The next step in the conflict between the West and Russian President Vladimir Putin was supposed to be a European boycott on Russian coal, oil and natural gas. It may instead be a gas embargo by Putin on Europe. It comes to much the same.
The countries of the European Union must accept what some of them — notably Germany and Austria — spent years denying. It’s that in the eyes of an amoral despot such as Putin, everything is a weapon of war. That includes nuclear and chemical arms, but also wheat, disinformation and, not least, energy.
For decades, Putin has done his best to make European countries as dependent as possible on Siberian hydrocarbons to create vulnerabilities in the West. Now he’s exploiting those weaknesses.
Since April, the Kremlin has been shutting off Russian flows of natural gas to a growing list of EU countries Putin deems hostile — first Poland and Bulgaria, then Finland, the Netherlands and Denmark. He’s now throttling the gas flowing through Nord Stream, a pipeline linking Russia to Germany. Downstream recipients, like Italy, are also affected. The International Energy Agency, based in Paris, warns that Putin could turn the gas tap completely off within months.
He probably will, just because he can. In the first 100 days of the war, Russia has made as much as ever from selling fossil fuels, sanctions be damned. One reason is that non-Western countries such as China and India are stepping in for the EU as buyers. Another is that soaring energy prices are making up for reduced volumes to Europe.
As is his wont, Putin shrouds his aggression in subterfuge. Sometimes he blames the buyers — for not paying in rubles, for example, even though that isn’t stipulated in the contracts — or “technical” problems. The interruptions at Nord Stream allegedly have to do with missing components.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi has called these Russian excuses what they are: “lies.” Putin’s objective is clear. It’s to make countries such as Germany deplete their storage tanks so they will be only partially filled when the cold season arrives in fall and winter. Putin loves the soaring energy prices these shortages are causing, which are hurting Western consumers, causing social tension and may yet test the EU’s resolve.
He’d be especially thrilled if his energy blockade forces parts of European industry to shut down. That may happen. Several German industrial companies, in sectors from chemicals to steel and glass, have already warned that they may have to curb production if energy gets dearer or scarcer.
Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark have already activated emergency plans. Germany this week escalated from the first of three stages (“early warning”) to the second (“alarm”). In the third stage (“emergency”), the government seizes complete control over allocating natural gas in the country. Germany and other parts of Europe are heading for rationing — in effect, a war economy.
Austria has already had to restart a mothballed power plant running on coal (which is much dirtier as a fuel than gas). Germany is also firing up its coal generators. That’s bitter for a country that had instead been planning to exit coal power altogether. It’s especially wrenching for the Greens, who are running the combined energy and commerce ministry and have to implement this policy U-turn.
Germany’s predicament is blowback for the cumulative policy mistakes of decades. Not only have successive governments — including all four mainstream parties at various times — naively made themselves dependent on Russian pipeline gas. They also rashly exited from nuclear power generation — the last three fission-based plants are slated to be turned off in December. In effect, previous German governments volunteered to become Putin’s energy hostage.
That makes the country’s debate now all the more racking. The center-right parties in opposition and government want to keep the three remaining nuclear plants running. The center-left Social Democrats and Greens — for whom opposition to nuclear energy has been a generational totem — are still resisting.
Such debates are proof that reality still hasn’t fully sunk in. The late psychiatrist Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross believed that people must cycle through five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Germans, in particular, appear stuck in the first four.
Acceptance means preparing now for the economic war against Putin to come. It means getting fossil fuels from other countries, fracking gas out of the ground underneath and importing more of it in liquid form by ship. It also means splitting atoms, putting up wind turbines, and all the rest.
But above all, acceptance means cutting back. All Europeans must stop being the grasshopper in Aesop’s fable, who spent the summer making music and frolicking, but then had nothing in winter. They must instead become the fable’s ants — forbearing, abstaining, conserving, saving. Western Europeans have been lucky so far not to be in a shooting war as Ukrainians are. But they’re already combatants in the economic war against Putin. It’s time for sacrifice.