Central Asia Cools Down and a European Energy Update

  • Last week’s border clashes between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have ended and a fragile ceasefire is in place. Both nations have agreed to withdraw considerable amounts of military hardware and troops from the disputed area of the Tajik-Kyrgyz border. The fighting that took place along the border between 14-16 September included tanks, aircraft, and artillery. Over 100 deaths were reported during the strife.

On Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for there to be “no further escalation” between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. He also reached out to the leaders of both countries and urged them to take steps to resolve the border dispute through peaceful means. Although being members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have a history of tensions accented by the occasional border clash.

“We continue our efforts to resolve the Kyrgyz-Tajik border issues in a purely peaceful way,”    Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov told his citizens in an address Monday. Tajik government officials spoke along similar lines, calling negotiations the key to resolving Tajik-Kyrgyz issues.

  • European government continue to make plans and preparations for an anticipated energy crunch this coming winter. Germany is moving promptly to secure LNG contracts with a number of Persian Gulf states as the flow of gas from Russia is running at severely reduced levels. Meanwhile, Spain and France are revising their respective contingency plans in the hope of avoiding power cuts.

French energy corporation EDF’s efforts to repair and reactivate a number of nuclear reactors is meeting delays. Corrosion has had more of an affect on the reactors and plants than originally thought. If the reactors cannot be brought back online by winter, EDF has warned it might be forced to take ‘exceptional measures’ once the weather turns.

Spain is looking at the possibility of requiring energy-intensive companies to cease operations during consumption peaks. Meanwhile, Finland’s national grid operator Fingrid is warning that Finns should be prepared for power outages come winter.

Scholz Pushes New Pipeline Initiative

With Germany in the midst of a deepening energy crisis German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is now calling for the construction of a pipeline which would reach from Portugal to Central Europe. Naturally, the goal of such a pipeline would be to reduce Germany’s dependence on Russian gas. Even though Germany and other European nations have made strides to shrink their dependence on gas shipments from Russia, it has become clear that reliance will not diminish before the winter season arrives. Scholz has broached the topic of a pipeline with the officials from Portugal, Spain, France and the European Union. Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa has been pushing for the pipeline proposal to be examined by the EU since the early days of Russia’ invasion of Ukraine. Germany and other nations with a heavy reliance on Russian gas paid the issue little mind.

Now Germany appears intent to push the matter, even publicly admitting regret that a sincere effort was not made earlier. Of course, the geopolitical situation has changed. Now that Germany is anxiously seeking other sources for natural gas supplies, a pipeline from Portugal to Central Europe suddenly seems to be an ideal solution.

Unfortunately for Berlin, the energy troubles confronting Germany are not strictly limited natural gas. Water levels on the Rhine River dropped to a critical low on Friday. This will affect barge traffic on the river and subsequently restrict the flow of essential commodities to inland Europe even more. Not exactly welcome news and a firm indication that the energy crisis facing Europe is a long way from being brought under control.

Russia Reduces German Gas Supply Further

With Gazprom 1 having announced another reduction in the Nord Stream 1 pipeline’s output to around twenty percent of its capacity, Germany and other Central European nations could be faced with having to make some unpalatable choices in the weeks to come. Service resumed on the pipeline last week following a ten-day maintenance period at roughly 40 percent capacity. Now that has been halved and the prospect of even deeper reductions is looming. Other nations in Central Europe are contending with reductions as well. Italy has been informed by Gazprom that the amount of gas it normally receives is being reduced as well. The Russian energy giant claims overall gas flow in the pipeline is lower because of technical concerns with one of the turbine engines. Germany claims this reason is a ‘made up pretext’ and the move is nothing less than a Russian powerplay.

Earlier in the week EU energy ministers announced support for a voluntary 15% reduction in natural gas usage. The plan has been somewhat watered-down following resistance from Southern European nations, but the 27 member-states have agreed to cut back on usage by the winter. The plan is an effort to make certain fuel supplies are adequate for the coming winter. Despite the claim by Brussels that the bloc is united in standing up to Russian energy strongarm tactics, objections by nations not reliant on Russian gas raise the prospect of a disunited front in the future.

In a somewhat ironic reversal of fortunes from ten years ago, now it is Southern European nations like Spain and Portugal chiding Germany for its failure to prepare and short-sighted thinking. They’re not wrong. Berlin ignored the warnings for quite some time as it became dependent on Russian gas. Therefore, the argument put forward by Madrid and Lisbon is that the Germans should carry the largest burden instead of nations whose economies are not reliant on Russian gas.

Ukraine Update 24 January, 2022: Pieces of the Puzzle

The fact Russia is serious about Ukraine appears to finally be kicking in for NATO, the EU and Western governments. Whether this will end up being a matter of ‘too little, too late’ remains to be seen. But for the moment, there are at least some decisions being made in Western capitals which will lead to prudent action in the near future. The Western media is also coming around to the idea that all of this might very well be real. The media is almost always at least 48 hours behind events though, and we’re seeing that in their reporting today.

-Wall Street is responding negatively to the worsening situation in Europe. The Dow Jones Industrial Average cratered this morning, dropping more than 1,000 points.  The immediate reason for the drop was news that President Biden will be holding a video call with European leaders this afternoon to discuss Ukraine and Russia’s growing military buildup. There are other factors contributing to the Dow’s slide into correction territory, however, the realization that the Ukraine crisis is worsening appears to be the catalyst.  

-The US is moving ahead with plans to withdraw dependents of embassy staff from Ukraine starting this week. The plan was announced on Friday but did not garner much media coverage until the official authorization was given. Apparently, the US State Department has also decided to remove non-essential staff from the Kiev embassy as well.  Great Britain has also announced the planned withdrawal of family members of diplomats and other embassy staff. London has also indicated it will be reducing its embassy staff in Kiev along lines similar to what the US is doing with its people. The European Union, on the other hand, will not evacuate its diplomats from Ukraine for the moment.

-NATO is starting to reinforce its Eastern Flank, albeit in limited fashion. A number of alliance members have pledged to deploy additional fighter aircraft and warships to the region in the near future. Denmark is sending four F-16s to bolster the Baltic Air Policing mission in Lithuania as well as a frigate to the eastern Baltic Sea. The Netherlands has pledged two F-35s for Bulgarian air policing duties, yet they will not arrive until April. Spain, we discussed last week, has committed two warships and possibly fighter aircraft to Bulgaria. France has revealed it is open to deploying ground troops to Romania and Bulgaria under NATO command.  The United States is considering reinforcing its own forces in Europe but no further details have yet been made available.

Ukraine Update: 20 January, 2022 (Late Evening)

It has been a long day. I was hoping to get a second update posted in the afternoon, but it wasn’t meant to be.

Things are happening now and it appears the final stages of preparations before hostilities commence are either underway or about to be. We’ve discussed Russia’s movement of more troops and equipment into close proximity of the Ukrainian border. The arrival of Russian army units in Belarus has also been mentioned. Ostensibly they are there to conduct exercises with Belarussian forces. Thursday saw Russia announcing that major naval exercises will be held at the end of this month and in February across a large swath of the world’s oceans. The exercises will take place in parts of the North Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans, as well as the Mediterranean Sea. 140 warships and support vessels and 60 aircraft will be involved, along with an unknown number of submarines. This constitutes a considerable amount of the Russian Navy’s inventory. At first look, the primary purpose of the maneuvers seems to be to provide cover for potential naval movements into the Black Sea to coincide with operations against Ukraine. The worldwide scope of the maneuvers though, lead me to suspect there’s another element at work here. A projection of Russian sea and air power in areas where NATO and Russian navies operate in close proximity to each other. Intimidation tactics, for lack of a better term. Another possibility is that Ukraine is not the only area that Russia has plans for. Maybe the exercises are indeed cover, but for Moscow to strategically position its naval and air forces across the global gameboard. In the event NATO stands up militarily to Russian aggression in Ukraine, these forces could be utilized to cause serious damage to NATO naval forces and land installations in the first hours of hostilities. An improbable prospect, but a prospect, nonetheless.

Russia is not the only country that announced military moves today. Spanish Defense Minister Margarita Robles told reporters that her country will be deploying warships to support NATO forces in the Mediterranean and Black Sea. A minesweeper is moving east at present and a frigate is expected to sail within 3-4 days.  The Spanish government is also close to a decision on sending warplanes to Bulgaria to help bolster NATO’s Southern flank as tensions with Russia continue to rise.