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It’s an inevitable fact of war: Someone will tell you it’s really about a pipeline. In 2001, some declared the Afghanistan war was “all about a pipeline” that somehow never materialized. Same for the 1990 and 2003 Iraq wars, the Syrian civil war, and even the Kosovo conflict of 1999.

Now we have a war that really does have a pipeline at its centre. The second Russian invasion of Ukraine may not be “about” the Russian gas pipelines that run through and around Ukraine. But those pipelines are central to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s belief that he can get away with this seizure of territory. And they’re central to Europe’s response to Mr. Putin’s aggression.

At root is a belief that Mr. Putin effectively holds Europe hostage through his pipelines. After all, they provide close to 40 per cent of the continent’s natural gas, which remains the main heating source in many countries. Without Russian gas, the theory goes, Europeans will risk freezing to death, and thus their governments will always seek a peace settlement with Mr. Putin favourable to his terms.

But that isn’t really true. It may have been true a dozen years ago, when many of the countries of the European Union probably had no sources other than Russia to provide their fuel needs. That has changed.

New pipelines supplying the continent’s southeast through Turkey and the Black Sea from the Middle East and the Caucasus, as well as supplies from North Africa to the southwest, are capable of Russian-scale gas supply, and are operating at a fraction of their capacity. Norway, Algeria and Azerbaijan together supply as much gas to the EU as Russia, and Europe’s own production could be boosted quickly. And that leaves aside the liquid natural gas terminals on Europe’s western coast, which could theoretically supply most of the continent’s needs using gas from North America, Africa and the Gulf countries. Indeed, Europe wisely spent the last decade retooling many of its pipelines so they can be switched to flow from west to east, should the Russian supply be threatened.

So a recent analysis by the Brussels economic think tank Bruegel concluded that other sources and pipelines can replace Moscow’s output with only some difficulty, though at a higher consumer price, and with some demand restrictions in the short term.

Likewise, the Economist found that the continent could get through the remainder of this winter without new Russian gas – though this might entail drawing reserves from the caverns used to store it, at increased risk of earthquakes – and could fairly easily get all its fuel needs from places other than Russia in coming years.

The problem for Europe, then, is no longer that Russia is an irreplaceable source of fuel. It’s that Russia is, for many countries, the cheapest and most convenient source of it. Add to that the fact that many major European companies, and their thousands of jobs, rely on Russian gas and pipeline contracts (especially in Germany). The risk is not Europeans dying of cold – it’s of Europeans being angered at higher fuel prices and job losses, and voting against the party in power.

That’s why German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, following his predecessor Angela Merkel, refused until this week to cancel the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would have carried Russian gas along the Baltic Sea to Europe, bypassing Ukraine and Poland. Germany did not need gas from that pipeline, or any of the other Russian lines – but it would have benefited from the lower fuel prices and jobs.

Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president who heads Mr. Putin’s security council, responded to Mr. Scholz’s pipeline cancellation with an angry tweet, in German: “Oh well. Welcome to the brave new world where Europeans will soon be paying €2,000 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas!” At about $2,800, that’s three or four times the prices of recent years, though not far above current highs.

This reality was acknowledged on Wednesday by Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s Foreign Minister and the leader of its Green Party, who has long opposed Nord Stream 2: “For us as the German government, it was important to show that for a free and democratic Ukraine, we are willing also to accept consequences for our national economy. Peace and freedom in Europe don’t have a price tag.”

Mr. Putin does not control Europe’s destiny with his grip on the gas valve. Rather, he is forcing Europe to make difficult choices it should have confronted a decade ago: to stop financing Mr. Putin’s regime with gas purchases, to stop fearing a Russia drawn closer to China for its financial survival, to make a long-needed transition to green electric heating and energy sources whose supply doesn’t endanger entire populations. As painful as it will be, it’s time to quit the Russian gas habit.

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