Putin’s Energy Warfare Is Testing Central Europe’s Resolve

The region’s support for Ukraine is caving under the pressure of soaring bills.

By , a freelance journalist and analyst based in Prague.
People protest against the Czech Republic’s government.
People protest against the Czech Republic’s government.
Thousands of protesters, including groups from the far right and far left, take part in a rally against the Czech government in Prague on Sept. 28. MICHAL CIZEK/AFP via Getty Images

Tens of thousands of people filled Prague’s iconic Wenceslas Square on Sept. 28 to demand help from the government amid an energy crisis that has sent household bills skyrocketing beyond the pale for many. Their fears are being exploited by extremist fringe political forces that called for an end to the Czech Republic’s support for Ukraine and for talks with Russia to resume gas deliveries.

Senior Czech officials, such as Parliament Speaker Marketa Pekarova Adamova, who suggested that people facing high energy bills turn their heat down and put on a sweater this winter, are warning that Russian President Vladimir Putin is using his leverage over Europe’s energy supply to create panic and test the resolve of the population.

The protests are a sign that, in Central Europe, the Kremlin’s strategy is working.

Tens of thousands of people filled Prague’s iconic Wenceslas Square on Sept. 28 to demand help from the government amid an energy crisis that has sent household bills skyrocketing beyond the pale for many. Their fears are being exploited by extremist fringe political forces that called for an end to the Czech Republic’s support for Ukraine and for talks with Russia to resume gas deliveries.

Senior Czech officials, such as Parliament Speaker Marketa Pekarova Adamova, who suggested that people facing high energy bills turn their heat down and put on a sweater this winter, are warning that Russian President Vladimir Putin is using his leverage over Europe’s energy supply to create panic and test the resolve of the population.

The protests are a sign that, in Central Europe, the Kremlin’s strategy is working.

Moscow has been waging an energy war against Europe for months, allegedly in response to the West’s sanctions regime. Putin suggested that he could halt all supplies to leave Europe to “freeze” through the winter. “We will not supply anything at all if it contradicts our interests,” he said.

It’s a palpable pressure point—and one that the Kremlin is likely to try to press on harder as Kyiv calls for allies to accelerate arms deliveries in a bid to extend its military advances. So far, the Kremlin’s energy war has failed to get Western countries to walk back their support for Ukraine, and Central and Eastern European states are among Ukraine’s staunchest supporters.

But the Czech Republic and Slovakia are on the front lines of the energy war, and the risk of domestic political instability is growing as prices and fears of winter shortages soar. Despite remaining firm for now, there is a risk that this could weaken their support for Ukraine.


Provoking political instability in the West is one of the Kremlin’s favorite interests. U.S. reports claim Moscow has pumped $300 million into the effort since 2014. Alongside disinformation campaigns and election interference, Putin now has a new tactic for sowing political discord: energy warfare.

As a means of causing political turmoil, energy warfare is working. It has helped send inflation skyrocketing across Europe. Governments are scrambling to secure alternative supplies, and the worst-case scenario—that Russia will shut off the gas taps completely during the winter heating season—threatens severe disruption.

Central and Eastern Europe are the most vulnerable of Europe’s regions to Putin’s tactics due to their lower economic development and high dependence on Russian energy. Last year, Russian gas accounted for 55 percent of Czech gas consumption, 68 percent of Slovak gas consumption, and 79 percent of Bulgarian gas consumption.

In an effort to depend less on Russia, these countries have attempted to outsource their gas suppliers. The Czechs recently bought into a new liquified natural gas platform in the Netherlands and are hoping that fuel from Norway and Belgium will help make up for shortages from the East. Slovakia has also expanded its network of suppliers and, having opened a new link to Poland, should be able to tap some gas, which is set to start arriving via a new Polish link to Norway.

Yet even as the Baltic Pipe opened on Sept. 27, Russia’s giant Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines were attacked, raising the likelihood that most European Union states will receive no Russian gas at all this winter. Central Europe’s rerouting efforts may not be enough.

As a result, predictions of rationing, industrial shutdowns, and deep recession stalk the region. Vulnerable households facing energy bills that have virtually doubled over the past 12 months and amid double-digit inflation increasingly fear that they’ll struggle to keep the heat on, and doubt is growing over the readiness of governments to help.

Bulgaria’s pro-Western government has already fallen victim to these domestic worries, which resulted in a no-confidence vote that removed Prime Minister Kiril Petkov from office—leaving the door open for illiberal, pro-Russia parties to potentially fill the vacuum.

Weaponizing its leverage over the country’s gas supplies, Russia cut Bulgaria off completely in April. In line with the Kremlin’s playbook, Sofia now looks to be slipping back under the influence of Russian gas giant Gazprom.

Similar instability now threatens the Czech and Slovak governments, as anti-establishment, pro-Russian parties seek to take advantage of voters who fear they could soon be priced out of heating their homes.

Slovakia’s governing coalition collapsed at the start of September following months of vicious infighting sparked by a row over a scheme of state support for households facing prices that, in August, helped push inflation to 14 percent in annual terms. That leaves the government looking precarious as it limps on shorn of a majority in parliament, and a collapse is not unlikely as the pressure persists.

Illiberal forces are doing their best to raise the stakes in Bratislava. Former Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, a populist strongman who dominated Slovak politics until he lost power two years ago in the wake of the assassination of a journalist, and who has been accused of running an organized crime group from the premier’s office, is pushing to tip what remains of the government over the edge. He launched a petition calling for a snap election, which has been referred to the country’s Constitutional Court.

Should Fico manage to force early elections and push the country’s leading opposition party, the Democracy-Slovak Social Democracy (Smer) party, into power, he will have a chance to bury charges that he used police and tax authorities to attack political rivals. Neo-Nazi parties, such as Republika, are supporting Fico’s call for a snap vote.

The threat that Fico poses to Slovakia’s democracy and the country’s pro-Western credentials is palpable. Fresh from leading anti-vaccine protests during the pandemic, he has demanded an end to Bratislava’s support for Ukraine and compared the stationing of NATO troops in the country with its occupation during World War II.

He’s been blacklisted by Ukraine for his pro-Kremlin stance, but many Slovaks, half of whom are reportedly rooting for Russia, enjoy his anti-Western rants. That has the nominally center-left Smer maintaining support significantly higher than that of its center-right rivals in the coalition.

“The effects of the war in Ukraine and the energy and inflation crisis are helping to weaken the liberal bloc,” Grigorij Meseznikov at the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs told Foreign Policy. “And that is encouraging Fico to try to trigger an election.”

In the Czech Republic, the five-party coalition government has also started to feel the heat from vulnerable demographics of society who fear they could end up freezing this winter. Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala was surprised by a crowd of 70,000 people who gathered in Prague on Sept. 3 to protest his center-right government’s sluggish response to the energy crisis. The premier criticized the leaders of the protest even as he continues to struggle to reassure worried householders that the state will catch them if they fall.

To little avail, the governing parties—whose outspoken support for Ukraine has helped reassert Prague’s credentials among NATO and EU partners—have been headed south in the polls since inflation began to bite in the spring.

Data suggests that the percentage of Czechs living below the poverty line is rising dramatically, with eye-watering energy prices helping to push inflation above 17 percent in August. Combined with state aid for 350,000 Ukrainian refugees and widespread disinformation, Lenka Bustikova, an associate professor at the University of Oxford and analyst for the Center for European Policy Analysis, cautions that these conditions have “created an ideal breeding ground for the politics of resentment.”

Support for Russia appears to be less widespread in the Czech Republic than in Slovakia. Most people attending the Prague protests are unlikely to agree with the pro-Kremlin agenda put forward by organizers due to historical reasons. “Support for Ukraine and the refugees remains strong despite the lengthening time of war,” said Ondrej Kopecny, a sociologist and head of Transparency International Czech Republic. “The invasion by Warsaw Pact troops in 1968 plays a role in that, and the data suggests that those opposed to helping Ukraine is 10 to 15 percent at most.”

Many have a wary eye on January’s presidential vote, for which populist Andrej Babis—a former prime minister currently on trial for fraud—is a front-runner.

But it’s not only populism waiting in the wings: Extremist anti-establishment parties also lurk, hoping to ride Putin’s coattails to secure parliamentary seats and plug their far-right, illiberal, and pro-Russian agendas into policy. A double-dip recession under a center-right government’s austerity measures “led directly to the rise of Babis and [departing pro-Russian Czech President] Milos Zeman,” said Ondrej Houska, an editor at the Hospodarske noviny newspaper.

“The health of Czech liberal democracy—and its historic role as a bulwark against the onslaught of illiberalism in Central and Eastern Europe—depends on the ability of the government to address economic fears and anger over political exclusion,” said Petra Guasti, an associate professor at Prague’s Charles University. “It will take more than a sweater.”

Tim Gosling is a freelance journalist and analyst based in Prague, covering Central and Eastern Europe. Twitter: @TGosCEE

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