WASHINGTON – As the world focuses on Russia’s slow annexation of Ukraine, through which much of Europe’s natural gas flows, Moscow has undertaken an apparent strategy to expand its control of European access to energy.

At the moment, Russia controls some 30 percent of Europe’s natural gas supply.

But in an effort to place a “stranglehold on Western Europe,” as Assis Malaquias of the Washington-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies put it, Moscow has quietly been helping in the exploration and production of natural gas in Algeria, as well as Nigeria, Egypt and Mozambique.

Algeria, which has been a close partner for years with Russia, is the third largest supplier of natural gas to the 28-nation European Union. Norway is second.

Some 91 percent of Algeria’s military purchases, or $49.14 billion, came from Russia from 2003 to 2012. The relationship has helped give Moscow an edge over French and U.S. companies that seek to help Algeria develop its lucrative shale oil reserves.

In February, Algeria made Russia’s Gazprom an offer to join in a large gas exploration project.

Moscow’s efforts to control Europe’s access to natural gas are not new. Its moves in that direction over the past decade have raised the prospect that by 2015, Russia could control another 10 percent of Europe’s supply.

Because southern European countries such as Italy and Spain rely on energy from North Africa, they, along with virtually all of the EU countries, would have Russia controlling a sizable percentage of their access to essential natural gas sources.

“Western Europe should be very concerned,” Malaquias told U.S. News. “Very.”

Given Europe’s reliance on Russian gas, it “especially needs North African gas,” Malaquias said. “What the Russians are doing is a very clever strategic ploy, because the bigger they are in terms of their presence in the energy sector internationally, the more leverage they have on everybody.”

With almost half of Europe’s gas supply under its control, Moscow, in effect, has limited European options to impose sanctions.

The same can be said for limiting U.S. options, since the U.S. needs access across Russia to supply U.S. troops in Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network. And it requires the Kremlin’s help in attempting to bring an end to the civil war in Syria and to work with Iran on its controversial nuclear program, which the West believes is a cover for developing nuclear weapons.

As an oil- and gas-exporting nation, Russia doesn’t need these energy resources from North Africa. However, Moscow is using its energy card to further its influence in the region, working its way to control Europe’s alternative supplies, while using the African continent to acquire such strategic minerals as platinum, chrome, manganese and diamonds.

And now, Moscow is pushing hard to bring its natural gas to the Balkans and Central Europe through the South Stream pipeline, which would bypass Ukraine.

The development has raised concern in the EU.

Moscow has undertaken a divide-and-conquer approach to get some EU members to sign on, much to the consternation of Brussels. Some of the countries belong to the EU while others outside the EU have signed on to the project. They include Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Greece, Slovenia, Croatia and Austria.

The EU has always been against construction of the South Stream pipeline. The EU claims the pipeline violates European legislation that splits energy production and transmission.

The European Commission has told EU member states who have signed on to the project to renegotiate their agreements with Russia. Such countries as Bulgaria have balked at the suggestion, saying they need the energy. Bulgaria plans to begin construction of its portion of the pipeline in June.

The result is deepened divisions within the EU, since countries are putting a priority on their own interests and leaving EU interests in second place.

All of this has raised the question of what is Russia’s overall strategic motivation in seeking to control Europe’s sources of energy.

One definite result is division among EU nations, many of whom are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

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