Reagan Warned Europe Against Depending on Natural Gas From Russia

Today is Ronald Reagan’s birthday.

(p. B1)The language in the C.I.A. memo was unequivocal: The 3,500-mile gas pipeline from Siberia to Germany is a direct threat to the future of Western Europe, it said, creating “serious repercussions” from a dangerous reliance on Russian fuel.

The agency wasn’t briefing President Biden today. It was advising President Reagan more than four decades ago.

The memo was prescient. That Soviet-era pipeline, the subject of a bitter fight during the Reagan administration, marked the start of Europe’s heavy dependence on Russian natural gas to heat homes and fuel industry. However, those gas purchases now help fund Vladimir V. Putin’s war machine in Ukraine, despite worldwide condemnation of the attacks and global efforts to punish Russia financially.

In 1981, Reagan imposed sanctions to try to block the pipeline, a major Soviet initiative designed to carry huge amounts of fuel to America’s critical allies in Europe. But he swiftly faced stiff opposition — not just from the Kremlin and European nations eager for a cheap source of gas, but also from a powerful lobby close to home: oil and gas companies that stood to profit from access to Russia’s gargantuan gas reserves.

. . .

(p. B4) On a frigid Sunday morning in December 1981, millions of Poles woke up to find their country under a state of martial law. Global condemnation of the Polish authorities, and of their backers in the Kremlin, was swift.

Already wary of the Soviets’ plan to build a gas pipeline to Western Europe, the Reagan administration produced a list of economic sanctions that essentially banned American companies from helping to build it. “The fate of a proud and ancient nation hangs in the balance,” Reagan said in his Christmas address.

The measure drew immediate ire from America’s European allies, where the $25 billion pipeline promised a stable source of gas at a time nations were still reeling from the oil shocks of the 1970s. But within the United States, it was the oil and gas lobby that fought back.

The sanctions would “aggravate further our international reputation for commercial reliability,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represented major oil and gas companies and pipeline manufacturers among numerous other industries, warned in a letter to the White House. The pipeline would, in fact, give Western Europe “a degree of leverage over the Soviets rather than vice versa,” Richard Lesher, the group’s president, later told The Washington Post.

Following intense lobbying, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to lift the sanctions, despite a letter from Secretary of State George P. Shultz warning that such legislation would “severely cripple” the administration’s ability to deal with the Polish crisis.

For the full story, see:

Hiroko Tabuchi. “How Europe Got Hooked On Russian Natural Gas.” The New York Times (Thursday, March 24, 2022): B1 & B4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 23, 2022, and has the title “How Europe Got Hooked on Russian Gas Despite Reagan’s Warnings.”)

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