The Magyar came next, and by incessant raiding from his steppe base in Hungary increased the significance of the Austrian outpost, so drawing the political focus of Germany eastward to the margin of the realm.
Projecting Power from the Gas Heartland
What provides the best strategic advantage: Mobility upon the ocean or mobility across the stepped lands of Eurasia? The question was examined by Joseph MacKinder in 1904 before the calamities of the 20th century. Applying MacKinder’s treaties to Europe’s energy landscape of today provides important insights into sphere’s of influence. Today, we can draw on MacKinder and apply the sea vs. land argument for control and influence in Central and Southeast Europe.
In this post I will update a single key underpinnings of Mackinder’s consideration of spheres of influence, drawing from the concept of controlling the resources of the Euroasian landmass (Russia) compared to European counties with access (and control) of the seas. I do not address the historical role and influence of Mackinder’s writings. Reflecting on MacKinder is important because it serves as an important vehicle to understand current debates around Russia’s involvement in Central and Southeast Europe. By updating and re-positioning gas within Mackinder’s framework an assessment of the position of countries between Russia and Western European countries demonstrates important political and economic considerations in the price of gas. In this analysis I’m largely referring to EU member states Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria.
Thus marginal ocean-fed commerce… form[s] a zone of penetration round the continents, whose inner limit is roughly marked by the line along which the cost of four handlings, the oceanic freight, and the railway freight from the neighbouring coast, is equivalent to the cost of two handlings and the continental railway freight.
If we update this cost of handling – not freight – but natural resources, such as natural gas, oil and even nuclear fuelrods, we begin to see that the past price of freight is still relevant for our discussion. The zone of penetration of ocean freight benefits those countries in Western Europe. While the countries in Central Eastern Europe receive lower priced gas piped across the continent from Russia. While countries in Northern Europe benefit from the piped gas from the North Sea – acting as a ‘land’ source for their energy needs – however, bringing that same gas to much of Central Eastern Europe is constrained by continental infrastructure and increased cost competition for network access in mainland Europe.
The price differentials are first evident in the border prices for networked gas between markets. Hungary’s estimated Russian border price for gas imports for June – August 2014 are at 22.18 Euro/MWh, while the better interconnected network of Germany has a hub price of 18.33 Euro/MWh. While Bulgaria shells out 28.12 Euro/MWh for almost total reliance on Russian gas.
LNG is the seabased routing of natural resources. LNG cannot compete against European and Russian sourced gas for Central Eastern Europe. And here I’ll keep my analysis at a pan-European level to demonstrate even with liquid Western European markets, Russia hold significant competitive advantage. In a direct comparison against global gas prices, Russian gas prices historically come out competitive. In the chart below, the main lines to observe are the Europe Oil Indexed Contracts [after concessions (BAFA)] these include Russian contracted gas, NBP which is a basket of gas prices (including Norwegian gas). Even US exported gas, represented by the Henry Hub price, needs to be doubled for US LNG export.
The regional price for cooperative regimes, we see that deals can be struck. In February 2015, on a to Hungary Putin gave the cooperative Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban a discount for his friendly attitude towards Russia. In renegotiating a gas import contract Budapest achieved a price of $260 tcm (thousand cubic meters) as compared to a European average of $270 tcm. Similar price adjustments, reflecting changes in international gas and oil prices, were also achieved for Austria earlier in 2015 and Bulgaria in 2012. The takeaway is Russia is competitive and willing to adjust to international shifts in gas and oil prices.
Adjusting wholesale gas prices is essential for influencing the political landscape in Central Europe. Household gas prices are politically important in the region. I discussed above the competitive wholesale market prices in Europe, but divergence is strongly apparent at the household level. Politically, this is where results are achieved for politicians.
The map below shows the price difference for households. Ultimately, as discussed elsewhere on this blog and in other writings by myself, it is the consumer price that helps direct political control and strategy in the energy sector. In the pricing map we have a clear division between those countries reliant on Russian piped gas for consumer prices and those reliant on sea based sources – even underwater pipelines from the North Sea and from Russia (Nord Stream).
When we draw in this information, and the map (above) represents a clear division between how energy markets and geopolitical influence can be exerted. The household price of gas is significantly different in Central Eastern Europe and proportionally lower than the wholesale price difference. In this ‘flash’ analysis I won’t average out the household price difference between the two regions, but eyeballing it there is a clear difference – particularly if the information on the higher wholesale price, European averaged gas price are contrasted with the lower household price. In my opinion there is a significant story of why these price differences exist.
Nonetheless, for our discussion here this gets to the heart of our MacKinder hypothesis. That control of the heartland – the pivot region (Euroasia), the “vast area of Euro-Asia which is inaccessable to ships… and is to-today about to be covered with a network of railways….[with conditions of] mobility of military and economic power…” lends itself to a comparison of gas pipelines, LNG, market structures and geopolitical influence. Events in Ukraine underscore the military might, while differential in household gas pricing underscore the economic might of today’s Russia.
Objections to both a MacKinder view and regional pricing differential views, I believe would have two points. First, they would say that the underdeveloped interconnector network lends itself to isolated markets. A Gazprom position, is that Central European isolated markets consume less gas and therefore are more costly to service, price adjustments just represent market trends. Second, both the break-up of the Soviet Union and the loss of Ukraine of Russia actually weakens the application of MacKinder and the Pivot region. My response to both of these arguments is that if gas prices are non-political then household gas prices would reflect the wholesale market price. However, the dramatic difference between EU household prices indicates elements of political and manipulated economic interests.
Pricing differences between EU member states falls along an important geopolitical fault line. Control of the Eurasian continental heartland and the natural resources, delivered via pipeline, provides a competitive pricing advantage over LNG and even delivery from more volatile regions like North Africa or from politically contentious and higher priced technologies like hydraulic fracturing. Continued reliance and even promotion of options to increase Russian gas into the SEE and CEE regions underscore the political importance Russia holds in securing and dominating these gas markets. As long as household energy prices are a dominant political issue, Russia will continue to hold sway in the regions’ energy markets by projecting its power through political leverage.
Mackinder, H. J. “The Geographical Pivot of History (1904).” Geographical Journal 170, no. 4 (December 2004): 298–321. doi:10.1111/j.0016-7398.2004.00132.x.
Market Observatory for Energy DG Energy. Quarterly Report on European Gas Markets. European Commission, Directorate-General for Energy, 2014. [https://ec.europa.eu/energy/sites/ener/files/documents/quarterly-gas_q3_2014_final_0.pdf.]
“Reducing European Depedence on Russian Gas: Distinguishing Natural Gas Security from Geopolitics.” The Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, October 2014. [http://www.oxfordenergy.org/wpcms/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/NG-92.pdf.]