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Pulling the trigger on Russia’s gas weapon: the Kremlin is now deciding on whether to cut the European Union off. 

Europe’s energy dependency has become a key topic of debate ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. With autumn fast approaching, the continent is now faced with the prospect of Moscow using its abundant resources as a weapon. Decision makers must now act to head off the worst of the potential consequences.

August 18, 2022 - Joshua Kroeker - Articles and Commentary

Gazelle section of Nord Stream 1. Photo: Kletr / Shutterstock

One of the most controversial side effects of the Russo-Ukrainian War has been the question of Russian energy exports to the European Union. Faced with the grave prospect of an energy war with Moscow, western nations and their leaders are divided on how to deal with the very real risk of no longer importing Russian gas this winter.

Since the outbreak of war in February, sanctions have been the most widely used strategy to chip away at Russia’s economy. It is hoped that these moves will eventually make the Kremlin re-evaluate its occupation of Ukrainian territories. The unprecedented sanctions are aimed at the country’s technology, banking, military, transportation and prominent individuals. To a lesser extent, they have also challenged the energy sector. In only the first weeks of the armed conflict, Germany and the European Union terminated the Nord Stream 2 project, a near complete gas pipeline between Russia and Germany that would have effectively doubled German gas imports. Nevertheless, the EU has been wary of challenging Russia’s energy sector for fears that it would result in shortages. Russian gas has continued to flow into the EU over the past months.

In June, the question of Russian energy once again appeared at the forefront of European politics, as an expected technical maintenance period commenced around this time. For the first time since their introduction in February, sanctions against Russia started to take their toll on European states. As a result of a number of incidents, including the maintenance period, the repair of two turbines required for Nord Stream 1, threats by members of the Russian government to stop exporting gas, and a sanctions showdown, Europeans have become painfully aware of their energy vulnerability. Russian gas exports via the pipeline have now been decreased to 20 per cent, making it difficult for European countries to meet their storage filling targets.

Ironically, in the midst of Europe’s hottest summer on record, Europeans find themselves in a heated debate on how to warm – and power – their homes this winter. European governments are in a state of panic. It is unclear, they claim, whether Russia will fulfil its obligations and supply gas over the winter. If not, heating and power in Europe will be severely complicated. Whilst it is currently impossible to answer whether Russia will deliver gas to Europe this winter or not (and if yes, how much), it is important to look at the question of whether Russia is weaponising its gas. If the answer is yes, will the Kremlin use this weapon? There are a number of factors that may increase the risk of Russia reducing or ultimately stopping the export of gas to the EU.

First, the Kremlin views western sanctions and weapons deliveries to Ukraine as a provocation. Energy is therefore fair game in a sanctions war.

 The Kremlin and Putin do not consider the future of gas and energy exports to be over. Russia is hoping and even banking on a continuation of energy purchases from the EU. In fact, as R.Politik founder and Carnegie scholar Tatiana Stanovaya recently argued, Putin believes Nord Stream 2 is far from dead and that its launch would be pragmatic and beneficial for the EU. Yet even Putin has his limits. For him, stopping gas exports may be the logical consequence of the West choosing to augment or enlarge the scope of weapons deliveries to Ukraine. New rounds of sanctions that target the energy sector, or the appropriation of frozen Russian capital in the European Union, could have a similar effect. Within the Kremlin’s current political ideology, ceasing gas exports to the EU would be an equitable response to a western provocation and not, as viewed in the West, an act of hostility. It is a misconception shared amongst European states that Moscow has already planned to “let Europe freeze”. Rather, the Kremlin will only do this in response to what they believe to be a justifiable provocation. Until then, threats of ceasing gas exports serve their purpose.

Second, spreading fear and generating political turmoil is effective, as it creates division in Europe and the West that benefits Russia in general.

Since the beginning of the planned maintenance period for Nord Stream 1 in June, fears of a winter without gas have dominated the headlines in the European Union. This is especially true in Germany, where right-wing parties and a number of liberal publications have promoted a narrative that this will bring about the end of the country’s production dominance and result in a national crisis, if not widespread protests and the inability of most of the population to heat their homes. These myths have been debunked for the most part, yet they nevertheless serve the Kremlin well.

In the first weeks and months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the vast majority of Europeans expressed solidarity with Ukraine and condemned Russia. As time goes on, however, this solidarity is beginning to show cracks. First, fears surrounding inflation, the increasing price of household goods, and a potential winter without heating, have begun to divide Europeans with regards to their response to Russia’s continued belligerency. Segments of European – and German – society are pushing against the sanctions, criticising their governments’ actions, and withdrawing some of their support for Ukraine in fear of the possible repercussions. This is playing directly into the hands of the Kremlin. If division can be created, it can be used. The simple threat of disrupting Europe’s gas supply serves this function. Reducing or actually stopping it would intensify this division and ultimately result in significant – and loud – factions in government and society calling for the appeasement of Russia, lest Europe’s gas supplies be insufficient. Though this outcome may seem radical, segments of the Russian political establishment would welcome it.

Third, a number of individuals within the Russian political establishment and Putin’s inner circle are pushing for a more extreme line vis-à-vis the West.

 Russia’s political elite are hardly one unified group. Rather, two camps have emerged throughout the conflict with the West. On the one hand, those who support the war and an escalation with the West – the hawks – are pushing for an extreme reaction to the sanctions, such as an immediate halt to gas exports. For them, the turmoil that would be caused by such actions would greatly outweigh the economic issues that they would cause for Russia. On the other hand, a group of pragmatists surrounding Putin understand that stopping exports would weaken Russia’s position and short-term economic outlook. These pragmatists hardly oppose Putin and the war in Ukraine, but they push back against certain counter-productive policies. Though President Putin ultimately makes policy decisions himself, he is forced to balance both groups within the government. Currently, they are being balanced and all positions are being considered. If the situation changes and the hawks gain the upper hand, Putin may find himself in a situation in which he is forced to appease them by taking more radical positions. Internal Kremlin politics, if the balance should shift, could drastically affect Russian foreign policy and therefore energy exports.

Fourth, if a price cap on Russian gas was to take effect, Russia would discontinue all gas exports to states that abide by such measures.

 Over the past two months, both American and European governments have considered the idea of applying a price cap to Russian oil and gas exports. The logic behind such a measure is that it would allow Russia to stay in the market whilst preventing it from capitalising too much on increased prices. The hope was that Moscow and Gazprom would not reduce their exports in an attempt to increase prices further. This will have the opposite effect. In the case of a price cap, Russia will simply stop exporting gas to any country that implements this measure. This has been confirmed by a number of Russian officials. A price cap, or something similar, is a straightforward move that will only result in the cessation of gas exports. Moreover, it will be interpreted by the Kremlin as a further escalation in the conflict between Russia and the West.

Fifth, and finally, the Kremlin views the conflict with the West as a zero-sum-game. As a result, and in the case of a worsening situation for Russia, the Kremlin will look to inflict maximum damage on what it believes to be belligerent states.

 In the case of an escalation with the West and/or Ukraine, in which the Kremlin views its national security interests to be under threat, Moscow will not hesitate to cease any and all energy exports to the European Union. At present, many in the Kremlin believe that western states hope to destroy Russia. They view the situation in terms of an all-or-nothing conflict, in which the West’s worldview contradicts Russia’s and vice versa. The more reality reflects their understanding and the more effective the West’s sanctions, the higher the chances are that Moscow will look to inflict damage on EU states. In this case, the termination of gas exports will likely only be the first in a series of retaliatory measures undertaken by the Kremlin.

The Kremlin has yet to decide if it will use the gas weapon that they so dutifully created. Until now, the fear and political chaos created by threats and rumours, combined with reduced gas flows, has served the Kremlin well. That may change in the future. One or more of the factors discussed above, real or perceived, could force the Kremlin’s proverbial hand and result in a further reduction or cessation of gas supplies. At the same time, Moscow could simply decide that it is advantageous to simply prolong its current strategy and keep European politicians on their toes. This will remain the key question in European energy security in the weeks and months to come. For now, only one thing is absolutely sure: the risk of the Kremlin turning off the tap is real. European governments would be wise to prepare for that scenario.

Joshua Kroeker is a historian and political scientist, holding degrees from the University of British Columbia in Canada, Heidelberg University in Germany and St Petersburg State University, Russia. He is currently undertaking his doctoral study at Heidelberg University. He specialises in modern Russian and Ukrainian history and politics. @jrkroeker on Twitter 

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