Just when you thought Europe would never take strong action against Russian policy in Ukraine, something big is in the works. The $20 billion South Stream pipeline, long sought by Moscow as a way to export natural gas to Europe without going through Ukraine, is hanging by a thread. Losing it would be a real setback for Vladimir Putin. Yet the reason it is in jeopardy says even more about why it's so hard to counter Russian policy.
Canceling South Stream ought to be a no-brainer. The pipeline aims to isolate and weaken Ukraine. The project is vulnerable, however, only because it's contrary to the European Union's arcane guidelines requiring competition in energy markets. Just months ago, Europe seemed ready to bend its rules in South Stream's favor. (Gazprom—the Russian state-owned energy company—won't grant rival suppliers access to the pipeline, as true compliance would require.) The European parliament has passed a non-binding resolution in favor of cancellation. This week, EU energy commissioner Gunther Oettinger told the Financial Times that he too was reconsidering. His dry formulation: "Exemptions are not my priority for Gazprom South Stream will not go easily. When G-7 energy ministers met in Rome on Tuesday, the Italians reiterated their support for the pipeline. Big European energy companies have a stake too. Russia is challenging EU rules at the World Trade Organization.
Secretary of State John Kerry says that reversing Europe's energy dependence on Russia is a matter of "urgency" for the United States. Success would require a huge commitment, including a willingness to shape U.S. energy policy to meet Europe's needs. It's not enough to rely on the fine print of EU regulations.