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Europe’s warm winter robs Putin of a trump card


Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine, one question has plagued European governments more than almost any other: What happens if Moscow turns off the gas?

The threat to cut Russian gas supplies to European countries, many of which have depended 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 dragged into a long winter.

Europe’s warm winter robs Putin of a trump card

Citizens of countries not directly at war with Russia may wonder, as the cold begins to bite, why their comfort and livelihood were sacrificed on behalf of Ukraine. National leaders, feeling internal pressure, could agitate for sanctions to be eased or for peace to be brokered on terms favorable to Moscow, it was thought.

“There is a traditional view in Russia that one of its best assets in warfare is general winter,” explains Keir Giles, senior consultant at the Chatham House think tank.

“In this case, Russia sought to exploit the winter to increase the power of another tool in its toolbox: the energy weapon. Russia was counting on a winter freeze to bring Europe to its senses and convince audiences across the continent that support for Ukraine was not worth the pain of their wallet, Giles adds.

But the long cold has not yet passed. Western and central Europe have had a milder-than-expected winter, which, along with a coordinated effort to reduce gas consumption, has taken one of Putin’s biggest bargaining chips out of his hands.

Manuela Schwesig and Markus Soeder, prime ministers of the German states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Bavaria, at a central gas hub in Lubmin, where the Nord Stream pipelines land, on August 30, 2022.

As we move forward into 2023, European governments now have a window of opportunity to get their ducks in a row and reduce dependence on Russian gas before another winter arrives. Doing so could play a crucial role in maintaining the West’s united 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 British energy official, says the warm winter has actually “bought Europe a year. A colder December and January would have eaten through many of Europe’s gas reserves, which could have led to physical shortages of molecules.”

However, he warns that storing gas is not enough. “More work needs to be done in efficiency. Homes and businesses need buildings that waste less energy through insulation. Companies must switch 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 ease the price because it directly addresses the cost problems of households and businesses. But making gas cheaper removes the incentive to reduce overall consumption,” says Milan Elkerbout, research fellow at the Center for European Policy Studies.

“Politicians tend to think of energy efficiency as a long-term project. This is partly due to a lack of materials such as insulation and a lack of skilled workers. But even small efficiency measures in the short term can contribute to a big overall change in consumption,” adds Elkerbout.

In the medium term, Europe now has an opportunity to implement some of the changes in its energy consumption habits that have proved politically difficult. Objections to renewable sources such as onshore wind farms and criticism of the price of net-zero policies have been put in a new light, now that the real costs and instability that come with imported gas are more apparent.

“Governments can do more to stimulate 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 onshore wind. Governments would also be wise to build storage capacity for liquefied natural gas (LNG), which can happen quite quickly and directly reduces the need for Russian gas.”

Whether European countries will take advantage of this short chance to strengthen their energy security is another matter entirely.

“Europe’s vulnerability that was suddenly revealed existed because of a long-standing complacency on the part of Western powers,” says Giles.

“Western Europe had been unwilling to listen to the frontline states warning of the Russian regime’s intention and understood that more expensive energy was a price worth paying in exchange for not being vulnerable to Russian pressure. This complacency left Russia with several open targets to kick on in major Western European capitals, particularly Germany, he adds.

As absurd as it sounds while bombs continue to fall on Ukraine, a return to the old complacency and a failure to strengthen Europe’s energy independence is not out of the question.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) said in December that global demand for coal – the most polluting of all fossil fuels – reached a record high in 2022 amid the energy crisis caused by Russia’s war. Just a year after countries agreed to phase out the use of coal at the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, Europe found itself turning on some of its recently closed coal-fired power plants again.

The IEA said that while the increase in coal consumption was relatively modest in most European countries, Germany saw a reversal of a “significant scale.”

European nations have historically been reluctant to merge their energy policies and markets. The reasons for this range from bare self-interest (why should one country benefit from another’s reserves?) to controlling markets (for example, why would cheaper LNG from Spain undermine French nuclear power?)

And even if the political appetite emerged for some sort of common energy policy and market, it would be extremely difficult to govern centrally as individual nations would inevitably compete for resources and economic subsidies.

That’s what makes this current window so important. While the active battles continue, it is important that they serve as a reminder that failure to act now could mean sleepwalking into disaster next winter. And a self-inflicted energy crisis would return the power to Putin that was denied him by sheer luck and some unseasonably warm weather.

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