Putin's Newest Ally Supports Russia's Move to Dominate Europe's Energy Market

On Wednesday, Sebastian Kurz, Austria's 31-year-old chancellor, threw his support behind a controversial project that would flood Europe's energy market with Russian gas and solidify the European Union's dependence on Moscow's energy supplies: the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Kurz, Europe's youngest leader and head of the conservative Austrian People's Party (OVP), became chancellor in December. And at a time when many Western and Northern European countries are looking for ways to counter Russian interference in their domestic affairs, he has positioned himself as a friend to Moscow.

Kurz came out in support of improving Europe's relationship with Russia and supporting Russian policy positions on a variety of issues. Analysts say that the new, young leader wants to demonstrate his independence from the rest of the EU but that he's picked a poor time to throw his weight behind Russia.

"He wants to see himself as a conduit for Moscow, and [Russia] will use his visit to show divisions in Europe. If I were a European leader, I'd be concerned about this visit," Mark Simakovsky, an expert on NATO at the Washington-based think tank Atlantic Council, told Newsweek. "It comes as Russia supports the shelling of civilian areas in Syria and tries to interfere in the U.S. elections."

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz enter a hall before a press conference following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on February 28. GRIGORY DUKOR/AFP/Getty Images

Following talks with President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, Kurz emerged from the meeting and announced that Austria would support Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that, if constructed, would bring natural gas supplies directly from Russia to Germany. Russia wants to build the pipeline to maintain its monopoly on European energy markets while bypassing Ukraine, which is locked in a protracted armed conflict with Russian-backed rebels and charges Moscow a fee to transport natural gas through its territory.

EU members have been at loggerheads for years over whether to support the project. Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, struggling to maintain power at home, has decided to support Nord Stream 2 as a means to appease potential government coalition partners. Late last month, Germany granted the pipeline project a permit to begin construction in German waters.

But other leaders, like new Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, argue that the project poses a security risk to Europe by making it more dependent on Russia. The EU has asked member states for a mandate to negotiate with Russia on the conditions of the project. This has forced many European leaders to pick a side.

"[Kurz's visit] amplifies the split. You have Poland, Denmark and the U.S. on one side and Germany on the other," Brenda Shaffer, an energy analyst at Georgetown University, told Newsweek. "It's become a divisive issue in Europe, which gives Russia more leverage."

During their meeting, Putin and Kurz also discussed the conflict in Ukraine. Austria's leader agreed that the Minsk process—an attempt by Moscow, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to negotiate a peace settlement—is the only way forward for the beleaguered country.