The international tussle over a turbine that saw Canada stuck in the middle should serve as a warning to Ukraine’s allies about complacency – because Russian President Vladimir Putin will keep testing them for weaknesses.
There was an outpouring of support for Ukraine when Mr. Putin sent troops into Ukraine in February, and the waving of yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flags was accompanied by stiff sanctions by both Canada and the U.S. and shipments of aid and arms. But that might be easy to forget months later in the Canadian summer.
That’s not so in war-ravaged Ukraine, obviously, and not so in Europe, where allies fear that Mr. Putin will cut off the flow of energy.
That threat was for a short time embodied in the turbine, a key part in the Nord Stream pipeline that pumps Russian gas to Germany, which was sent for maintenance in Montreal, but frozen there by Canadian sanctions against Russia.
Last month, the Russians cited the delay as the reason for reducing the flow of gas to Germany and, as the flow was cut this week for maintenance, there was a fear Russia might not turn in back on.
The Germans pleaded for Canada to make an exception to the sanctions and send the turbine back, to avoid a critical energy shortage. And Canada let it go. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky personally criticized the move, saying Mr. Putin would see the West folding in the face of threats – and be emboldened to use them again.
Canada, caught in the middle, was never going to tell the Germans to freeze in the dark.
It is a key ally, and keeping European allies united in countering Russia is critical to supporting Ukraine too. Germany is an economic power that plays a key role in European sanctions on Russia. It has shifted its foreign policy dramatically since the invasion and taken a groundbreaking decision to re-militarize.
Germans are already scrambling to reduce their reliance on Russian energy – and cutting off Russian gas could push Europe into recession.
But there was something else going on. German, Canadian, and U.S. officials don’t buy the Russian claim that the sanctioned turbine forced them to reduce the flow of gas to Germany.
They saw reduction as a form of threat, a way to make Germans feel vulnerable as their country sought to build up energy stockpiles for winter, and weaken German and European resolve in backing Ukraine.
Sending the turbine back would remove the Russian pretext for cutting the flow of natural gas. If the Russians still turn it off – as some fear – it would be an obvious political move. And that would cause a sharper break with Europe, and the revenues from gas sales.
All that doesn’t take away from the fact that Mr. Zelensky is, in the larger sense, right: If Western allies fold to Russian threats, they’ll be subjected to them again.
That means Western allies, especially Europeans, must spend years shielding themselves against Russian exposure, at a cost. That’s something for North Americans to remember when they see the costs of aid to Ukraine at a time of higher oil and food prices.
The calls for Canada to replace Russia as Europe’s energy supplier aren’t the easy answer, either. A major East Coast LNG plant could take a decade to build, although the Germans are showing interest in the idea of refitting a Saint John import station to export LNG, possibly in just a few years. Moshe Lander, a Concordia University economics lecturer, argues that, given the costs of transporting, liquefying and shipping gas to the East Coast, Europeans could probably find cheaper sources in North Africa.
That won’t make it easy to solve Germany’s immediate problem, either, because they need LNG infrastructure. But it has already slashed imports of Russian oil and coal and claims it will cut them to near zero in roughly two years.
But there is a global danger of complacency. Europe’s economy is already slipping. Russia still earns war-funding oil revenue from many countries because there hasn’t been enough pressure to cut oil imports. In North America, the price of gas is more visible than war in Ukraine. And countering Russia’s war will take years of resolve.
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Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly identified the location of an import station as St. John's, N.L. It is located in Saint John, N.B