Opinion: Europe’s energy crunch is giving Putin the upper hand

It is not the primary sign that Russia is ready to carry Europe hostage to pure gasoline costs, that are escalating dramatically. However with Europe at present dealing with an vitality crunch, the context and timing are important — on each side of the Atlantic. It is fairly clear that each Washington and Brussels must thoughts what’s on the thoughts of Chizhov — and particularly Putin.

For Europe, the worth of not cozying as much as Russia might be debilitating gasoline shortages this winter, to not point out exploding gasoline costs. Since pure gasoline is the first heating gas for Europe, this can be a doubtlessly existential menace. And these days, costs have proven an inclination to swing extensively, typically on the whim of, or prompted by, off-hand remarks uttered by one man: Vladimir Putin.

On October 6, for instance, costs surged early within the day, reaching a degree 10 occasions their degree at the beginning of the yr, as the Financial Times reports. Inside hours, nevertheless, Putin noticed, “Let’s assume via probably growing provide available in the market, solely we have to do it fastidiously. Settle with Gazprom and speak it over.” (In different phrases, I can flip a change and your economies and society may be turned on their head.) Inside hours, costs noticed a pointy reversal, the paper notes.

This sort of hardly refined strain comes at a most delicate second for Europe.

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Germany continues to be making an attempt to cobble collectively a coalition governmen — and determine a successor to Angela Merkel as chancellor — following an election in which no clear leader emerged. With French President Emmanuel Macron on the cusp of launching his personal reelection marketing campaign, rising gasoline costs heading into winter might hurt his standing.

Europe might be at an inflection level in its energy-driven vulnerability to Russia, for 2 causes.

A brand new pipeline from Russia’s gasoline fields to Germany — dubbed Nord Stream 2 — is transferring forward. It figures to shore up Europe’s entry to gasoline, but in addition to grant Russia much more management over that entry, one thing the US has identified because it opposed the undertaking. (Not too long ago, the Biden administration waived sanctions associated to it, giving an efficient inexperienced gentle, regardless of its considerations.)

On the similar time, Europe is forging forward with a transition away from fossil fuels and towards clear, renewable vitality sources. However that transition hasn’t occurred but. As Europe seems for a bridge from dirtier sources like oil and coal, comparatively clear pure gasoline is seen as a very good match.

And for gasoline, Europe depends on imports — notably from Russia.

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France, as an example, imports nearly all its pure gasoline. France is among the many international leaders in nuclear know-how, however Macron has beforehand pledged to depend on it much less closely. (Amid excessive vitality costs and his looming reelection marketing campaign, he has reneged on {that a} bit, promising swift new investments in nuclear, however nonetheless, it stays the case that Macron has dedicated that by 2035, France will depend on nuclear for not more than 50% of its energy. That stands to spice up the significance of gasoline.) Germany, too, is popping away from nuclear and is doing so much more rapidly: Merkel’s authorities has pledged to shutter all of Germany’s nuclear crops by the tip of subsequent yr.

As Germany and France search to scale back their reliance on nuclear vitality, they’re going to doubtless flip to pure gasoline, no less than till extra wind and photo voltaic tasks may be introduced on-line.

Putin, one would possibly guess, might be viewing this as a uncommon alternative to train necessary politico-economic leverage. With Nord Stream 2 nonetheless within the works, Russia is already Europe’s principal gasoline provider, accounting for 41% of its imports. A flip to gasoline by Europe, and a brand new pipeline to Russia to get it, solely stands to spice up Putin’s energy.

Putin has already been quietly demonstrating simply what life might be like for a continent that has develop into deeply, maybe existentially, reliant on the Kremlin to provide its most important vitality wants. Russia is transferring solely restricted portions via the present pipeline system that transits Ukraine, and its state gasoline producer, Gazprom, is filling home shares earlier than replenishing storage websites in Europe.

With vitality costs rising and the worldwide financial system struggling to maneuver ahead after its post-2020 rebound, quick gasoline provides are already placing elements of Europe liable to energy-driven stagflation. These pressures might very effectively intensify, offering a doable foretaste of what might be on the near-term horizon, till Europe manages a reputable and sustainable transition to renewable vitality.

Putin would clearly see a accomplished EU transition away from gasoline, and towards renewables, as a looming menace to his affect. It is but one more reason for Putin to look to Nord Stream 2 to reap as a lot revenue (monetary and geopolitical) as doable earlier than the EU can pull off its inexperienced conversion.

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The US might not just like the pipeline — former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to as it a software of Russian “coercion” — however Washington in all probability cannot do a lot about it. Having already irritated so many forces in Western Europe over a number of points, together with the US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan and the secretively crafted US-UK-Australia safety partnership, the Biden administration should tread very fastidiously certainly.

The US might have non-geopolitical causes for opposing Nord Stream 2 — and it might need cause to see American-supplied pure gasoline as a doable reply for Europe. The USA stays the most important single provider to Europe of liquefied pure gasoline, which may be shipped through tankers.

Nonetheless, LNG is costlier, depends on long-distance provide, and should be transformed from liquid to gasoline on arrival. And there is already heavy competitors from different areas, particularly China, for LNG. Nord Stream 2 would end in a assured provide of pure gasoline to Europe, presuming EU member states approve it within the subsequent a number of months. So for Europe, it stays an interesting choice.

From the Russian perspective, there’s one other magnificence to Nord Stream 2, past serving as a doubtlessly cheaper competitor to American LNG: It might permit Russia to reduce dramatically its natural-gas shipments via the present pipeline that passes via Ukraine and from which Kiev now receives transit charges. That might give Putin even freer rein in his rivalry with the determinedly pro-Western authorities of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who just this summer labeled Nord Stream 2 “a harmful geopolitical weapon.”

Russia’s warnings to Europe is also seen as a warning to the US to again off its decided opposition to Nord Stream 2 — and its opposition to Russia’s broader efforts to type extra binding ties to western Europe. Nord Stream is successfully a fait accompli. Nonetheless, the perceived American hostility to it might drive yet one more wedge between Europe and America, at time when the Trump and now Biden administrations have achieved sufficient to degrade transatlantic ties.

In that sense, the US ought to again off and let the pipeline proceed with out a lot grievance. Till Europe breaks its reliance on fossil fuels and results a inexperienced transition in full, Putin will maintain an higher hand.

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