with sanctions against Iran and North Korea, to ensure that every Congress member will have grounds to vote for them.
Three years ago, the Obama administration also imposed sanctions to limit the Russian supply of gas to Europe. That happened, to be precise, on 16 July 2014. 

Among EU countries there was serious opposition to these sanctions, which built on a series of punitive measures against South Stream, the planned pipeline across the Black Sea.
This time Nordstream 2, across the Baltic, is the target. But this time it does not look as if the EU can once again be blackmailed into supporting the sanctions by a dramatic incident in Ukraine, although nothing is impossible.

South Stream had been negotiated for several years and already in 2008, reports were circulating that the West should resist it, among others by using environmental concerns, which had worked well in delaying Nordstream. When Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, the United States stepped up its activities in Russia, beginning with the new US ambassador receiving opposition figures, the saga of ‘Pussy Riot’, and so on. After Russia and China refused to go along with a UN regime change mandate for Syria in June 2012, relations with the West became more acrimonious.

Yet in December 2012, work began on the compressor station at the Russian end of South Stream, but in the course of 2013, calls for a boycott of the Sochi Winter Olympics and sanctions against Russia further soured relations. With the EU Association Agreement with Kiev in the balance, it was expected that Ukraine could be swayed to join the West against Russia. As the president of the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, Carl Gershman, stated in September 2013, Ukraine was ‘the biggest prize’ and it would also put Putin ‘on the losing end not just in the near abroad but within Russia itself

After the violent demonstrations in Ukraine against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU agreement in November and the coup in Kiev in February 2014 and the secession of Crimea in March, the stakes were raised.

In April, the EU actively began opposing South Stream whilst the US imposed sanctions on the Russian energy companies, banks, and key figures involved in the project. In June, Bulgaria was prevailed on to stop work on the pipeline and Austria too was put under pressure to discontinue its role in South Stream.

As Eric Draitser commented, still in June 2014, ‘South Stream has become one of the primary battlegrounds in the economic war that the West is waging against Russia’. The sanctions are ‘merely the window-dressing’.

In mid-July, Putin toured Latin America, ending up in Brazil where he signed the charter of a BRICS bank with the other leaders of the bloc. Meanwhile little has come of this project but at the time it was seen as a frontal challenge to the Western-dominated IMF/World Bank complex. Also in Brazil, Putin met Chancellor Merkel who was attending the world football championship finals. With her he agreed the Land for gas accords to stabilise Ukraine’s borders in exchange for Russian assistance in the country’s financial rehabilitation. The agreement also included a crucial gas paragraph, to be elaborated by the Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash, close to Gazprom, whilst the agreement would leave Crimea under Russian sovereignty.

On 16 July the US slapped new sanctions on Russia. EU ambassadors in Washington were briefed with intelligence on the supply of heavy weaponry by Russia, but during the night of 16 to 17 July there was still intense transatlantic consultation going on. Merkel and Biden both called Poroshenko, and Merkel also conferred with Obama by telephone. Reporting this on the 17th, a pro-Kiev website impatiently commented, ‘Everybody is waiting for the decision of the [European Council] regarding the tightening of the sanctions against the Russian Federation’. Yet the EU summit was expected to be contentious since countries with export interests to Russia were balking. The downing of MH17 on the 17th changed all that. South Stream was already effectively shelved (it would be formally declared dead in December). The Land for gas negotiations were promptly suspended and Europe dropped the remaining hesitations concerning the new round of sanctions against Russia. As Mark Leonhard, founder and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, noted in a newspaper interview a year later, ‘without MH17 it would have been pretty difficult to find sufficient support for the increased sanctions on the Russian economy’.

Should we expect another major incident one of these days or are European companies’ interests in Nord Stream 2 too important?

Kees van der Pijl

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