Europe’s warm winter is robbing Putin of a trump card

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Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine, one question has troubled European governments more than almost any other: What happens if Moscow turns off the gas?

The threat of cutting Russian gas supplies for European countries, many of whom have relied on it for years to heat their homes and power their factories, was a trump card that Putin could play if the war he started last February dragged into a long winter.

Citizens from countries who were not directly at war with Russia might wonder, as the cold started to bite, why their comfort and livelihoods were being sacrificed on behalf of Ukraine. National leaders, feeling domestic pressure, might agitate for sanctions to be softened or for peace to be brokered on terms favorable to Moscow, it was thought.

“There’s a traditional view in Russia that one of its best assets in warfare is general winter,” explains Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow at think tank Chatham House.

“In this case, Russia sought to exploit winter to augment the power of another tool in its box: the energy weapon. Russia was counting on a winter freeze to bring Europe to its senses and convince publics across the continent that support for Ukraine was not worth the pain in their wallets,” Giles adds.

But that long chill has yet to pass. Western and Central Europe have enjoyed a milder winter than expected, which, along with a coordinated drive to reduce gas consumption, has taken one of Putin’s largest bargaining chips out of his hands.

Manuela Schwesig and Markus Soeder, state premiers of the German states of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Bavaria,  at a key gas hub in Lubmin, where the Nord Stream pipelines make landfall, on August 30, 2022.

As we head further into 2023, European governments now have a window of opportunity to get their ducks in a row and reduce reliance on Russian gas before another winter comes around. Doing so could play a crucial role in maintaining the West’s united front as the war drags on.

So, how long is this window and what short-term measures can be taken to make the most of it?

Adam Bell, a former UK government energy official, says that the warm winter has effectively “bought Europe a year. A colder December and January would have eaten through a lot of Europe’s gas stockpiles, which could have led to a physical shortage of molecules.”

He warns, however, that simply stockpiling gas isn’t enough. “More work needs to be done in efficiency. Homes and businesses need buildings that waste less energy through insulation. Companies need to switch manufacturing processes away from natural gas.”

Critics accuse European governments of focusing too much on controlling the immediate price of gas, rather than investing in longer-term measures like efficiency and renewables.

“There is an understandable political instinct to alleviate the price because it directly addresses the cost concerns of households and businesses. But making gas cheaper removes the incentive to reduce overall consumption,” says Milan Elkerbout, a research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies.

“Politicians tend to think of energy efficiency as a long-term project. Partly this is because of shortages in materials such as insulation and a shortage of skilled workers. But even small efficiency measures taken in the short term can contribute to a big overall change in consumption,” Elkerbout adds.

In the medium term, Europe now has an opportunity to implement some of the changes to its energy consumption habits that have proven politically difficult. Objection to renewable sources such as onshore wind farms and criticisms of the price of net-zero policies have been cast in a new light, now that the real costs and instability that come with imported gas are more obvious.

“Governments could do more to incentivize and speed up the development of renewable sources of energy,” says John Springford, deputy director at the Centre for European Reform. “A big step would be giving the green light to onshore wind. It would also be wise for governments to build storage capacity for liquid natural gas (LNG), which can happen fairly quickly and directly reduces the need for Russian gas.”

Whether or not European countries will take advantage of this brief chance to bolster their energy security is another matter entirely.

“Europe’s vulnerability that was suddenly exposed existed because of a longstanding complacency by Western powers,” says Giles.

“Western Europe had not been willing to listen to the frontline states who warned over the Russian regime’s intent and understood that more expensive energy was a price worth paying in exchange for not being vulnerable to Russian pressure. This complacency left Russia with multiple open goals to kick at in major Western European capitals, most notably Germany,” he adds.

As absurd as it sounds while bombs continue to fall on Ukraine, a return to the old complacency and a failure to shore up Europe’s energy independence is not out of the question.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) said in December that global demand for coal – the most polluting of all fossil fuels – reached a record high in 2022 amid the energy crisis caused by Russia’s war. Just a year after after countries agreed to phase down their use of coal at the United Nations’ climate conference in Glasgow, Europe found itself switching some of its recently closed coal power plants back on.

The IEA said that while the increase in coal consumption was relatively modest in most European countries, Germany saw a reversal of a “significant scale.”

European nations have historically been reluctant to merge their energy policy and markets. The reasons for this range from naked self-interest (why should one country benefit from another’s stockpiling?) to controlling markets (for example, why should cheaper LNG from Spain undercut French nuclear power?)

And even if the political appetite did emerge for some kind of common energy policy and market, it would be extremely difficult to manage centrally as individual nations would inevitably compete for resources and financial subsidies.

That is what makes this current window so important. While the active fighting continues, it is vital it serves as a reminder that failure to act now could mean sleepwalking into a disaster next winter. And a self-inflicted energy crisis would return the power to Putin that was denied to him through sheer luck, and some unseasonably warm weather.

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