Leading article: An incentive to diversify


The winter oil crisis between Russia and Belarus seems to be approaching a resolution. A delegation from Minsk has been dispatched to Moscow. And the European Union is to hold talks with both sides. A deal is likely to be reached, just as it was a year ago when a similar crisis broke out between Russia and Ukraine.

The immediate consequences are likely to be minimal. Oil supplies to central and eastern Europe have been interrupted since Moscow closed the Druzhba pipeline that runs through Belarus, but a relatively mild winter and significant stockpiles in Europe mean the shortfall is unlikely to cause much disruption. The International Energy Agency predicted yesterday that European oil markets will be able to cope for the time being.

But the longer-term consequences are less certain. Belarus has certainly behaved badly. It has used the European demand for Russian oil as a hostage in this row, in the knowledge that Moscow has more to lose in terms of international standing from the crisis. And former Russian satellites such as Belarus should indeed be paying something substantially closer to a market rate for their oil.

But Moscow has behaved worse. To the world, Russia seems to be throwing its weight around again. Why, we might ask, was there no advance notice for those European consumers further down the line before the pipeline was shut? Why does the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, refuse to sign the Energy Charter proposed by the European Union, which would guarantee security of supply? Confidence in the Kremlin is wearing thin. The feeling is growing in the West that Moscow is using energy as a "weapon" rather than merely a tradeable commodity.

Mr Putin must understand that it is not in Russia's interests to be seen as a fickle energy supplier. The Russian economy relies heavily on energy exports. And it needs foreign expertise to continue to develop oil and gas fields. At the moment, Russia supplies 30 per cent of Europe's oil and 40 per cent of its gas. But European customers will look to regions such as the Black Sea, the Caspian and the Gulf if they feel those supplies are insecure. Indeed, they are already doing so. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, said yesterday that the events of the past week confirm the need for Europe to diversify its energy sources.

If the world's self-styled "energy superpower" fails to understand its obligations, Europe should seek other power sources as a matter of urgency. Indeed, it should seize this chance to diversify out of environmentally damaging hydrocarbon imports altogether. Russian authoritarianism and global warming provide a strong incentive for a change in direction.

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