Europe has walked headfirst into the Russian energy trap. It’s time to break free.
The new Bond movie No Time To Die is graced by yet another superb soundtrack, this time by film score veteran Hans Zimmer. Zimmer not only lends his trademark swings between intensity and tenderness to the Bond universe but also weaves in references to previous series hits, like the Louis Armstrong-sung “We Have All the Time in the World.”
That this motif is central to a film released in October 2021 is somehow fitting. Europe finds itself mired in the most troubling energy crisis in recent years. And despite ample warning, Transatlantic leaders have for months demonstrated a reticence to take direct action and, in some cases, even to clearly define the Kremlin’s role in exacerbating the market challenges. As the crisis developed and deepened across summer and autumn 2021, observers might have concluded that policy-makers felt they had all the time in the world to respond.
In fact, as a cold winter looms, time’s up. The transatlantic community, led this time by Germany, in compliance with its own July 2021 joint statement with the United States, must now advance sanctions aimed at stopping the Nord Stream 2 pipeline before it is too late. This failsafe was designed to provide a policy backstop in extremis after the Biden Administration decided in May to waive congressionally mandated bipartisan sanctions aimed at ensuring Nord Stream 2 could not become operational. The July joint statement says:
“Should Russia attempt to use energy as a weapon or commit further aggressive acts against Ukraine, Germany will take action at the national level and press for effective measures at the European level, including sanctions, to limit Russian export capabilities to Europe in the energy sector, including gas, and/or in other economically relevant sectors. This commitment is designed to ensure that Russia will not misuse any pipeline, including Nord Stream 2, to achieve aggressive political ends by using energy as a weapon.”
Which leads us to ask: is the Kremlin currently attempting to use energy as a weapon or misusing Nord Stream 2 to achieve aggressive political ends?
The answer is a resounding yes.
Given that Russia’s intent from the birth of Nord Stream 2 in 2015 was to advance a myriad of malign policy objectives aimed at undermining the national security interests of Ukraine and the wider European region, it is very hard to be surprised by recent events. After all, the European energy security community has for years warned that Russia would use Nord Stream 2 to coerce transatlantic leaders.
Yet the Kremlin-controlled Gazprom could have solved this by increasing supply through Ukraine or Poland, where ample spare capacity exists. Instead, it has for months capped its usual discretionary exports to aid European gas storage ahead of the winter. And as the crisis has unfolded this autumn, for consecutive months Gazprom has declined to book any significant additional volumes on existing routes, even though Russia would have hugely profited from exports into a rising market.
This has led Nord Stream 2 adherents like German Chancellor Angela Merkel (who still leads a caretaker government in Berlin as post-election coalition talks proceed) to the strange position of defending Putin’s transparently political gas export policy. She was quoted as saying earlier this month that “To my knowledge, there are no orders where Russia has said we won’t deliver it to you, especially not with regard to the pipeline in Ukraine.”
Sure, Gazprom might be delivering contracted volumes, but that’s not the whole story. And anyway, this argument is no longer tenable. Putin, along with a retinue of Kremlin officials and Duma members, said out loud what has been evident to the expert community for months: that the Kremlin was intentionally taking action to intensify European gas market woes to extort European Union (EU) officials into rapidly certifying Nord Stream 2, which is currently the subject of regulatory proceedings.
The statement is a blatant admission of Kremlin energy weaponization aimed at traditional Putin targets. At a time when real questions remain as to whether Gazprom’s monopolistic operating plan for Nord Stream 2 could possibly comply with the EU Third Energy Package gas directive (it can’t without deploying legal fictions), Putin is placing overt pressure on the European regulatory process by name-checking Germany’s energy regulator.
Across Europe, there is other evidence of Russia playing energy games. Moldova declared a national emergency following a sharp cutoff in supplies from Gazprom following the expiration of their previous long-term contract. The country has a pro-EU government and recently elected Maia Sandu as its new EU-oriented head of state. With Russia silent (its actions did the talking), Ukraine and Slovakia stepped in to help.
How much worse does the situation need to become?
For her part, German Green Party leader Annalena Baerbock – a candidate for the post of Foreign Minister in the next government — has already called the situation “blackmail.” But with coalition talks ongoing, and a new government likely still months off, it is up to Merkel and team, in their last days in office, to follow their own agreement with the United States, and finally lead the EU in stopping Nord Stream 2.
The transatlantic community needs leadership to move past this energy crisis, and fast. There’s just no time to freeze.