While Russia has positioned more than 130,000 troops along the Ukrainian border and 41 million Ukrainians are preparing for a possible Russian offensive, Western diplomacy is working around the clock to protect its energy interests while trying to prevent a full-scale military conflict in Eastern Europe. In fact, while the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has stressed that it will respond coherently to Russian aggression against any of its member states, Europe is also concerned about the role that Russia will play on the continent’s energy demands. In 2019, Russian natural gas accounted for more than 40% of the European Union’s total natural gas imports, while 26% of its crude oil imports also came from Russia, as indicated by the Eurostat, showing how delicate this crisis is on several fronts. Of course, not all countries have the same energy dependency rates. While some European countries buy very little Russian gas, most of the Eastern bloc is fundamentally tied to it. In the fall of 2021, Russia reduced its gas exports to Europe and as a result gas prices soared across the continent, showing the power of Russian President Vladimir Putin over the European Union ( EU) and its economy. More importantly, Germany, Europe’s largest economy and a key partner of the United States, is also one of the largest importers of Russian gas, which explains its particularly vague and uncertain attitude towards threats of Russia on Ukrainian sovereignty and alignment with NATO. But while Russia has the power to affect Europe’s energy flow, a halt to its natural gas exports is unlikely to occur due to the economic interdependence between Europe and Russia. The former Soviet country “needs oil and gas revenues at least as much as Europe needs its energy supply. Two-thirds of Russia’s export revenue comes from oil and gas,” according to White House Deputy National Security Adviser for International Economics Daleep Singh. final comment to NPR.
Analysts seem convinced that Putin would not play such a coercive game in Europe. If Russia were to cut off the flow of natural gas to the EU, this condition would likely not last long due to the financial value that oil and gas exports play in the Russian domestic economy. Michael Bradshaw, professor at the University of Warwick, for The conversation, stated that if the international community were to impose sanctions against Russia, these measures probably won’t target Russian natural gasfavoring its regular and uninterrupted flow.
But due to the uncertainty surrounding Putin’s latest foreign policy, this option cannot be left out. In fact, despite the optimism, contingency plans are being drawn up. As S&P Global points out, Russian gas export flows to Slovakia and Germany are down 55% compared to January 2019, sparking fears among European policymakers about what can be done to keep households warm through the winter. “To ensure Europe is able to weather the winter and spring, we expect to be ready to secure alternative supplies covering a large majority of the potential shortfall,” a senior White House official told the Guardian Last week. These “alternative supplies” should be understood as shipping liquid gas from a multitude of suppliers to diversify Europe’s energy portfolio while avoiding any potential supply chain disruptions. By doing so, US officials hope to show Russia how united America and its European allies are against Putin’s coercion while reducing European dependence on such an unpredictable global player.
All in all, if Russia were to invade Ukraine, the costs to the former Soviet country would be high. In a bilateral meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz last week, the United States President Joe Biden said that “if Russia invades (…) again, then there will be no more Nord Stream 2. We will put an end to it”. Nord Stream 2 is a 760-mile-long undersea natural gas pipeline that, if allowed to operate, would transport 110 billion cubic meters of Russian gas per year to Europe. Despite Biden’s stance, “Scholz instead opted for strategic ambiguity over the future of the pipeline in the event of war,” as pointed out The conversation. This strategic ambiguity could pave the way for an uncoordinated response from NATO and its partner states, strengthening Russia’s position and giving the impression that the United States and its allies are unprepared.
With Western nations locked in a diplomatic stalemate, Russian President Putin is already talking to China about increasing its natural gas exports. The move is one of many recent signs suggesting that Russia is prepared for possible international sanctions and aims to stabilize the Russian economy in the event of Western retaliation. Although the crisis on the Ukrainian border could change at any moment, the issue of European energy security has been under scrutiny for decades and now could be the right time to address it permanently.