Thane Gustafson, “The Bridge: Natural Gas in a Redivided Europe”

Looking over the back cover of the dust jacket on this book, and reading through the six complimentary blurbs by leading specialists in energy and/or Russian matters, you think you know what the book is about.  However, you will likely be mistaken, because the ambitions of the author are clearly to avoid retelling in detail episodes that have been widely covered by others, such as the cut-offs of gas to Europe in 2006 and 2009 amidst Russian-Ukrainian political and economic wrangling, and to provide us with broad background information on the issues in the gas trade between Europe and Russia that we have witnessed over the past twenty years and which, the author clearly believes, have many factors behind them other than the geopolitical considerations that our media daily feed us.

These factors include institutional cultures of the market participants from the business world both in East and West, grass roots political movements like the anti-nuclear parade and Environmentalism that have taken the European establishment, notably in Germany by surprise and the specific educational backgrounds and skillsets of the individuals in government and society who are decision makers in energy matters. Indeed, one of the great virtues of Gustafson as an historian is his filigree work, his tweaking out how men make history to no lesser a degree than economics, technological developments and the other anonymous drivers that are the darlings of contemporary political science.

Gustafson is far better equipped to deliver an expertly written context for Russia’s dealings with its partners in Western Europe because, unlike many if not most Russianists, he is an outstanding linguist, and draws heavily on German and French literature in the field as well as English-language and Russian sources. However, this is not merely an academic masterwork, but a book enlivened by occasional personal asides about his protagonists in West and East with whom Gustafson met during the several decades that he has been a leading global authority in the energy field, gas and oil.

What we get here is a political, economic and intellectual history of Europe and Russia described in parallel.   We learn about not only what directly bears on energy policy such as Environmentalism and the anti-nuclear movement but also about the economic and political theories, one is tempted to say, the neo-liberal ideology that have entirely reshaped the gas market in Western Europe into which Russia sells  over the past twenty-five years.  Indeed, for these reasons the book is heavier on West European history than Russian history.

In his detailed explanation of the role played by the EU’s General Directorate for Competition and the European Court of Justice in setting up the Single Market that was the main achievement of perhaps the  most important President of the European Commission to date, Jacques Delors (1985-95), Gustafson provides insights that surely will be of interest to all students of the European Institutions.  Although I have lived and worked in Brussels off and on since 1980 and have  become fairly involved in the activities of the European Parliament in the past five years, I profited greatly from reading the respective chapters in Gustafson’s book.

As for the narrative devoted to Russia, Gustafson explains where the frame contracts for supply of Russian gas that required so much renegotiation with the EU in the new millennium came from, namely the Groningen model developed by Europe’s first source of cross-border natural gas supply, The Netherlands.  He explains how the industry developed in Europe’s second largest source of imported natural gas, Norway, which had a configuration of state and industry that he compares and contrasts closely with Russia’s.

The last third of the book focuses on the issues we would most expect:  relations between Russia and Ukraine, meaning the legacy of the Soviet era and how it is being gradually erased; the evolution of economic relations between Russia and Germany in the new millennium when, especially after Putin’s landmark speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 challenging the West, political relations headed downhill.

One of the great virtues of this book is the way that Gustafson explains the complexity of politics, material interests and corporate culture within what our less curious and less informed journalists and academic commentators see as open-and-shut cases of monolithic Soviet tradition, like Gazprom or of Putin’s supposed autocratic monopoly of power. The following paragraph from 278 is exemplary in this sense:

“One of the main points of this book has been that the Russian gas industry, despite its geopolitical significance, is a business, and a highly technical and a highly complex one. A state-owned gas company may be an instrument of government policy and even of geopolitical ambitions, but it is also interested in profit and market share as well as its commercial reputation, the implementation of its engineering skills, and the management of such a large and complex system.  Putin is clearly the chief decider in Russian gas policy. But in the everyday conduct of business Gazprom, like any large organization, has the capacity to delay, resist, and reshape the Kremlin’s commands if they run counter to Gazprom’s commercial objectives, business models, and core competences.”

One very important benefit of Gustafson’s setting the frame of his study as broadly as he did is that in the end he can offer a key insight into the question of how Russian supply and the new pipelines like Nord Stream-2 impact on the Continent’s energy security, as we see on page 408:

“As the share of Russian gas in Europe’s gas supply reaches record levels, and as Russia completes a new generation of export pipelines, does Russia not have unprecedented leverage over Europe?

“The revolutionary changes in the European gas market suggest that the answer is no. For all the reasons discussed above – the increasing interconnectedness of the European transportation system, the diversification of import sources thanks to LNG, and the availability of storage – the European gas system is strongly resilient today and will become even more so in the future, despite the decline of Europe’s indigenous sources. Behind this is a simple fact: because of changes in gas technology and market structure in Europe and around the world, the pipeline shipper has less and less leverage compared to the past. This is true not only in Western Europe, but increasingly also in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union.”


At the same time, the potential subject matter for this book is still more vast than what Gustafson has addressed here and there are elements still not explored.  In particular, given the importance of the German –Russian relationship as the anchor, literally and figuratively, for The Bridge which is the subject of this book, Gustafson has not explored the German relationship with those new EU members that have been driving the anti-Russian movement within EU Institutions including on issues of gas policy.

To my understanding, the sea change took place not in 2007 but in 2012, still before the whole confrontation over Ukraine but well after the Information Wars began.  It was in 2012 that Germany dropped its definition of Russia as “a strategic partner of Europe” and no longer supported the negotiation of a new EU-Russia Cooperation and Partnership Agreement to replace the long expired agreement dating back to the late 1990s.   In effect, from this time on Merkel’s government turned its back on the Ostpolitik that was forged by former (SPD) Chancellor Willy Brandt and his close adviser Egon Bahr. With one exception, to be sure, gas policy.

I would suggest that the answer is to be found not in the personality of Angela Merkel, as Gustafson seems to suggest, but in divergent interests and mentalities between Germany’s big industrialists, who were committed to big deals with Russia, especially in energy, and even pursued the illusory objective of participating in Russia’s upstream gas industry, and the famous German Mittelstand of medium-sized, family-owned enterprises which is the mainstay of the German economy, of export, and, one may assume, of Merkel’s party, the CDU.

Gustafson does not go into the relationship between Germany and the new Member States of the European Union, like the Czech Republic and Poland, which became from the 1990s the low cost subcontractors, or economic colonies if you will, of the Federal Republic.  German Mittelstand companies surely felt much more comfortable with these East European suppliers, who knew their subordinate place, than was ever possible with Russian industrial partners, who were full cycle producers, not manufacturers of bits and pieces, who had their own pride and, one might say arrogance that was a counterpoint to German Stolz, and very easily makes for uncomfortable relations.

Surely it was this sympathy for the virulently anti-Russian Poles and for their political bedfellows in the EU Institutions, the three Baltic States, which exerted a strong influence on Merkel’s policies towards Russia so that finally she pulled up the carpet of Ostpolitik that she received from the past, except in the highly pragmatic field of gas where Germany was too well served by the Russian supply and had long enjoyed preferential treatment thanks to its participation in the pipelines.

At the same time, Gustafson has also chosen not to get into the question of US pressure on the German positions. There can be no question but that in the summer of 2014, when America was threatening to provide offensive weaponry to Kiev, Merkel did a U-turn and became the main enforcer of Russian sanctions within the EU in order to cool down American passions and prevent an all-out Ukraine-Russia war that would spill over into Central Europe.


Finally, a word about  Environmentalism and The Greens, whom Gustafson describes to a limited extent in this book because they may have a significant if not determining influence on how Europe deals with natural gas as an energy source and bridge to the new Green Revolution of the future.


Gustafson speaks of the co-founder of the German Greens, later German Minister of Foreign Affairs Joschka Fischer, but not of his alter-ego of the movement in Germany, ‘Dany le Rouge’ Cohn-Bendit.  As co-chairman of the Spinelli Group in the European Parliament Cohn-Bendit has also been a leading voice for Federalism, for the creation of a United States of Europe, which in passing, Gustafson seems to favor. This federalism has aligned him with the neo-liberal leader of the ALDE Group in Parliament up to 2019, former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt. They co-authored a book promoting federalism entitled Debout l’Europe (Stand Up Europe).  And they, together with Fischer have one more cause in common, one which bears directly on Gustafson’s forecasts for the future of the Gas Bridge: ALDE and the German Greens have been the most vociferous Russia-bashers in the European Parliament. If I may allow myself a turn of phrase that Gustafson uses twice in the book: they have never seen a proposed sanction against Russia that they didn’t like. This anti-Russian posturing all has been done in the name of defending human rights, etc. This has set the background noise for confrontation between EU Institutions and Russia over Nord Stream-2, for example.

Given that the Green movement has made great advances in the last European parliamentary elections one year ago, it remains to be seen whether the visceral dislike of Russia of the German Greens will rise with the environmentalist movement that they embody and somehow impact upon Russia’s energy role in Europe.  Anti-gas words may be a convenient cover for anti-Russian thoughts and deeds.

Of course, these cavils bear on where The Bridge may be headed into the 2030s. They have not caused Russia impossible obstacles in its gas trade with Europe to date.  As for the future, time will tell.


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble,, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]