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Europe must reduce its dependence on Russian gas | View

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By Mark Temnycky
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the authors.

Europe has finally recognised its dependence on Russian natural gas as prices continue to rise. This will worsen with the certification of Nord Stream 2, but there is still time to alter this fate.

Since the initial laying of the pipeline in July 2018, Nord Stream 2 has been surrounded by controversy. The project would connect Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea, and provide Central Europe with 55 billion cubic meters of gas a year.

Supporters have argued the pipeline will create new economic opportunities for Germany, and ease Central Europe’s sensitivity to Russo-Ukrainian and Russo-Belarusian relations.

Ukraine and Belarus have pipelines that deliver gas to Central Europe, and previous disputes between Russia and these countries have seen the Russian Federation turn off its pipelines.

This left millions of Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Central Europeans without gas during the winter months in 2004, 2006, and 2009.

Finally, supporters claim that this deal could mend Europe’s relationship with Russia. But the warning signs surrounding the project were obvious.

Warnings to Germany went unheeded

Prior to the construction of Nord Stream 2, the European Union was importing 41 per cent of its natural gas from Russia. A completed pipeline would increase gas exports to Europe, thus solidifying Russia’s energy monopoly over the European continent.

This would give the Russians additional leverage over European nations, as Russia could control the price and flow of gas more regularly.

Finally, the pipeline would give Russia a direct route into the European continent. If relations were to sour, Russia could turn off these pipelines, leaving millions of Europeans without gas.

Various American and European elected officials have cautioned Germany on its dealings with Russia. Politicians, in addition to civil servants, policy experts, and journalists, stressed that Nord Stream 2 would have severe consequences for Europe.

They emphasised that Europe would become overly reliant on Russian gas, and that this could jeopardise Europe’s economic, energy, and national security.

Bob Menendez, chairman of the US Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, and eight European counterparts even issued a statement urging Germany to cancel the project.

But their warnings were ignored. The Biden administration chose to waive additional sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG, the German government pursued the project, and the physical construction of the pipeline was completed in September 2021.

Russia's deflection of blame for the gas crisis

Russia then reduced its gas exports to Europe. This reduction naturally prompted a spike in demand and caused a dramatic shift in gas prices.

Several British energy suppliers collapsed amid the ensuing gas price crisis, and several countries within the EU have scrambled to minimise the impact of these rising prices.

Gazprom also announced that it had reduced its gas supply from Belarus to the EU by 70 per cent. Gas exports from Poland and Ukraine to Central Europe have declined as well.

But while Europe blamed Gazprom for the gas crisis, the Kremlin told a different story. Vladimir Putin has in fact blamed Europe, stating that its policy of terminating “long-term contracts” was the issue.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for Putin, elaborated on this point by arguing that Russia had “fulfilled … all of its obligations under existing contracts.”

Finally, Russian Deputy Chairman Alexander Novak stated that if Nord Stream 2 were to be certified by Germany’s regulator, then this “could cool soaring European gas prices.”

These arguments should be dismissed. The recent crisis is nothing more than an attempt by Russia to weaponise its gas supplies to Europe.

How the EU can strengthen its hand

The decision to slowly reduce the gas flow through Ukrainian and Belarusian pipelines has confirmed that Europe is overly dependent on Russian gas, and is now suffering the consequences.

But not all is lost. Were Europe to reduce its dependency on Russian gas, this would ease the current energy crisis. There are two strategies that Europe could pursue to achieve this.

First, the continent could diversify its energy consumption. According to EU statistics, 41 per cent of the bloc's natural gas hails from Russia while 16 per cent comes from Norway. Another 8 per cent comes from Algeria, and 5 per cent is delivered from Qatar.

If the EU were to expand its energy market by purchasing natural gas from additional countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United States, this would diversify Europe’s energy market, hindering Russia’s ability to establish an energy monopoly.

Second, Europe could invest more in renewable and clean energy. According to a recent report, electricity is proving cheaper in countries that have more renewable energy sources.

The same article notes that renewable energy generated 40 per cent of electricity across the EU from January to June 2020 while fossil fuels generated 34 per cent. In other words, renewable energy was more efficient and effective in generating power than fossil fuels.

The EU has also previously stated that it is committed to cutting carbon emissions by 55 per cent by 2030. If Europe is serious about this goal, then it should continue to pursue green energy.

Not only would this limit Europe’s dependence on gas, but it would also be better for the environment.

Colder winters call for decisive action

Recent events have demonstrated that the European continent relies heavily on Russian gas. A spike in gas prices and a high demand has put Russia in a position of power as it is dictating the state of play in the energy market.

If Europe reduced its dependence on Russian gas by diversifying its energy consumption, and further pursued green energy, this would loosen Russia’s grasp on Europe.

But if Europe continues down this path, it will undoubtedly be at Russia’s mercy.

This will especially be the case as we approach the winter when citizens need more gas, heat and electricity.

A heavy reliance on natural gas, especially during a forecasted colder winter, would weaken both Europe’s energy sector and national security, leaving Russia undeterred.

The EU did not heed the earlier warnings on Russian gas. This has led to the current energy crisis. It would be foolish to ignore these warnings again.

Mark Temnycky is a freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe who has written for The New York Times, Forbes, EUobserver, EURACTIV and the Atlantic Council. He has also guest lectured on Eastern European affairs at the National Defense University, the Univerisity of Pittsburgh, the University of Michigan and Boston University.