Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine, one question has worried European governments almost more than any other: What if Moscow turns off the gas?
The threat of cutting off Russian gas supplies to European countries, many of which have relied on it for years to heat their homes and power their factories, was a trump card Putin could play if the war he started last February drags into a long winter.
When the cold starts, citizens of countries that are not at war with Russia may wonder why their comfort and livelihood are being sacrificed for the sake of Ukraine. Sensing domestic pressure, it was thought that national leaders could campaign for sanctions relief or peace on terms favorable to Moscow.
“There is a traditional view in Russia that one of its best assets in war is general winter,” explains Keir Giles, senior fellow at the Chatham House think tank.
“That being the case, Russia tried to use the winter to boost another tool in its toolbox: an energy weapon. Russia was hoping for a winter freeze to win over Europe and convince the continental public that supporting Ukraine was not worth the pain in their wallets,” adds Giles.
But that long cold has not passed yet. Western and Central Europe experienced a milder-than-expected winter, which, along with a coordinated move to cut gas consumption, robbed Putin of one of his biggest bargaining chips.
Heading into 2023, European governments now have a window of opportunity to get their ducks in place and reduce their dependence on Russian gas before the next winter arrives. Doing so could be crucial in maintaining a united Western front as the war drags on.
So, how long is this window and what short-term measures can be taken to make the most of it?
Adam Bell, a former UK government energy official, says the warm winter effectively “bought Europe the year. A colder December and January would eat up much of Europe’s gas reserves, which could lead to a physical shortage of molecules.”
However, he cautions that simply stockpiling gas is not enough. “More work should be done with efficiency. Homes and businesses need buildings that use less energy through insulation. “Companies should move production processes away from natural gas.”
Critics accuse European governments of focusing too much on controlling the immediate price of gas rather than investing in long-term measures such as efficiency and renewable energy.
“There is an understandable political instinct to cut the price because it directly addresses the cost concerns of households and businesses. But making gas cheaper removes the incentive to reduce overall consumption,” says Milan Elkerbout, a researcher at the Center for European Policy Studies.
“Politicians think of energy efficiency as a long-term project. In part, this is due to a shortage of materials such as insulation and a shortage of skilled workers. But even small efficiency measures taken in the short term can contribute to a big overall change in consumption,” adds Elkerbout.
In the medium term, Europe now has the opportunity to make some politically difficult changes to its energy consumption habits. Opposition to renewables such as onshore wind farms and criticism of the cost of net zero policies have been cast in a new light as the real costs and volatility of imported gas become more apparent.
John Springford, deputy director of the Center for European Reform, says: “Governments can do more to stimulate and accelerate the development of renewables. “A big step would be to give the green light to onshore wind. “Governments would also be wise to build storage capacity for liquefied natural gas (LNG), which could happen fairly quickly and directly reduce the need for Russian gas.”
Whether European countries will use this short chance to strengthen their energy security is another matter.
“Europe’s sudden apparent weakness existed because of the long-standing complacency of the Western powers,” says Giles.
“Western Europe has been unwilling to listen to frontline states warning of the Russian regime’s intentions and realizing that more expensive energy is a price worth paying in exchange for not being pressured by Russia. This complacency has left many open targets for Russia to hit in the major capitals of Western Europe, especially Germany,” he adds.
While bombs continue to fall on Ukraine, no matter how absurd it sounds, there is no question of a return to the old complacency and the failure to strengthen Europe’s energy independence.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) said in December that global demand for coal, the most polluting of all fossil fuels, is set to hit a record high in 2022 amid an energy crisis caused by the Russian war. Just a year after countries agreed to cut coal use at the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, Europe has seen itself restarting some of its recently closed coal power plants.
The IEA said that while growth in coal consumption in most European countries was relatively modest, Germany saw a “significant” pullback.
European states have historically been reluctant to unify their energy policies and markets. The reasons for this range from bare self-interest (why should one country benefit from another’s stockpiling?) to control markets (e.g. why should cheaper LNG from Spain undercut France’s nuclear power?).
Even if the political appetite emerges for some kind of common energy policy and market, it will be extremely difficult to manage centrally, as individual nations will inevitably compete for resources and financial subsidies.
That’s what makes this current window important. While active fighting continues, it’s an important reminder that failure to act now could mean disaster next winter. And a self-inflicted energy crisis will give Putin back his fortunes and the power he wasn’t given by some erratic hot weather.