Dominic Lawson: Go nuclear - or gamble national security on the benevolence of Russia's President

For European energy to rely on Russian gas is like giving a known blackmailer your bank details
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The Independent Online

Thank God for the objectivity of women. One of the curses of male-dominated politics is the way in which it degenerates into a club of mates. This has long been a criticism of the British system, but locker-room corruption has a global reach.

Both George Bush and Tony Blair immediately decided, on the basis of the club's usual rules, that Vladimir Putin was a good chap, a man who could be trusted. Their matiness with the former KGB officer was admittedly nothing on the scale of the former German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder. Weeks before his departure from office, after the elections of September 2005, his government approved a €1bn credit for a pipeline to send Russian gas under the Baltic sea directly into Germany.

Two months later, Schröder re-emerged - as the chairman of the very same pipeline consortium, which is controlled by the state-owned Russian gas company Gazprom. Putin and Schröder had forged a relationship close even by the standards of "mates" - the Russian leader had personally intervened to help the German and his fourth wife adopt two Russian babies.

To be fair to Schröder, he was just the last in a long line of German chancellors who were a soft touch for the Russians. Perhaps a residual sense of guilt stemming from the Second World War was one of the psychological factors at work.

In Angela Merkel, however, we are seeing something entirely new in the German-Russian relationship. Not only was Frau Merkel born well after the war ended, she grew up in East Germany, a country - if it can be called that - whose inhabitants were all Russian prisoners; after the Wall went up, it wasn't even an open prison. It can safely be assumed that Frau Merkel will not feel a shred of sentiment for Russia, guilt-based or otherwise.

This has implications for more than just those two countries, especially now that Germany has assumed the presidency of the European Union. In that capacity, Angela Merkel gave a revealing interview to the FT's Quentin Peel at the very beginning of the year. When asked about Putin's neutering of the Russian press, Merkel, rather than brushing aside the question as being a purely domestic matter, remarked: "I have told the Russian President many times that contrary opinions are a normal part of society."

I like that "many times"; and when Peel raised the issue of the EU's increasing dependence on Russian gas and oil, in the wake of Putin's unilateral decision last year to cut off gas supplies to the Ukraine, Merkel responded: "I had a very frank discussion with President Putin at the recent EU summit." Well, we all know what "very frank", in the diplomatic parlance of EU summits, means: interpreters blanching.

As a matter of fact, interpreters would not have been required on that occasion: Angela Merkel, like most educated former East Germans, speaks Russian fluently. It makes it all the more extraordinary that this week President Putin turned off the pipeline that carries oil into Belarus, and from there into Poland and Germany - without a word of warning to his European customers.

That's right: the first Frau Merkel knew about it was when German industrial customers of the oil found that it wasn't there. Staggering as this seems, people who know much more about Putin than I do tell me it would not even have crossed his mind to warn Merkel, either in her capacity as German Chancellor or as president of the EU's Council of Ministers.

Angela Merkel's response was salutary - or so one would hope. She openly declared Putin's actions to be "unacceptable", making it "difficult to build a co-operative relationship". She added, for good measure, that even during the Cold War, Russia had been a more reliable supplier of energy than this. Finally - which is fascinating in the context of German domestic politics - Frau Merkel told German television that the event would make her reconsider her country's plan to phase out nuclear power generation altogether by 2020.

Under the terms which bind her unwieldy coalition together, Frau Merkel cannot take such a decision: it was one of the conditions insisted upon by the SPD that the 2000 law phasing out nuclear power "cannot be amended". Yet Merkel is known to believe that the anti-nuclear policy is deeply misguided.

Angela Merkel has more in common with Margaret Thatcher than simply gender; and it is not just that, like Thatcher, she is very much an outsider in the blokeish world of international politics - as witness the appalled look on her face when George Bush gave her a manly squeeze at her first G8 meeting.

Like Margaret Thatcher, Merkel is a scientist by education and training: they were both chemists at university and afterwards, with Merkel boasting a doctorate in quantum chemistry. It was the rational scientist in Thatcher, not simply a visceral dislike of the National Union of Mineworkers, which made her an enthusiast for nuclear power.

The rational scientist in Merkel knows that nuclear power is the safest form of mass electricity generation known to woman. She knows that Germany's vast investment in wind power was not merely financially obtuse: it has also caused dangerous power surges and outages which, if repeated, threaten prolonged black-outs across the European grid.

It is not just that civil nuclear power, as James Lovelock has tirelessly pointed out, is the only way that modern economies will maintain their populations' living standards while simultaneously stripping carbon emission from the generation of electricity. There is now a pressing reason, utterly divorced from the arguments of the environmentalists, why Germany and Europe generally must reconsider their anti-nuclear anathemas.

That reason is security. Obviously, nuclear power is not the solution to concerns about security of oil supplies from the Middle East - it cannot be a substitute for petrol in the internal combustion engine, although the electric car will change that argument a little; but for European industrial energy and heating to become increasingly reliant on Russian gas is like giving a known blackmailer your private bank account details.

The Russian approach does not simply apply to the end user. Last month Shell was forced to relinquish its control of the $20bn Sakhalin project, the world's largest liquefied natural gas development, to Gazprom. With astonishing cynicism, the Russian authorities gave as their reason Shell's lack of concern for the local environment - it was astonishingly cynical not because Shell was innocent of that charge, but because the Russian government could not care less about the wildlife of Sakhalin.

Vladimir Putin has declared that he will not stand for re-election in March 2008. He might even be telling the truth about that; but if you were in Angela Merkel's shoes, would you risk the security of your country on a guess that the next president of Russia - or the one after that - will not use its gas as means of political extortion? Gordon Brown and David Cameron, please note.