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Winter is Coming for Europe – And That Means Ending Its Dependency on Russian Energy

Russian TOS-1 firing. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Russian TOS-1 firing. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Today the future of Ukraine is being decided on battlefields in the country’s east and south. The heroic resistance of Ukrainian soldiers has thus far denied Russian President Vladimir Putin’s design to restore the Russian empire. The performance of Ukraine’s armed forces and the determination of its people have rallied the West to support the country’s struggle to defend its freedom. One can speculate if or when Ukraine can launch a major counter offensive to reconquer its territory from the Russian invader, but one thing is certain: Ukraine can only fight so long as the West continues to support it with money and weapons

The devastation Putin has wrought on the country’s economy makes it impossible for Kyiv to carry on without outside help. The decisive moment in this war is coming. How it plays out depends largely on the extent to which the Western consensus on Ukraine holds in the coming months, especially in Europe. The current heatwave across Europe makes concerns about the coming season seem remote, but Europe will soon transition into fall and winter. The changing of the seasons is arguably more important to Ukraine’s survival as a sovereign state than what happens on the battlefield. 

Moscow Is Ready to Play the Game

If anyone still has any illusions as to how Putin will play his hand come winter, consider this: Russia has already cut the gas it supplies to Europe through Nord Stream 1 down to 20% of the pipeline’s capacity. Moscow’s excuse was scheduled maintenance; specifically, it needed to receive a turbine from Canada. Once Ottawa granted the exception, Gazprom then insisted that it could not complete the process, as the documentation provided with the device was “unsatisfactory.” And so it goes. Europe can expect similar Russian gambits as it gets closer to the heating season. 

Moscow is playing a shrewd game, for fluctuating the gas supply rather than cutting it off altogether manipulates the market and increases public uncertainty. But come winter, a complete cutoff of Russian gas is likely. After months of anxiety and instability, this move would deliver the shock that the Kremlin expects will unravel public support for the war. Putin is also banking on the different levels of dependence on Russian gas across Europe to divide the EU further, with Germany, Austria, and Italy exposed to blackmail more than states such as Poland, which has an LNG port and is invested in the Baltic Pipe to Norway. Moscow expects that squabbling within the European Union will undermine support for the sanctions regime against Russia.

European publics today remain largely united in their support for Ukraine as a matter of principle. But there are clear differences in views about to how long the war should continue, how it should end, and most of all, how much economic pain Europe is willing to endure, and for how long. A recent survey of 10 European countries suggests that as energy costs skyrocket and inflation bites hard, public support for Ukraine will likely soften. Over one-third of those polled argued that the war should end as soon as possible, even if that meant further territorial losses for Ukraine; only 22% were in favor of the war going on as long as it is necessary to punish Russia and allow Ukraine to regain all its lost territories. Conducted at the height of the summer, the poll results suggest that we are on the cusp of a decisive phase for Europe’s support of the war, with Putin intent on inflicting a great deal of pain on Europe come winter in order to sway governments and public opinion away from support for Kyiv. 

Europe Needs a New Energy Consensus

Europe’s energy dilemma is a direct result of decades of EU policy, especially coming from Berlin, that has all but decoupled environmental targets from national security considerations, leading to the current state of EU dependence on Russian energy. It is now clear that by relying on Russian natural gas as a “transition fuel” and a “gateway to renewables,” the EU has handed Moscow an energy weapon that Putin is not hesitant to use. Instead of “interdependence” between Europe and Russia, this policy fostered Europe’s dependence on Gazprom not only when it comes to energy, but also the support of large sectors of manufacturing and agriculture that require abundant supply of natural gas. 

In hindsight, since the 2005 joint declaration by Berlin and Moscow to build Nord Stream 1 under the Baltic Sea, bypassing transit countries in Eastern Europe, Ukraine’s future and Europe’s energy policy have become inextricably intertwined. In order to maintain support for the sanctions regime, the EU must do more than find a patchwork solution to make it through the upcoming heating season – it will be rough at times, but it can get there. Most important, it must rethink the fundamentals of what constitutes “clean energy,” and it must return nuclear power to the mix. The most important decision facing the European Union is the imperative to permanently shut down the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines, regardless of the costs already incurred. Simply put, for Europe, maintaining the current energy supply grid means continuing to be subject to Russian blackmail. This feeds instability across the Continent, and it feeds the war in the east. If Putin succeeds in carving up Ukraine, he will rearm and press on directly against NATO’s Eastern flank

The coming winter in Europe should be a time for rethinking the fundamentals of the Continent’s security and its relations with Putin’s Russia. The European Union needs a clear path forward on energy policy where environmental targets are balanced with the fundamentals of national security, ensuring that Europe never again finds itself in its current predicament. This should include working closely with other democracies, especially the United States, to ensure steady supplies. Most of all it demands a clear-headed consensus that until Russia abandons its neo-imperial path, it will not be an economic partner for European democracies. We may indeed be heading for a cold winter, but the experience may yet prove salutary for Europe’s future. 

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Andrew A. Michta is Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch, Germany.  He is also former a Professor of National Security Affairs at USNWC and a former Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis in DC. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government

Written By

Andrew A. Michta is the dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies and a new Contributing Editor for 1945. He is the former Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College and former Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. You can follow him on Twitter: @AndrewMichta. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.