If the West can use sanctions and embargoes as weapons of war against Vladimir Putin’s Russia, so can Russia – in retaliation. And that is precisely what is happening.
In recent weeks, Russia, the main supplier of Europe’s imported natural gas, has been making it more difficult – even impossible – for European clients to buy its gas. First it demanded payment in rubles, not dollars or euros; Moscow ended deliveries to Bulgaria, Finland and Poland, allegedly for their refusal to pay in rubles.
Now Russia is reducing gas supplies to the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which goes from Russia to Germany, by about 60 per cent. The pipeline is the main source of imported gas to Germany, Europe’s industrial powerhouse. Germany would go into deep recession without that gas. The freeze-in-the-dark scenario is no longer out of the question.
On Thursday, the waning Nord Stream 1 deliveries pushed Germany to move to the second stage of its three-stage emergency energy plan, defined as a “substantial deterioration in the gas supply situation.” The third stage is actual rationing, which would be most likely to happen in the winter, when home and factory boilers run virtually non-stop to provide heat.
“Gas is from now in short supply in Germany,” the government’s economy minister, Robert Habeck, said at a news conference. “Even if you don’t feel it yet, we are in a gas crisis.”
Mr. Putin is no doubt beaming as Germany and other European gas pigs, notably Italy, go from low-grade to high-grade panic about energy prices and, now, energy availability. Market prices for gas are about eight times higher than the seasonal average, angering consumers. Any government politician fears that voters will express their rage in the next election.
The Kremlin is probably gambling that the gas crisis will test the European Union’s solidarity if, for instance, some countries get more gas than others.
The crisis could also test their anti-Russia solidarity. Already, a few government leaders are pushing for a ceasefire in Ukraine, presumably one that would lead to a settlement that would see Ukraine hand over great chunks of territory to Russia – a scenario that some other countries, and Ukraine itself, would reject. An energy crisis could well intensify the calls for a ceasefire.
It’s facile for any European government to blame Mr. Putin entirely for the energy crisis. Germany is, to a large degree, the author of is own misfortunes – and is still making mistakes.
The sorry saga began more than two decades ago, when Gerhard Schroeder, then the German chancellor, decided that Russia would be a reliable gas supplier forever. Russia had a surplus of gas and was making nice to Europe in the post-Cold War era. It needed the export earnings to modernize its economy and indulge the kleptomania of its new breed of oligarchs.
Mr. Schroeder, who once referred to Mr. Putin a “flawless democrat,” had a particular affection for Mr. Putin and a general affection for Russia. He added a strong commercial element to his pro-Kremlin policy by setting up Germany as the top client of Gazprom, the Russian energy giant that is the world’s biggest gas exporter. He was one of the main champions of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline.
His successor, Angela Merkel, doubled down on Mr. Schroeder’s gas policy. She endorsed the twinning of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline. That pipeline, known as Nord Stream 2, was finished last year but killed off by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz just before Russia invaded Ukraine. At the same time, Germany failed to commission a single liquefied natural gas (LNG), terminal. Had it done so, it could have bought seaborne LNG from Qatar or America.
The upshot of the two chancellors wooing Mr. Putin was that Germany became an utter slave to Russian gas, to the point that, under pressure from the Greens, it agreed a decade ago to close all of the country’s nuclear generating plants. The last three nukes in the once vast (and carbon-free) fleet are to shut by the end of the year. In the meantime, Germany and other countries in Europe are rushing to reopen mothballed coal burners.
The closing of Germany’s nukes verges on insanity during an energy crisis.
Nuclear energy officials claim the technological challenges of keeping them open are simply too great. Not everyone agrees. A new report in Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper said that Bavaria’s Isar 2 nuke could run until 2028 without security or fuel-supply problems. Germany may find itself reversing its anti-nuke stand if Mr. Putin cranks shut the Nord Stream 1 pipeline.
At the same time, Germany and other European countries are paying scant attention to conservation. Now is the time to decrease gas demand by double-digit amounts so that reserves can be built for the winter. Germany is struggling to fill its gas-storage sites, which are less than 60-per-cent full.
Italy, the second-biggest European buyer of imported Russian gas, has done a better job on conservation. Under Prime Minister Mario Draghi, Italy in April introduced caps on heating and cooling. Public buildings are not allowed to raise the thermostat above 19 degrees C in the winter and not below 25 degrees C in the summer.
Italy apparently leaned the trick from Japan. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, voluntary reductions cut peak gas demand by about 11 per cent, according to government reports.
No politician wants to be the bad guy and insist on conservation. Their lack of courage only sets them up for potential disaster in the winter, when Mr. Putin might be tempted to make Germany go dark and cold. Buying less Russian gas now also means less bounty going to the Kremlin to finance its unprovoked war against Ukraine.
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