ANALYSIS | December and January with relatively mild temperatures emptied Putin’s weapon. And this is an opportunity that Europe cannot waste.
Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine, one question has been on the minds of European governments more than any other: what will happen if Moscow shuts off the gas?
The threat of cutting Russian gas supplies to European countries, many of which have relied on it for years to heat homes and activate factories, was a trump card Putin could play if the war he started last February was drawn into a long winter.
Citizens of countries not directly at war with Russia might have wondered, as the cold began to sting, why their comforts and livelihoods were being sacrificed in the name of Ukraine. National leaders, feeling the pressure from within, could campaign for sanctions to be eased or for peace to be brokered on terms favorable to Moscow. That was what we thought.
“There’s a traditional view in Russia that one of its greatest assets in war is General Winter,” says Keir Giles, senior adviser at the Chatham House think tank.
“In this case, Russia sought to exploit winter to increase the power of another tool in its box: the energy weapon. Russia was counting on a freezing winter to bring Europe to its senses and convince audiences across the continent that supporting Ukraine was not worth the money in their wallets,” adds Giles.
But that long shiver hasn’t passed yet. Western and central Europe is enjoying a milder winter than expected, which, together with a coordinated effort to reduce gas consumption, has caused Putin to lose one of his main assets.
As we move towards 2023, European governments have a window of opportunity to align and reduce dependence on Russian gas before another winter arrives. This could play a crucial role in keeping the Western Front united as the war drags on.
How long is this window and what short-term steps can be taken to make the most of it?
Adam Bell, a former British government energy official, said the warm winter “effectively bought Europe a year. A colder December and January would have ‘eaten up’ many gas reserves in Europe, which could have resulted in a physical shortage of molecules.”
Bell warns, however, that simply storing gas is not enough. “More work needs to be done in terms of efficiency. Homes and businesses need buildings that waste less energy through insulation. Companies need to move manufacturing processes away from natural gas.
Critics accuse European governments of focusing too much on controlling the immediate price of gas, rather than investing in longer-term measures such as efficiency and renewables.
“There is an understandable political instinct to lighten the price because it directly addresses the cost concerns of households and businesses. But making gas cheaper removes the incentive to reduce global consumption,” says Milan Elkerbout, a researcher at the Center for European political studies.
“Politicians tend to see energy efficiency as a long-term project. This is partly due to the shortage of materials and the shortage of skilled workers. But even small efficiency measures taken in the short term can contribute to a big global shift in consumption,” adds Elkerbout.
In the medium term, Europe now has the opportunity to implement some of the changes in its energy consumption habits that have proven politically difficult. Objection to renewable sources such as onshore wind farms and criticism of net-zero pricing policies are now in a new light, as the true costs and instability associated with imported gas are more evident.
“Governments could do more to encourage and accelerate the development of renewable energy sources,” says John Springford, deputy director of the Center for European Reform. “A big step would be to give the green light to wind on land. It would also be wise for governments to create storage capacities for liquefied natural gas (LNG), which could happen quite quickly and directly reduce the demand for Russian gas. »
Whether or not European countries seize this brief opportunity to enhance their energy security is another matter altogether.
“Europe’s vulnerability, which was suddenly exposed, was due to longstanding complacency on the part of Western powers,” says Giles.
“Western Europe had not wanted to listen to the frontline states who had warned of the Russian regime’s intentions and understood that more expensive energy was a price to pay in exchange for not being vulnerable to the Russian pressure. This complacency has left Russia with multiple open goals to achieve in the main capitals of Western Europe, namely Germany,” he adds.
Absurd as it may seem, as the bombs continue to fall on Ukraine, a return to old complacency and a failure to support Europe’s energy independence is not out of the question.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) said in December that global demand for coal – the dirtiest of all fossil fuels – had reached a record high in 2022, amid the energy crisis caused by the war in Russia. Just a year after countries agreed to phase out their use of coal at the UN climate conference in Glasgow, Europe has faced the relocation of some of its recently shut down coal-fired power stations.
The IEA said that while the increase in coal consumption has been relatively modest in most European countries, Germany has seen a reversal of “significant magnitude”.
European nations have always been reluctant to merge their politics and energy markets. Reasons for this range from self-interest (why should one country benefit from another’s storage?) to market control (e.g. why Spain’s cheapest LNG should reduce power generation French nuclear?)
And even if the political appetite for some kind of common market and energy policy were to emerge, it would be extremely difficult to manage it centrally, as individual nations would inevitably compete for resources and financial subsidies.
That’s what makes this current window so important. As the fighting rages on, it is essential that it also serves as a reminder that failure to act now could mean dozing in disaster next winter. And a self-inflicted energy crisis would return Putin the power he was denied by sheer luck – and unreasonably hot weather.