Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Europe Is Learning to Live Without Russian Energy

Russian President Vladimir Putin played the energy card on Europe to undercut Ukraine. Europe called his bluff.

By , a freelance journalist based in Berlin.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz attends a terminal inauguration day.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz attends a terminal inauguration day.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz attends a terminal inauguration day in Wilhelmshaven, Germany, on Dec. 17. Lars-Josef Klemmer/Pool/Getty Images

BERLIN—Last weekend, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and other top officials traveled to the northern port city of Wilhelmshaven to inaugurate Germany’s first floating terminal for liquified natural gas (LNG). The terminal, the first of five planned at ports across the North and Baltic Seas, is one part of Germany’s strategy to survive this winter—and the next, and the one after that—without the Russian gas imports it and other European Union countries have become deeply dependent on. 

“This is a good day for our country and a good signal to the whole world that the German economy will be in a position to continue being strong, to produce, and to deal with this challenge,” Scholz said. “When we said that, for example, such a terminal should be built here in Wilhelmshaven this year already, many said that’s never possible, that it would never succeed. And the opposite is true.”

Since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly 10 months ago, European countries like Germany have learned the hard way what it’s like to live without Russian energy. From the start, the Kremlin has gone all-in on energy politics, seeking to use Europe’s energy reliance as a weapon to sow discord among European leaders and weaken the EU’s unified front in supporting Ukraine. It’s mostly failed.

BERLIN—Last weekend, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and other top officials traveled to the northern port city of Wilhelmshaven to inaugurate Germany’s first floating terminal for liquified natural gas (LNG). The terminal, the first of five planned at ports across the North and Baltic Seas, is one part of Germany’s strategy to survive this winter—and the next, and the one after that—without the Russian gas imports it and other European Union countries have become deeply dependent on. 

“This is a good day for our country and a good signal to the whole world that the German economy will be in a position to continue being strong, to produce, and to deal with this challenge,” Scholz said. “When we said that, for example, such a terminal should be built here in Wilhelmshaven this year already, many said that’s never possible, that it would never succeed. And the opposite is true.”

Since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly 10 months ago, European countries like Germany have learned the hard way what it’s like to live without Russian energy. From the start, the Kremlin has gone all-in on energy politics, seeking to use Europe’s energy reliance as a weapon to sow discord among European leaders and weaken the EU’s unified front in supporting Ukraine. It’s mostly failed.

When Russia turned off the flow of gas to Europe via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline in September, EU leaders warned that it could lead to a full-blown energy crisis across the bloc. Many EU countries, including Germany, quickly enacted measures to cut back on energy usage and urged citizens to do the same. Still, soaring energy prices and record high inflation have put immense strain on Europeans’ wallets and companies’ bottom lines.

Now that winter has arrived, fears of acute energy shortages have largely quieted, at least for now. Gas reserves are nearly full, countries are investing in support packages to ease the strain of higher energy prices, and EU leaders have worked to rapidly replace Russian energy imports with gas and oil from other countries as well as expand their renewable energy infrastructure. 

“It’s no small thing to change so quickly from what you’ve depended on for decades,” said Ben Cahill, an energy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “So far, heading into this winter, Europe was relatively prepared because it made such strong efforts to refocus. They’re in relatively good shape.”

Still, Cahill added that next winter will be far tougher, in large part because EU countries will need to start with the assumption that it will need to fill its energy needs without Russia entirely. That includes refilling gas storage tanks next summer without a big influx of cheap Russian gas. “The big challenge is what happens in the years ahead,” Cahill said. “Because it’s only going to get harder.” 

Not that this winter will be easy. The EU’s rapid shift away from Russian energy has come at a cost, both for households and companies scrambling to keep up with rapidly rising energy prices as well as for the countries enacting costly rescue packages to help consumers and businesses cover their higher bills. And a particularly cold winter could cause energy usage to spike, depleting reserves faster and renewing anxiety about possible shortages.

A particularly frigid week in Germany this month, for example, led to just a 5 percent decrease in energy usage compared with recent years, significantly below the country’s target of a 20 percent cut in energy consumption. Klaus Mueller, head of Germany’s network agency, warned that such usage must “remain an outlier.” “We have taken good precautions, but we need to remain vigilant,” Mueller said.

But the situation has forced EU and national-level leaders to step up and quickly work to fill the gaps left by Russia. They have turned their attention to the ways the war is impacting and, in some ways, even helping with the EU’s longer-term energy goals. 

European Union leaders said the war has had a silver lining in terms of moving the bloc forward on targets for renewable energy. Countries that were previously reluctant to get on board with expanding renewables are finally doing so, and those on the wagon are investing more. As a result, as part of its REPowerEU package, the EU agreed to increase its targets for renewable energy to 45 percent by 2030 this week, up from a prior target of 40 percent. (The EU gets just over 20 percent of its total energy from renewables right now.) A new report from the International Energy Agency suggests the world could add as much renewable energy in the next five years as it did in the last 20 years.

“I do believe this horrific war of Russia against the Ukrainians really changes a lot, and we will way more quickly get independent from fossil fuels,” said Tiemo Wölken, a member of the European Parliament from Germany’s center-left Social Democrats. “In the short term, it’s definitely a setback, but in the middle and long term, it’s definitely a boost for renewable energy.” 

But you can’t make silver without getting some dross. In an effort to replace Russian oil and gas in the short term, countries like Germany are reactivating some old coal-fired power plants to fill the energy gap. Countries including France, Austria, the Netherlands, and Italy are putting mothballed coal plants back into service. And EU countries are negotiating long-term contracts for gas with countries like Qatar, which policymakers said could ultimately lock these countries into buying more gas than they hope to need by the time 2030 rolls around.

“If, at a certain moment, we start adding up how many gas contracts until 2030 we are getting into, we probably have more gas contracts than we had with Russia,” said Bas Eickhout, deputy head of the Greens/European Free Alliance group. “That becomes a problem for our climate neutrality targets after 2030—that’s still not enough in the minds of policymakers now.” 

As for the overall impact the war has had on the EU’s energy and climate goals, Eickhout added, “Honestly, the jury is still out.”

The whole debate raises the question of what Europe’s complicated yet concerted effort to offset Russian energy imports will mean for the Kremlin’s strategy. Support for Ukraine remains high: A Eurobarometer poll released this month found that 74 percent of EU respondents approve of the bloc’s support for Ukraine. There have been scattered protests in a handful of countries and some notable recalcitrants like Hungary, which still courts Russian energy and slow-walks European energy sanctions. But if Russian President Vladimir Putin hoped he could use the energy cudgel to weaken support for Ukraine and divide Europe, he’s likely disappointed. So if Moscow can’t freeze Europe into submission, what other tools will it reach for?

Cahill said it’s too soon to tell what this might mean for Russia’s strategy going forward, in large part because the next round of sanctions on Russian exports aren’t set to go into effect until early February 2023. If Russia retaliates by further cutting off energy supplies, then it’s going to be punishing the very countries it needs the most, like China and Turkey.

“It would be shooting themselves in the foot to do that,” Cahill said. “But all things are possible: Putin doesn’t always act in economically rational ways.”

Reporting for this article was supported by a travel grant from Clean Energy Wire. 

Correction, Jan. 30, 2023: A previous version misstated Bas Eickhout’s affiliation.

Emily Schultheis is a freelance journalist based in Berlin, where she writes about European elections and the rise of populism. Twitter: @emilyrs

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