Putin's announcement that he is canceling South Stream as well as all the overtones the statement produced -- about the annoying Bulgarians, the loss for Europe and the gain for Turkey -- were well staged. But that's all. That drama ended on the stage.
The decision should be a relief for everybody simply because everybody is a clear winner.
First, Russia wins from moving out of an impossibly expensive project that has a seriously questionable return on its massive investment.
Second, the European Commission wins by showing that its Energy Union spirit works and that it can stand up to Russia when the Kremlin tries to bully the little European guys one by one.
Third, Bulgaria, the main target of Putin's South Stream tantrum, wins because it will not get involved in a project which was supposed to bring some questionable return in transit fees in a couple decades when the EU will be half way out of fossil fuels.
Fourth, the main geographical destination of the South Stream supply - South East Europe is also a clear winner. The region will not get involved in constructing a stranded asset with an estimated cost of €56bn not backed by a clear business case.
Fifth, Turkey wins. The macho act of Putin was in fact a full submission to Turkey as the only potential client for the Russian gas. However that gas will have to compete with other providers. And that leads us to the next winner.
Sixth, the energy market is a strong winner. By entering directly into Turkey, Russian gas will increase the competition fighting against supplies from Azerbaijan, Northern Iraq (Kurdistan) and, possibly, Iran, Eastern Mediterranean and Central Asia. The lower prices will benefit not only the Turkish but also the European consumer.
As for the other markets South Stream was to supply we should look into the wider context. The European gas use is declining. The only significant gas consumers along the South Stream planned route are Italy, Austria, Romania and Turkey
Italy's gas use is also declining, its energy efficiency and renewables have grown significantly and it is also focussing on the gas reserves of Northern Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. Two weeks before Putin's announcement, the Italian Industry Minister Federica Guidi said that South Stream was not a priority anymore. That was the quietly pronounced death sentence on South Stream.
Austria's main interest in South Stream was to up its game in the gas trade and to reach the desired status of a proper gas hub. This wish was suppressed by EU reservations about the projects and the problems its main energy company OMV is experiencing at the moment.
Romania has an ambitious objective to become net gas exporter in the next few years. That ambition makes South Stream not just useless but also unwanted by the Romanians.
The only remaining serious gas consumer in South East Europe is Turkey. There Russia will have a hard game to play since for many years a leading concern of Turkey has been its high gas dependency on Russia. For the moment however the Russian-Turkish gas love affair is a good face saving act for Putin.
As far as the main culprit, Bulgaria, is concerned, the country only uses around 3bn m3 a year, or 10 to 12% of its primary energy supply, an amount that is currently secured through other routes and soon probably other sources. Increasing this amount is highly unlikely because in Bulgaria gas is simply not cost competitive against other sources of energy.
The same is the case with the other Balkan countries where gas can not compete with biomass, coal and energy efficiency measures.
With the arrival of the EU Near Zero Energy Buildings standards for new buildings in 2018, a standard that will make gas a redundant option for heating, and which is very likely to affect also the energy renovation of the existing European building stock, gas use will shrink further. At the same time more gas supply sources will appear.
The only chance for increasing gas consumption in Europe would be a rapid withdrawal from coal from power generation. Putin however also got this game wrong. Allegedly, Russia invested huge effort in fighting European shale gas not recognizing that the real enemy of the Russian gas in Europe was cheap coal, not shale gas.