Interview with Lucia Seybert, Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, and Professorial Lecturer, American University, on August 25, 2014. Kennan Institute Project "External Nuclear Safety Assistance in CIS Countries as a Model for Keeping the Prospective Nuclear Energy Expansion to the Developing World Safe."

Malinkin: During your scholarship you’ve been looking at the many countries in Eastern Europe that are on the receiving end of Russian pipelines and the different ways they are dependent on Russia. Can you tell us more about these relationships and how they formed?

Seybert: I selected several countries to represent categories of relationships with Russia, which together form a diverse set of relationships. The relationships stem mostly from the history these countries have with Russia and the different turns they've taken since the fall of the Soviet Union. This is determined in part by their domestic politics, but my research focuses mostly on the international aspect. How do you negotiate your position relative to countries as powerful, and resource-rich as Russia? Are there other ways to make yourself secure in energy terms? I differentiate between threats, based on the lottery of what kind of resources a country ended up with, and how it handles it politically. So, taking a speedy look at Eastern Europe, you have Belarus on one end of the spectrum —it’s dependent on Russia — Russia knows it, Belarus knows it, and everyone's more or less OK with that. This doesn't make Belarus less dependent, but it makes the situation less contentious. Belarus didn't win the resource lottery, but it's OK in terms of political relations with Russia.

Where does Lithuania fall on the spectrum?

Lithuania has the same dependence on Russia, but diametrically opposite relations with Russia compared to Belarus. Lithuania faces a direct threat from Russia, and it is turning elsewhere for options —namely, the European Union. However, that's problematic in Lithuania’s case because the infrastructure still pulls eastward - it's still an energy island and 10 years after accession there are still no connections to European grids and that's a major problem. At this point they're starting to get a little impatient in terms of their position in the European Union. They don't want be the fool that's counting on help that's never coming, so that affects how they negotiate on common energy policies in the European Union.

You have mentioned that Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria are in another category — tell us about this group.

They are dependent on Russia but have slightly different options. They are connected to the energy grid inside the European Union. There are many differences among this group, but they are similar in their commitment to European solidarity. That is the main counter weapon towards pressures from Russia. There have been complaints from various EU officials and representatives of EU member states that Russia is trying to divide EU members - the Swedish prime minister, for example, recently made a statement to that effect. These countries are aware of this, but they're also acutely aware of their vulnerabilities. It, again, ends up being a balance of what you have and how you handle it politically.

And what about Ukraine?

Ukraine’s relations with the European Union are very different. It’s facing the worst of both worlds. It faces the most pressure from Russia and the least encouragement and assistance from the EU. So that's why their position has been so precarious. It rounds out the whole spectrum where at one end you have positive relations between Belarus and Russia, and the worst relations between Ukraine and Russia.

Looking over all of your cases, what are the main things that shape a country's response to its energy challenges?

There's the fear of not having enough energy. That’s due to domestic availability but also to its political relations. A country's national identity can also determine its de facto legitimacy. All these countries that I’ve talked about, with the exception of Belarus, have chosen to be affiliated with the EU. In fact, they've all participated in some kind of negotiation and the current members actually succeeded. Regarding Ukraine, the overall context plays an important role. Ukraine is so divided, literally, about what they are going to do. The EU has been hands off because it's an internal thing to Ukraine and they're holding it against Moscow for meddling in Ukraine’s matters. It would be hypocritical if they then also tried to meddle. But that reflects the domestic component - what path do you choose and how strongly do you then pursue it? To go back to the Bulgarian example, now that the EU is holding the construction of the south stream pipeline, Bulgarians are very disgruntled, and it's shifting their support for EU membership as a whole. You have the broader context of energy security but it is also important how that is processed internally.

How much would you say, in this spectrum of countries, depends on the political leaders - the presidents or the parliaments, and how much depends on what the people want? Does that vary country to country? Do you see any trends?

People experience that through the economy. It’s up to the politicians to craftily gain support for whatever course they choose to pursue. So, to skim over a lot of nuances, I would say that because of informational asymmetry, politicians can present information to mold public opinion how they want it. I witnessed this in 2009 when there was no gas flowing to Slovakia and the prime minister, Robert Fico, framed it as a crisis, and “how dare the European Union tell us to shut down our nuclear reactor.” In his declarations he was addressing not only the public but also the European Union, so the audiences were both domestic and international.

What thoughts do you have about the main question guiding your research — can a state without energy security truly be considered sovereign?

In the traditional definition of sovereignty, which is control over all transactions on your territory, autonomy, legitimacy of all the decisions you're making - the quick answer would be “no.” But, that is no longer how we understand sovereignty, especially in the European Union where states willingly share their sovereignty.  Admittedly progress has been slower in the energy sector due to the lag in the sharing of sovereignty, compared to the common market, for example. But it would be kind of silly to talk about sovereignty in old-fashioned terms. The answer becomes, yes, they can be sovereign but it's up to them how they define the sovereignty. So from the Slovak perspective dependence on Russia is no longer a negative aspect. It’s how you work with that. This is something that the EU can learn from Eastern Europeans. Western Europeans (and that division is not watertight) have generally been more rigid in their positioning vis-a-vis Russia, with the exception of Germany. Germany, to the frustration of many in the EU, has also tried to make inroads with Russia through a parallel bilateral process. Maybe the EU as a whole will benefit from that, eventually.

Turning to Ukraine, in 2010, before this whole crisis started, Russia and Ukraine signed a deal that renewed the long-term lease that Russia had on Crimea. So Russia was already in Crimea - they were renting it. Their base was there and Ukraine was OK with it — they had signed a contract in exchange for cheaper gas from Russia. By signing it, they were effectively giving up their sovereignty, but if they didn't sign it, they wouldn't have energy and so they wouldn’t have had any sovereignty in the first place. Can they be sovereign without energy, if it destroys their economy? No, but there are other ways to accomplish the same goals without mining for all your oil yourself.

Do you have any thoughts about what kind of agreement, realistically, Presidents Putin and Poroshenko could forge regarding energy? What options does Ukraine really have?

I would pose the question: are we justified in viewing Ukraine as a victim and Russia as the perpetrator? This is not to defend Russia’s actions to the extent that we can ascribe them to Russia – and we can't directly ascribe to Russia a lot of what's happening in Ukraine. In terms of energy, Russia has a lot to lose here as well. I wouldn't say that the situation is as asymmetric as it may appear from the outside. I think Ukraine does have some negotiating leverage. Russia has things to lose and things to gain and so I think there's an incentive to compromise on both sides. It goes back to the question of relating this to domestic politics - both for Russia and Ukraine. Going back to the example about the Slovak minister speaking to both international and domestic audiences — that is a very difficult skill to master because often the domestic and international audiences are not prepared to hear the same thing. The big question here is how the two sides will be able to navigate the divides between international and domestic politics and whether they will locate opportunities. The ongoing negotiations between Putin and Poroshenko will not just be about energy and that is why I find such joy in studying this subject through bigger questions of international relations like sovereignty.

Mary Elizabeth Malinkin
Matthew Rojansky, Director, Kennan Institute