Russian-Ukrainian war: Russian gas on hold, sparking fear of energy crisis in Europe

Russian President Vladimir Putin thought an invasion of Ukraine would fracture Europe. Photo/Getty

ANALYSIS:

Russia cut off the gas. He claims it’s because the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline needs repairs. But it is a sure sign that the nightmare of the energy crisis in Europe is becoming a reality.

German authorities fear that Russia is trying to destabilize Europe by not restarting gas flows after a scheduled 10-day maintenance period.

Nord Stream is a major artery for transporting Russian gas to Germany. As a general rule, it accounts for around 35% of the country’s supply. Last month, Moscow-based energy company Gazprom cut its flows by 60%.

On Monday, these flows ceased.

A gas turbine sent to Canada for repair is at the heart of a dispute. Moscow says his return has been delayed due to international sanctions. Ottawa says otherwise.

Ukraine, for its part, insists that the essential piece of Russian infrastructure must not be returned as it represents an important source of revenue for the authoritarian state.

Russian gas is a powerful political and economic weapon in the hands of President Vladimir Putin. And he wants to keep Europe in suspense.

“Anything is possible. Anything can happen,” German Energy Minister Robert Habeck told local media over the weekend.

“It could be that the gas is flowing again, maybe more than before. It could also be that nothing is coming.”

The Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline has been shut down for maintenance.  Photo/Getty Images
The Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline has been shut down for maintenance. Photo/Getty Images

Political corner

Europe is already showing signs of stress.

Skyrocketing energy costs triggered inflation, causing the cost of living to soar and struggling businesses to close. Some countries risk “very, very strong conflicts and conflicts because there is no energy”, European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans told local media.

“Putin is using every means at his disposal to create conflict in our societies, so we have to prepare for a very difficult time.”

Russian energy giant Gazprom says it remains uncertain whether a “crucial” part of the Nord Stream pipeline would be returned to service.

“Gazprom does not have a single document allowing Siemens to take the gas turbine engine currently under repair there out of Canada,” a company statement said.

“Under these circumstances, it is not possible to draw an objective conclusion on the development of the situation and to ensure the safe operation of the Portovaya station – a critical facility for the Nord Stream gas pipeline.”

And this despite assurances from Canada that the turbine would be delivered to Germany.

But Germany has expressed fears that its return will not solve the crisis.

“Based on the pattern we’ve seen, it wouldn’t be very surprising now if a little technical detail is found, and then they might say ‘now we can’t turn it on anymore,'” Habeck warns.

And Kyiv is not happy.

Ukraine has requested his detention. President Volodymyr Zelensky called his return “unacceptable” because it would undermine the resolve of other nations to continue to apply tough sanctions against Moscow.

Europe, however, is caught between a winter crisis and a political compromise.

“I agree with him on a lot of things, but not on this one,” Slovenian Prime Minister Robert Golob said.

“Weakening Europe in its heart in Germany, in its industrial base, does not help Ukraine.”

power struggle

The Kremlin’s reputation for weaponizing its energy exports is fueling fears that Europe is heading for a winter crisis.

Many countries use gas flows through the Northern Hemisphere summer months to fill local gas storage facilities. These protect against heavy residential use triggered by intense winter cold snaps.

But not enough gas flowed to form this buffer.

Gazprom blamed delays in the return of its turbine for causing it to drastically reduce flows last month. And the consequences of Moscow refusing to restart supplies after the 10-day shutdown would be disastrous.

“Germany has become too dependent on Russia,” admits Habeck.

“Winter will be critical, and we have to prepare as well as possible.”

But whether to do so depends entirely on whether Moscow reopens the taps.

“If we don’t receive any more Russian gas… the current stocks will only last one or two months,” adds the head of the German energy regulator, Klaus Muller.

European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said it would not be surprising if the Russian Kremlin exploited the gas shutdown to weaken Europe.  Photo/Getty
European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said it would not be surprising if the Russian Kremlin exploited the gas shutdown to weaken Europe. Photo/Getty

Unrest is brewing, with strikes and protests beginning to appear across the continent. Norway – Europe’s second-biggest supplier of natural gas – is experiencing strikes in its fossil fuel industries as workers protest skyrocketing costs.

“Europe faces a winter of discontent,” Helima Croft, managing director of RBC Capital Markets, told Foreign Policy.

“Rationing, industrial shutdowns – it’s all looming. The worst-case scenario is people having to choose between eating and heating in the winter.”

Unintended consequences

President Putin thought his invasion of Ukraine would bring European nations into conflict with each other. Instead, they quickly united behind unprecedented punishments and condemnations. Finland and Sweden quickly joined NATO – strengthening the alliance in exactly the opposite direction to Putin’s goals.

Its artificial energy crisis could produce a similar strategic blowback.

Europe is now fully aware of its dependence on Russian fossil fuels.

But some of Europe’s decommissioned coal-fired power plants are still in working order. Last month, Austria, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands announced that they would restart their old facilities.

The United States tried to take a step back by shipping more gas to Europe by sea. Germany hopes two new floating LNG facilities will add much-needed port capacity by the end of the year.

But the European Union finds the sovereignty offered by renewable energy attractive after long decades of blackmailing fossil fuels.

“If we really want to stop making Putin very rich in the long term, we have to invest in renewable energy, and we have to do it quickly,” says Timmermans.

“If you really want to ensure that you can provide stable and affordable energy to your citizens, renewable energy is the answer.”

Slovenian Prime Minister Golob agrees. This week he argued for the expansion of a renewable electricity network across Europe.

“In this way, we can connect the wind in the north with the sun in the south, and we can create a very strong and stable system, a unified European system,” he told reporters.

Mary I. Bruner