"Energy Weaponization" - a New Precedent for Global Geopolitics?
Written by: Charlotte Boschet
Edited by: Jumana Khafagi
On August 2nd, the G7 released a statement condemning Russia’s breach of international law with its invasion of Ukraine and further reprehended “Russian attempts to weaponize its energy exports and use energy as a tool of geopolitical coercion”. In the words of the foreign ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and the US, “Russia is therefore not a reliable energy supplier” (Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office and The Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP, 2022). Since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the European energy scene has been turned upside down. As Russia instrumentalizes its position as Europe’s primary energy provider, the EU is stuck scrambling to replace Russian coal, oil, and natural gas. However, with the winter months creeping in, and the number of energy alternatives are not developed enough, strong national measures to cut down energy demand must be implemented by the EU member states in order to maintain their stance against Russia (The Sound of economics, 2022). This issue particularly concerns natural gas as it is primarily moved through pipeline networks, contrary to more fungible resources like coal and petroleum (Webber, 2022). Yet, why would Russia choose to disregard its long-term reputation as a reliable energy provider for Europe? Not only has Russia burned bridges with other European powers, but it has also opened itself to long-term loss of revenues from coal, petroleum, and its most valuable resource, natural gas. Even though governments in Europe are trying to lessen the impact of Russia's weaponization of energy through sanctions, their position forces them to look more long-term by diversifying their energy sources. The latter drives many to wonder whether efficient management of the energy crisis will encourage the development of more decarbonized economies in Europe.
Natural gas has proven to be a keystone of Russia’s geopolitical leverage over the past months. In late April, Russia’s leading energy firm, Gazprom, announced it was cutting off natural gas exports to Poland and Bulgaria due to the countries’ refusal to pay in Rubles. Natural Gas pipelines form a complex network passing through several countries. As a result, Russia's shutoff to upstream countries such as Poland and Bulgaria increases gas pressure along the network, causing prices to rise downstream. Therefore, shortages will ripple off to other countries downstream like Germany and France (Webber, 2022). Since then, though Russia supplied 40% of the EU’s gas in 2021, it has reduced the flow through Nord Stream 1 to 20% of capacity in recent months, blaming Western sanctions targeting the Russian economy (Ridgwell, 2022). In the worst-hit nations, consumers have been hit with year-over-year price increases of 210%, adding to concerns over potential rationing measures and blackouts this winter (Faiola et al., 2022).
What makes natural gas such a keystone in Russia’s geopolitical leverage? Pipelines are the primary means of supplying natural gas. Only 13% of the world’s gas supply is delivered by tankers carrying Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) compared to 60% of the world’s daily oil consumption being delivered by ship (Webber, 2022). Thus, it is much harder for buyers to find alternative natural gas supplies on the global market and to implement unified measures against Russian gas than for oil and coal (The sound of Economics, 2022; Webber, 2022). As of now, the EU member states aim to cut gas imports from Russia by two-thirds within a year and have agreed to cut gas usage by 15% over the next seven months, falling short of a total imports ban (Horton & Palumbo, 2022).
These recent events have shed light on Europe’s dependence on Russian energy, complicating European countries foreign policy. Many have pointed out how European consumers have emboldened Putin’s regime through gas consumption and made European governments hesitant to challenge his threatening behavior (Webber, 2022). The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the subsequent failure of the European governments to hold Russia accountable, has led many to question whether Putin saw his invasion of Ukraine as another opportunity to capitalize on weakened European unity. However, the outright military invasion of Ukraine has shown to have had the opposite effect, uniting European powers against one common enemy.
At a cabinet meeting on August 24, French President, Emmanuel Macron claimed the French people's freedom has a cost, a cost that may involve sacrifices to reach the end of certain battles (Faiola et al, 2022). The Ukrainian conflict has led to a battle of narratives, instrumentalizing economic tools to suffocate the other. Where the EU is standing beside Ukraine, defending the right to sovereignty, freedom, and the respect of international law, Putin has taken advantage of Russia holding 18% of the world’s natural gas to achieve the reconquest of the lost glory of Russia (Hill & Stent, 2022). As part of Putin's weaponization strategy, adversaries’ vulnerabilities are created or exploited through (dis)information and psychological operations in pursuit of hostile subversion campaigns (Magula, Rouland, & Zwack, 2022).
Putin is determined to shape the future to mimic his version of the past. Invading Ukraine was his way of destroying Ukraine's national identity, kickstarting its assimilation into a Greater Russia. In his essay from July 2021, titled “On the Historical Unity of Russian and Ukrainians”, Vladimir Putin claims that Belarusians, Russians, and Ukrainians were all descendants of the Rus, ancient people who settled the region between the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea. According to him, "Russia was robbed" of core territory with the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1922. He believes that Russians and Ukrainians are bound by a common territory, language, and religion – One and only people unified by a common history. Therefore, this essay makes it clear that Putin seeks a world where Russia presides over a new Slavic Union, with Russia as its suzerain (Hill & Stent, 2022).
Ultimately, Russia’s actions can only be understood by considering Putin’s imperial agenda where creating a new Russian empire has become the top priority. Strategically exploiting Russia’s position as the primary energy producer has become the tool of choice to re-assert Russian dominance in the security, political and economic spheres in the world. As such, sabotaging secure revenues and European diplomatic relations, in the long run, is viewed as necessary collateral damage to Putin’s egotistic conquest to regain Russia former glory.
As of today, the EU has implemented many sanctions in the energy field aiming at stopping Russia’s aggression of Ukraine and push towards the end of the war: the export of specific goods and technology needed for oil refining and general energy industry equipment, technology, and services is banned. Furthermore, the EU has stopped importing Russian coal and Germany froze plans for the opening of the Nordstream 2. Additionally, the EU announced in June 2022 that the Council adopted a package of sanctions that prohibits the purchase, import, or transfer of crude oil and within eight months for other refined petroleum products. The restrictions will apply within 6 months for the former and 8 for the latter. On the other hand, the EU has not yet imposed sanctions against Russian gas, since it relies on it for about 40% of its energy needs (BBC, 2022; European Council , 2022)
If we stop to compare the short-term damages that have been brought upon Europe vs. the constraints the EU has currently placed on Russia, the Russians have had the upper hand in this Energy game. Whilst Europe struggles to find a short-term replacement for Russian oil and gas, Moscow has turned its attention Eastward. In 2022, Russian oil exports to Asian Markets have increased sharply. Following the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has had fewer buyers for its Ural oil due to Western sanctions, causing its price to fall ($20 to $30 cheaper than the global benchmark). Therefore, its attractive price has opened doors to the Chinese and Indian markets. Although the West has little power over where Asian powers get their oil, European financial sanctions on Russian banks have hindered these international transactions (Menon, 2022).
As for natural gas, China has been increasing LNG imports and has signed new deals with Russian companies to import LNG via the Arctic. Moreover, a new pipeline, known as Power of Siberia, to be completed by 2030 will strengthen Sino-Russian energy transactions significantly (Menon, 2022).
Europe’s difficult position pushes governments to actively diversify their energy mix to reduce their dependency on Russian supplies. In this regard, exploring new nuclear power sources and renewable energy technologies are alternatives for power generation and subsequent dependency reduction (Almas Heshmati, 2017). Decarbonized economies could benefit from the successful management of Europe's energy crisis, encouraging European powers to honor their GHG reduction targets by 2030 whilst fighting for democracy and respect for international law.
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