Europe must make this winter the last winter for Russian weapon energy exports
Ukrainians are currently preparing for what will likely be the toughest winter in the country’s modern history. As Russia loses on the battlefield, the Kremlin has resorted to all-out war tactics and is trying to destroy Ukraine’s civilian energy infrastructure. Tens of millions of people face the prospect of prolonged outages as well as life-threatening disruptions to essential water and heating services.
This is according to an editorial by Arseny Yatsenyuk, the former Ukrainian Prime Minister, written for Atlantic Council.
This is the latest and most extreme escalation in Vladimir Putin’s long energy war against the West. For years, the Russian dictator has used energy as a weapon in his efforts to subjugate Ukraine and divide Europe. He now hopes to freeze Ukrainians into submission while using supply cuts to pressure European leaders into dropping support for Ukraine.
The coming months will determine the outcome of Putin’s energy assault. If he succeeds in his goals, Ukraine will face the horrors of a prolonged Russian occupation while the Kremlin gains unprecedented political and economic influence over Europe that could last for decades. Alternatively, if Russia suffers a decisive defeat, the threat from Moscow will quickly recede and Europe will be greatly strengthened. Winning the energy war will pave the way for Europe’s future security and prosperity.
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Europe’s reliance on Russian energy resources predates Putin and dates back to the height of the Cold War. In 1972, Soviet deliveries accounted for about 4% of European gas consumption. In 2021, Russia supplied nearly 40% of European gas. As Moscow’s market share has gradually increased, Russia’s ability to manipulate prices and trigger crises has also increased. Most Europeans now recognize that this dependence on Russia represents a major strategic mistake. Fortunately, it is not irreversible.
Ukraine’s experience over the past eight years can offer valuable insights. From 2014 to 2016, the Ukrainian authorities achieved considerable success in reducing the dependence of their country’s energy sector on Moscow. By implementing transparent market tariffs and targeted subsidies, Kyiv was able to support the most vulnerable segments of the population. The Ukrainian government has also encouraged energy efficiency by introducing reduced tariffs on limited volumes and offering financial support for efficiency measures. In two years, Ukraine has been able to reduce its consumption by 20%.
Ukraine also ended corrupt, multi-billion dollar practices in the energy sector that had long served to enrich Ukrainian oligarchs with ties to the Kremlin. Before the 2014 Dignity Revolution, Ukraine was one of the biggest importers of Russian gas. By November 2015, direct imports of Russian gas to Ukraine had completely ceased. These measures allowed Ukraine to reduce Russian influence and partially disarm Putin’s energy weapon. Europe must now seek to implement such drastic measures.
First, Europe must put plans in place for possible energy rationing and mutual assistance to deal with impending energy supply shortages. European leaders must agree on a united response to the near-term energy challenges facing the continent; all EU members should be ready to help each other through reciprocal cross-flows if necessary.
Policy measures are also needed to address structural weaknesses. Europe’s green energy transition has a major flaw: it relies too heavily on Russian gas imports. In order to adapt to the current realities of the energy sector, industrial decarbonization requirements should be relaxed for the time being with the reopening of oil, gas and coal production. This is already the case in Germany, the Netherlands and France. Others should follow.
Tax incentives should be put in place, particularly for the development of deep wells. A similar approach allowed Ukraine to significantly increase its domestic gas production in 2015-2019. The EU will also have to resume operation, at least temporarily, of coal-fired power plants. Austria and Germany are ready to do so.
Before the start of Russia’s large-scale invasion in February 2022, nuclear power plants produced around 55-60% of Ukraine’s electricity. Since 1991, these nuclear power plants have been operating without incident. The EU must recognize that nuclear energy is safe, inexpensive and environmentally friendly. Another key task is the development of renewable energy resources. Here, Germany is in the lead with the share of renewable energies in national consumption expected to reach 80% by 2030 and with 2% of land resources reserved for solar and wind farms.
In addition to securing alternative sources of gas, Europe must also strengthen energy diversification by increasing the continent’s capacity to accommodate liquefied gas deliveries. This process is already well underway and is now gaining additional momentum due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Kremlin’s increasingly overt militarization of gas exports to the EU.
The construction of LNG terminals in Poland has already allowed the country to move away from Russian gas. Two LNG terminals will enter service this winter in Germany. Meanwhile, Spain has six LNG terminals that provide maximum capacity well in excess of the country’s domestic needs, with negotiations underway for the construction of a possible gas pipeline to Germany.
Europe’s top energy priority remains preventing an energy collapse in Ukraine and thus avoiding a series of negative consequences such as a massive influx of refugees. Ukraine urgently needs EU help to repair the country’s energy infrastructure following Russian airstrikes. This is just as important as the provision of enhanced air defense capabilities and should take place in parallel. It is also crucial that steps are taken to ensure adequate border crossing capacity to accommodate coal deliveries that cannot pass through Ukraine’s partially blocked seaports.
It will be a difficult winter for all Europeans, whether they face blackouts and bombs or heating problems and sky-high energy bills. Putin hopes to militarize the winter and force Europe to surrender, but giving in to the Kremlin would be disastrous for Ukraine and the EU. Instead, Europe must accept the challenge of overhauling its entire energy system. This is the only way to break the continent’s debilitating dependence on Russian energy and ensure that Putin’s energy war ends in decisive defeat.
Arseny Yatsenyuk is the former Prime Minister of Ukraine (2014-16). He is currently chairman of the Kyiv Security Forum