Moscow’s success at moving the South Stream project forward carries some important lessons for Western policymakers.  Too often, decision-makers in Washington, Ottawa and the capitals of Europe have been unable to set priorities and stick to a course of action when competing preferences have reared their heads.

The Kremlin, in contrast, decided that getting South Stream in place was more important than securing compliance with other Russian foreign policy goals.  Take Bulgaria.  Sofia never abandoned its goal of NATO and EU membership; it recognized Kosovo as an independent state; it continues to support further expansion of the Euro-Atlantic community eastward.  None of these actions please the Kremlin very much.  Yet these “failings” could be and have been overlooked in order to ensure South Stream’s success.

In all fairness, the Nabucco project was an uphill battle from the start.  But for it to have been successful, there had to be enough natural gas committed to make this pipeline cost-effective.  Azerbaijan alone could never have provided sufficient quantities; it would have also taken gas from other suppliers—and reaching some sort of arrangement with Turkey about how much gas would be sent onward to the heart of Europe.

What were the tradeoffs going to be?  Turkmenistan post-Turkmenbashi has not flowered into a liberal democracy, making cultivation of Ashgabat much more difficult.  Unresolved disputes between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan over the delineation of their Caspian-sea sectors left no incentive for Baku to compromise in facilitating a line that could get Turkmenistan’s gas to Western markets without having to go through Russia—and there was no meaningful pressure from either Europe or Washington that could force a settlement.

Ongoing sanctions against Iran made an extension line from Turkmenistan to Turkey a non-starter.  They also meant that no Western government could countenance even an informal arrangement where Iranian gas might compensate Turkey so that more gas flowing through Nabucco would reach other European markets.

Agreements still haven’t been reached on what benefits Turkey might derive from the Line-A set percentage of gas and transit fees or whether it would be able to obtain energy at reduced prices.  And to avoid plunging Iraq into greater political chaos than it already faces, there could be no early recognition of near-Kurdish sovereignty over its territory to commit early on the gas resources of the north into Nabucco, meaning it took until 2009 to even begin to lay the foundation that might permit Iraqi-Kurdish gas to reach Europe at some point in the future.

Gazprom’s newfound willingness to offer cash on the barrelhead for Turkmen and Kazakh gas led to Kazakhstan’s permission to construct a new pipeline that will feed gas from Central Asia into Russia’s export network.  The United States Senate offers verbal support, but Washington is no closer to brokering the tradeoffs that would be necessary for Nabucco to get off the ground.

Nabucco was first proposed more than seven years ago, in February 2002.  But no country kept its “eyes on the prize.”  For five years, little progress was made.  South Stream was announced in 2007—and Russia ever since has made this project a national priority, devoting financial and diplomatic resources to leapfrog ahead of Nabucco.

Europe’s growing thirst for energy means that at some point, even under a reduced scheme, the Nabucco line – or some variant of it – will get built.  But by the time that happens, the new Russian pipelines will already be operational, and other projects will be supplemental to Gazprom’s dominance of the European markets as opposed to genuine alternatives to it.

The wages of a lack of focus and a lack of vision?

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College.  The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the U.S. government.