Speaking to EurActiv on condition of anonymity, international energy experts deplored the West's "blindness" at what they described as a Kremlin attempt to interfere with EU plans to set up a foreign energy policy.
Austria, Germany and Italy were singled out as countries whose leaders "thought they were doing big business" with Russia, but had in fact been manipulated by the Kremlin.
The warnings came as the EU and Russia are preparing for a bilateral summit on 21-22 May, at which energy security issues are set to dominate the agenda.
MOL bid 'politically motivated'
According to the experts, the Kremlin's political motivations were laid bare when Russian oil company Surgutneftgas recently seized control of 21.2% of Hungarian petrochemical giant MOL.
Surgutneftgas, a secretive oil company known to be close to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has spent 1.4 billion euros on the deal, more than twice its market value, the experts pointed out, underscoring the move's strategic dimension.
The deal took place on 29-30 March, in the middle of a political crisis which saw the resignation of former Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány (EurActiv 23/03/09). But Gordon Bajnai, who replaced Gyurcsány, later condemned the deal. "The problem in the MOL business is [that] we don't know who is behind the case," said Hungarian Foreign minister Péter Balázs. "Russian methods are based on Byzantine traditions and not on Protestant ethics. It is really difficult to negotiate with this culture," he told EurActiv Hungary in a recent interview (EurActiv 24/04/09).
Other Hungarian officials suggested that Russia was in fact operating through OMV, an Austrian oil and gas group whose bid to acquire MOL was rejected in 2007.
In June 2007, OMV launched an unsolicited bid on MOL, which was rejected by the Hungarian company. The European Commission also objected to the hostile takeover, citing competition concerns.
The failed takeover attempt later prompted OMV to sell its remaining 21% stake in MOL to Russia's Surgutneftgas. The deal, signed in March this year, was described by MOL as "unfriendly".
But the Austrian company denies accusations that it was being manipulated by Moscow. OMV spokesperson Thomas Huemer recalled a statement made in 2007 by Zsolt Hernadi, MOL's CEO, who said he would prefer to be taken over by a Russian firm than to cede control to OMV. "Now this wish came true," Huemer said.
Surgutneft is now the largest shareholder in MOL, but has not yet obtained the formal approval of the Hungarian authorities to be registered as a shareholder. A shareholders' meeting held immediately after the takeover took measures "to preserve their independence".
But the experts said Surgutneftgas is now likely to apply pressure to oust MOL's Hungarian management and replace it with a Russian-friendly team.
The strategy, they said, is clearly aimed at obstructing the construction of the Nabucco gas pipeline project.
Speaking to the Moscow press, Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko denied that Surgutneftgas was aiming to block Nabucco. "[Surgutneftgas's stake in MOL] is not even a blocking package. The interest of Surgutneftgas is, by buying the Hungarian shares, to increase its processing capacities, which are quite insufficient in Russia," he was quoted as saying.