Putin’s pipeline ‘gambit’ leaves West unimpressed

By Anna Smolchenko ,AFP

MOSCOW — Was he flexing his muscles or beating a retreat? Opinions are divided over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s surprise announcement to abandon Moscow’s US$50 billion South Stream gas pipeline. Some analysts viewed the unexpected Dec. 1 decision to scrap the project to pump natural gas under the Black Sea to southern Europe as the Russian president again flexing the country’s energy muscle.

The move, those experts say, saw Putin taking Western nations to task for the cold diplomatic shoulder and host of economic sanctions they’ve inflicted on Russia since violence erupted in Ukraine. ��The decision will allow Russia to walk away with its head held high,�� Alexei Gromov, an analyst at the Institute for Energy and Finance, told AFP. Yet others interpreted the move as a rare sign of weakness and retreat by Kremlin leaders finding it increasingly hard to use gas monopoly Gazprom to pursue political goals at a time of looming recession, falling oil prices and sluggish demand in Europe. ��The new gas pipeline as Russia’s geopolitical weapon of the 2000s has ceased to be effective,�� liberal business daily Vedomosti said in an editorial. ��The abandonment of South Stream has every chance to become a historic precedent,�� added news website Gazeta.ru. No ‘panache’ Reality may lie somewhere between those opposing zero-sum views on South Stream’s fate. Brussels long suspected the gigantic South Stream project as a means for Gazprom to seal its domination over the European gas market, and insisted other suppliers be allowed to access the pipeline to address those anti-trust concerns.

Russia balked, but an EU-backed rival project to bring Azerbaijani gas to Europe through Turkey was slow in development and will be smaller than originally hoped.