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9 March 2022updated 04 Apr 2022 1:50pm

Leader: Europe must break its fateful addiction to Russian energy

Putin’s assault on Ukraine is a moment to think the unthinkable and impose comprehensive sanctions on gas and oil.

By New Statesman

In 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the then Polish prime minister Donald Tusk warned: “Excessive dependence on Russian energy makes Europe weak.” Eight years later, after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the continent is paying the price for failing to heed Mr Tusk’s words.

The blitz of sanctions announced by Europe against Russia is necessary: Russian banks have been expelled from Swift, the global financial messaging system, and the country’s central bank has been sanctioned (preventing Mr Putin from using most of Russia’s $640bn “war chest” of foreign currency reserves). But energy has been the unpalatable exception.

Only the US, which is the world’s biggest oil producer, has announced a ban on Russian oil imports, while the UK has pledged to phase out imports by the end of this year. For now, the West continues to subsidise Mr Putin’s war machine. Indeed, his corrupt regime has benefited from the spike in energy prices. At the start of this year, Europe was paying €190m a day for natural gas from Russia, but this figure has since surpassed €600m daily. As Laszlo Varro, Shell’s vice-president for business development, sardonically observed: “At the current export flows and prices [for oil], Western democracies finance a T90 main battle tank every 20 minutes.”

Europe’s complicity stems from the dependence that Mr Tusk highlighted: the continent buys around 40 per cent of its gas, 40 per cent of its diesel and 30 per cent of its oil from Russia. Countries including the Czech Republic, Latvia and Moldova import 100 per cent of their gas from Russia. But it is in Germany, the continent’s largest economy, where Europe’s myopia is most on display.

It was Angela Merkel’s government that oversaw the construction of Nord Stream 2, the new pipeline from Russia, and that increased Germany’s dependence on Russian gas by announcing in 2011 the closure of all 17 of the country’s nuclear power plants following the  Fukushima disaster in Japan. That this reckless approach was maintained even as Mr Putin’s revanchist Russia advanced is a stain on Mrs Merkel’s legacy.

Olaf Scholz, Germany’s new Social Democrat chancellor, is now contending with this baleful inheritance. Even without Nord Stream 2, which his government has rightly shelved, Germany depends on Russia for 55 per cent of its gas, 45 per cent of its coal and around 35 per cent of its oil. As Adnan Vatansever, the author of Oil in Putin’s Russia, recently told the New Statesman: “Putin was not driven [to invade Ukraine] by the desire to raise oil prices. But he knows that oil prices will go up, and his war will not cost him much. So he is basically covered.”

For strategic as well as moral reasons, Europe must finally break its addiction to Russian energy. The EU has now announced plans to eliminate the bloc’s dependence on Russian gas before 2030. But Mr Putin’s assault on Ukraine is a moment to think the unthinkable and impose comprehensive sanctions.

To address supply, Europe should source gas from alternative exporters including the US, Japan, South Korea and Qatar. Germany should halt the closure of its remaining three nuclear power plants, which are due to be retired at the end of this year, and build new terminals to receive liquid natural gas by sea.

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On the demand side, governments should encourage households to reduce their energy usage in solidarity with Ukrainians – a move that will be aided by the arrival of spring. But as prices surge, and household incomes are squeezed, they must also offer grants and loans of the kind utilised during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Even before Mr Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the climate crisis was forcing Europe to promise net-zero emissions. The return of war to the continent should accelerate this transition. As our environment editor Philippa Nuttall writes, as well as raising defence spending, governments should radically increase investment in solar power, wind energy and other renewables. Germany must end its aversion to state borrowing – another unhappy legacy of the Merkel era.

For too long, the fossil fuel industry has underwritten Mr Putin’s Russia and other autocratic petrostates.  A green revolution is essential not just for the planet’s future, but for Europe’s security as well.

[see also: Net zero is the energy answer to Russian aggression]

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's War of Terror