Europe Just Can’t Kick Russian Energy

Outrage is cheap in European capitals. Action comes dearer.

By , an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy.
A worker stands in front of pipes which lie stacked at the Nord Stream 2 facility  in Sassnitz, Germany, on Oct. 19, 2017.
A worker stands in front of pipes which lie stacked at the Nord Stream 2 facility in Sassnitz, Germany, on Oct. 19, 2017.
A worker stands in front of pipes which lie stacked at the Nord Stream 2 facility in Sassnitz, Germany, on Oct. 19, 2017. Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Putin’s War

As the full scale of Russian atrocities in Ukraine becomes clearer, European countries are facing renewed pressure to hold Moscow accountable by targeting one of its economic lifelines: energy. 

For weeks, European leaders have both agonized over Russia’s invasion and at the same time spared Russian energy from otherwise wide-ranging sanctions to avoid plunging their own countries—many of which are heavily reliant on Moscow’s supply—further into an energy crunch. But as calls for tougher measures grow, many European leaders are now facing a painful dilemma: How can they further hit back at Moscow and sever energy ties when doing so could push their countries into economic crisis?

“It’s not going to be an easy road for Europe,” said Samantha Gross, an energy security expert at the Brookings Institution. “From a moral point of view, they definitely want to be off of Russian oil and gas, but it’s easier said than done.”

As the full scale of Russian atrocities in Ukraine becomes clearer, European countries are facing renewed pressure to hold Moscow accountable by targeting one of its economic lifelines: energy. 

For weeks, European leaders have both agonized over Russia’s invasion and at the same time spared Russian energy from otherwise wide-ranging sanctions to avoid plunging their own countries—many of which are heavily reliant on Moscow’s supply—further into an energy crunch. But as calls for tougher measures grow, many European leaders are now facing a painful dilemma: How can they further hit back at Moscow and sever energy ties when doing so could push their countries into economic crisis?

“It’s not going to be an easy road for Europe,” said Samantha Gross, an energy security expert at the Brookings Institution. “From a moral point of view, they definitely want to be off of Russian oil and gas, but it’s easier said than done.”

Europe is Russia’s top energy customer, purchasing more than half of Russia’s crude oil exports and the bulk of its natural gas shipments. As the war continues into its second month, Ukrainian officials say continuing to purchase Russian energy is tantamount to funding the war in Ukraine. By buying Russian oil and gas, the West “is supporting Ukraine with one hand, while supporting Russia’s war machine with another,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said

But for many European countries, cutting off Russian energy is a double-edged sword. The European Union is deeply dependent on Moscow’s supply, getting around 40 percent of its natural gas imports and a quarter of its oil supply from Russia. Experts say securing enough alternative energy sources to replace Moscow’s supply would be exceedingly difficult, even impossible, in the short term, especially given measures taken in recent years by big countries such as Germany to phase out nuclear power and coal, both of which could be alternatives to Russian fuels. Even after Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Germany went all-in on a second big Russian gas pipeline meant to redouble dependence on Siberian gas and cut Ukraine out of the energy trade.

On Thursday, the European Parliament passed a largely symbolic resolution to enact a full embargo on Russian gas, coal, and oil imports, a move that reflects growing momentum to finally target Russia’s energy sector. But few countries are completely slashing ties: The EU’s latest sanctions package only banned Russian coal imports, which are of less economic significance to Moscow (and to Europe). Japan, initially reluctant to cut energy ties with Russia, also banned coal imports on Friday.

“We’re straddling between symbolism and substance” by sanctioning coal imports, said Nikos Tsafos, an energy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It is the easiest way to hit energy without doing something that really messes up the system.”

Some countries are breaking the taboo: In early April, Lithuania became the first EU member country to fully cut off its supply of Russian natural gas. But Lithuania, which has a population of 2.8 million people, is considerably less reliant on Moscow’s supply after building its own offshore liquefied natural gas import terminal in 2014. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis urged the rest of Europe to follow suit. Buying Russian oil and gas is financing war crimes,” he said. “Dear EU friends, pull the plug. Don’t be an accomplice.”

Other European nations that are more heavily dependent on Moscow’s supply, namely Germany and Austria, insist that these immediate measures would be impossible to adopt. Last year, Germany purchased roughly half of its natural gas and coal supply, and more than one-third of its oil, from Russia. Austria receives 80 percent of its natural gas supply from Russia.

Experts warn that the immediate loss of all Russian energy would be painful all over Europe. “If you were to cut off Russian gas supplies to Europe completely, I think you would see energy-intensive industries shutting down, you would see rationing of energy,” said Jason Bordoff, founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University and a former adviser to the White House under President Barack Obama. “There simply would not be enough molecules to meet energy needs immediately.”

Since Europe should now be refilling its gas storage for the upcoming winter, Bordoff said, the impact of a full embargo could also spill into the next year. “You’re just setting yourself up for an energy crisis come next winter,” he said.

In recent weeks, Moscow has weaponized Europe’s dependence on its supply, further exposing the continent’s precarious position. In late March, Putin threatened to cut off foreign buyers’ gas supply unless they paid for it in rubles, a decision that Germany denounced as “blackmail.”

The Kremlin is “pushing the buttons to see how Europe responds,” said James Henderson, an expert at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. “It knows full well that Europe is heavily reliant and can’t, without huge economic pain, basically stand up to the challenge.

But as new reports of Russian atrocities come out—including a missile attack Friday on a train station packed with fleeing refugees, and revelations of a mass grave containing hundreds of dead Ukrainians in Chernihiv—mounting pressure could test how far European leaders are willing to go to hold Russia accountable.

“Things are sounding possible now that didn’t sound possible to me before the revelations of the weekend,” said Gross, the Brookings expert. “I think you are seeing an openness to things that didn’t quite seem possible a few days ago.”

Christina Lu is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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