Europe’s warm winter robs Putin of a trump card


Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine, one question has preoccupied European governments more than almost any other: what will happen if Moscow turns off the gas?

The threat of Russia cutting off gas supplies to European countries, many of whom have relied for years to heat their homes and power their factories, was a trump card Putin could play if the war he started last February would be a long winter.

A compressor station of the JAGAL pipeline, the German extension of the Yamal-Europa pipeline connecting Russia and Germany via Poland, photographed on April 28, 2022 after Moscow cut off supplies.

Citizens of countries not directly at war with Russia, as the cold began to bite, would wonder why their comforts and livelihoods were being sacrificed on behalf of Ukraine. National leaders, feeling domestic pressure, could argue for sanctions relief or for peace brokering on terms favorable to Moscow, it was thought.

“There is a traditional view in Russia that one of its best assets in warfare is general winter,” explained Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House think tank.

“In this case, Russia was trying to exploit the winter to increase the power of another tool in its box: the energy weapon. Russia was counting on a winter break to bring Europe to its senses and convince the public across the continent that supporting Ukraine was not worth the pain in their pockets,” added Giles.

But that long chill has yet to pass. Western and Central Europe have had a milder than expected winter, which, along with a coordinated move to reduce gas consumption, has taken one of Putin’s biggest bargaining chips off his hands.

Manuela Schwesig and Markus Soeder, state prime ministers of the German states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Bavaria, at an important gas hub in Lubmin, where the Nord Stream pipelines come ashore, on August 30, 2022.

Moving forward into 2023, European governments now have a chance to get their ducks in a row and reduce dependence on Russian gas before another winter arrives. This could play a vital role in maintaining the West’s united front as the war continues.

So, how long is this window and what short-term measures can be taken to make the most of it?

Adam Bell, a former UK government energy officer, says the warm winter has effectively bought Europe a year. A colder December and January would have eaten up much of Europe’s gas reserves, which could have led to a physical shortage of molecules.”

However, he warns that merely building up gas supplies is not enough. “More work needs to be done on efficiency. Homes and businesses need buildings that waste less energy through insulation. Companies must phase out their production processes from natural gas.”

Critics accuse European governments of focusing too much on direct gas price control, rather than investing in long-term measures such as efficiency and renewables.

“There is an understandable political instinct to lower the price, as it directly addresses cost concerns from households and businesses. But making gas cheaper removes the incentive to reduce overall consumption,” says Milan Elkerbout, a research fellow at the Center for European Policy Studies.

“Politicians often see energy efficiency as a long-term project. This is partly due to shortages of materials such as insulation and a shortage of skilled workers. But even small efficiency measures taken in the short term can contribute to a large overall change in consumption,” adds Elkerbout.

In the medium term, Europe now has the opportunity to make some of the politically difficult changes in its energy consumption habits. Objection to renewable sources such as onshore wind farms and criticism of the zero price policy have been cast in a new light as the true costs and instability associated with imported gas become more obvious.

“Governments could do more to encourage and accelerate the development of renewables,” says John Springford, deputy director of the Center for European Reform. “A big step would be to give the green light to onshore wind. It would also be wise for governments to build storage capacity for liquefied natural gas (LNG), which can happen quite quickly and immediately reduce the need for Russian gas.”

Whether European countries will seize this brief opportunity to strengthen their energy security is another matter.

“Europe’s vulnerability suddenly exposed was the result of long-standing complacency on the part of Western powers,” says Giles.

“Western Europe was unwilling to listen to the frontline states who warned of the Russian regime’s intent and understood that more expensive energy was a price worth paying in exchange for not being vulnerable to Russian pressure. This complacency left Russia with multiple open targets to kick at in major Western European capitals, especially Germany,” he adds.

As absurd as it sounds as bombs continue to fall on Ukraine, a return to the old complacency and inability to strengthen Europe’s energy independence cannot be ruled out.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) said in December that global demand for coal – the most polluting of all fossil fuels – reached an all-time high in 2022 amid the energy crisis caused by Russia’s war. Just a year after countries agreed at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow to phase out their use of coal, Europe had to restart some of its recently shut down coal-fired power stations.

The IEA said that while the increase in coal consumption was relatively modest in most European countries, Germany saw a reversal of a “significant scale”.

European countries have historically been reluctant to merge their energy policies and markets. The reasons for this range from naked self-interest (why would one country benefit from stockpiling in another?) to market control (why, for example, would cheaper LNG from Spain undercut France’s nuclear power?)

And even if the political hunger for some kind of common energy policy and market were to arise, it would be extremely difficult to administer centrally, as individual countries would inevitably compete for resources and financial subsidies.

That’s what makes this current window so important. As the active combat continues, it’s vital that it serves as a reminder that if you don’t act now, you could sleepwalk into disaster next winter. And a self-inflicted energy crisis would return to Putin power that sheer luck and unusually warm weather had denied him.

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