When Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, he gambled that it would be won quickly and that the west would acquiesce in a fait accompli. He underestimated Ukrainian resilience and European readiness to punish Kremlin aggression with sanctions. That forced Mr Putin into a longer game. Now he is betting that European reliance on Russian gas exports will corrode western solidarity, leading to a degrading of sanctions and restored tolerance of Moscow’s territorial aggressions.
To have that scenario, Russia has cut the flow of gas through the main east-west pipeline. The Kremlin’s message of strategic extortion is not subtle: go softer on the war and have a cosier winter; stay tough and freeze. European solidarity is just about holding. Earlier this week EU members agreed to a deal to cut gas usage by 15% as part of a phased move away from reliance on Russian supplies. But the deal is diluted by opt-outs and exceptions for various countries. Hungary, the EU state that is cosiest with the Kremlin, has not signed up at all.
The view in Brussels is that energy security is an issue that proves the importance of transnational collaboration and should add momentum to political, economic and strategic integration. That is true in theory. In practice, it brings new tensions between member states and aggravates old ones. Spain, for example, has invested in infrastructure to help it diversify its energy supply in ways that Germany has not. Viewed from Madrid, the demand for solidarity looks like a tax on foresight to pay for Berlin’s longstanding complacency about the strategic threat from Russia. French power supplies are mostly nuclear, but President Macron is an avowed European integrationist who fears a wider threat to the eurozone if the German economy is damaged by soaring gas bills.
It is not only German consumers who are facing a shock. The country’s politicians are struggling to adapt to the new reality in which an attitude to Russia that they proudly thought of as reasonable and diplomatic now looks like a colossal geostrategic blunder. That vulnerability is compounded by Germany’s decision, in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima accident in Japan, to phase out all nuclear power use. The wisdom of that move is also being queried.
The long-term solution to this challenge is clear enough. It requires an accelerated transition to renewable energy sources, which has the additional benefit of being something Europe and the rest of the world urgently needs to do anyway in order to avert a climate catastrophe. But pressures of the short term push in the opposite direction – towards reviving dirty coal-burning power plants and deals with other nasty authoritarian states that have hydrocarbon resources to export. Most dangerous is the way rising fuel bills bolster the school of populist denial that says the transition to green energy is an unaffordable luxury at a time of rising inflation and slower growth.
That argument already has a purchase in many European countries. It is not yet a prominent feature of the current Tory leadership contest but it is there, cultivated by backbenchers and imposing a reluctance on the candidates to commit wholeheartedly to any meaningful green agenda. That is a symptom of dismal strategic myopia. Mr Putin’s cynical weaponization of gas supplies makes the case for a new energy paradigm every bit as eloquently as the most passionate advocate of idealistic environmentalism – and in terms that speak to a more conservative audience. There are few win-win propositions in global affairs. But one that could be embraced as a cross-party consensus is the green energy route that simultaneously breaks the Kremlin’s pernicious influence and slashes carbon emissions.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism