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Putin’s “Power” Politics | Insight

The impending approval of Russia’s natural gas pipeline to Germany is a reminder of how autocracies may be empowered by global trade.

If current forecasts are right, it’s going to be a cold winter in Europe, but it’s not a matter of natural weather patterns. The continent is facing a significant energy shortage, particularly in natural gas. That may lead to insufficient heating in homes and add another layer to the world’s current supply crunch as factories go without power.

With such a crisis on the horizon, the eyes of European leaders have turned to Russia, the world’s second largest producer of natural gas. If the Russian Federation and its state oil and gas company Gazprom were to increase natural gas exports to Europe, painful shortages might be averted.

That hasn’t happened, and some have accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of deliberately withholding supplies. For his part, Mr. Putin has insisted that the crisis is of Europe’s making and that exports would increase if German regulators move quickly to approve the controversial Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline.

The construction of Nord Stream 2, which runs underwater through the Baltic Sea from Russia’s western coast to Germany’s northern shores, is complete, but the gas cannot flow until German regulators give it their stamp of approval. Under way for a decade, pipeline construction has chugged along despite a swath of objections raised by the United States, Poland, Ukraine, and a host of countries in the European Union (EU). Poland and Ukraine currently host gas transit routes from Russia to Europe and would lose economically from Nord Stream 2 bypassing them. Ukrainian leaders also fear geopolitical isolation if their country loses its usefulness to Europe. For its part, the US fears the possibility that Mr. Putin’s regional influence would grow at its own expense if the EU becomes more dependent on Russian gas.

The pipeline probably won’t be approved and operational for some months to come, so it’s not clear whether Europe would actually see a drastic increase in natural gas supplies by the time winter rolls around. But Mr. Putin seems conscious of the fact that the German Greens—a likely member of Germany’s next governing coalition—are explicitly opposed to the pipeline. If the Greens enter office before the pipeline is approved, Mr. Putin may see an economically and geopolitically advantageous project crumble.

This drama is not only of critical importance for European energy security. It also demonstrates a major tension of globalization. Toward the end of the twentieth century, there was a strong expectation that increasing global economic ties were inextricably linked to the spread of democracy. While there’s merit to this idea, reality has fallen short of expectations. Autocracies such as Russia participate in and benefit from the globalized world similarly to liberal democracies. A pipeline from Russia to Germany that will assuredly bring a financial windfall to the former is a case in point.

To that end, it’s also become clear that globalization doesn’t treat actors neutrally, either. Instead, the globalized economy is not unlike an unregulated domestic economy. Without rules for behavior and overarching powers to hold actors to account, the powerful are favored and may do as they like, whether or not they are democratic. Viewing Nord Stream 2—as Germany  seems to—as merely a “commercial project” falls into the trap of believing that the current global economic system is merely a neutral forum for exchange. On the contrary, Nord Stream 2 is a source of Russian political power, and to a country like Ukraine it’s isolating, potentially even threatening to national sovereignty.

All told, this is an occasion for the democracies of the world to reconsider how they handle economic globalization. To turn their backs on the system would be foolish, as would be attempting to lock every non-democratic regime out of the benefits of globalization. But the economic arrangements which originated in the world’s democracies at the end of the twentieth century can clearly be utilized at their expense. If the goals of globalization were the sharing of prosperity among all people and the spread of self-government, then it’s time to start thinking about how to bring current systems in line with those objectives.

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Normalcy an Inadequate Solution in a Changing World
Held back by a managerial state and acute discomfort with strong global engagement, the upcoming German election seems out of touch with the times.
This article touches on some related points about Germany's seemingly bleary-eyed foreign policy.


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