Happy birthday, Vladimir Putin.
At least that’s what Russia seemed to be saying to its president as it reported on plans for a new naval fleet for the Arctic in conjunction with Putin’s 69th birthday last week, according to the Daily Mail.
And what a present it is. The new fleet — the country’s fifth — would allow Russia to control commercial shipping in what is known as the Northern Sea Route.
And it would secure for Russia polar energy reserves.
Happy birthday, indeed.
Putin already has been accused of weaponizing European Union gas supplies, and he’s pressuring the EU for approval of a new state-run Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that would bypass the pipeline facilities of Ukraine, the Daily Mail said.
There are signals from Putin that if Nord Stream 2 is approved, he’ll allow more gas into Europe.
Europe is listening. As are the markets — news of the Arctic naval fleet immediately sent gas prices rocketing upward. And winter is coming.
Reports of the new Russian fleet emerged Thursday, which was Putin’s birthday.
“It will be a separate formation within the Navy, and its responsibility will be to ensure the safety of the Northern Sea Route and the Arctic coast,” a Russian navy source told TASS, the state news agency.
Those duties have been the responsibility of Russia’s Northern and Pacific fleets, but those fleets will be free for “combat missions” as the Arctic fleet moves in with vessels specifically designed for that kind of polar service.
Other Russian fleets serve in the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea.
The Russian Navy is considering developing a new Arctic Fleet to protect the Northern Sea Route. https://t.co/t6aUvNcf3z
— CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia (@csiserep) October 7, 2021
The same day the new Arctic fleet was reported, the wholesale unit price of natural gas in the United Kingdom immediately went up by 1 pound ($1.36), or 37 percent, according to the Daily Mail.
But Putin then soothed the market, announcing that Gazprom, the Russian state monopoly exporter, would increase European gas supplies. That brought the British price back to 2.87 pounds ($3.91).
But that action by Putin was seen as a smokescreen against criticisms of weaponizing gas supplies, according to the report.
“You don’t want to see energy made into a weapon,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm told the Financial Times last week.
And Putin’s talk about providing more gas to Europe so far has been just that — talk. Russia has provided no increase in gas supplies.
“The deliveries from Gazprom, which has a monopoly on pipeline exports of Russian gas to Europe, are at the regular rate,” Dennis Hesseling of the EU Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators said last week, according to Euronews.
“They have, as far as we know, followed all the contractual commitments.”
Usually, an exporter will increase gas supplies to control rising prices, Hesseling said.
“You would expect parties to react to price signals,” he said. “In the past, we saw Gazprom reacting to opportunities in the European market. That’s not happening now, and we don’t know why that is not the case.”
That Russia is not taking advantage of higher European gas prices by increasing exports is a mystery. Some European experts speculate that Russia’s actions are a pressure for EU approval of Nord Stream 2, while others wonder whether the country is having trouble building up its own gas supply for the upcoming winter, according to Euronews.
Either way, Europe has an increasing need for gas imports and is beholden to Russia as its biggest supplier of gas.
Then there’s the issue of a new Arctic navy.
Is it more than a coincidence that Russia is considering expanding its navy (and freeing up its North and Pacific fleets for combat) while China has been using aircraft to harass Taiwan and is converting civilian craft to warships?
Are these scenarios directly linked to what they see as the recent rapid decline in the prestige and power of the United States?
Perhaps there’s more than a new Russian naval fleet as a birthday gift to Putin.
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