Russia has long used the cold to defeat Europe. The winter of 1812 stopped Napoleon’s special military operation. Hitler’s troops struck the freezer outside Moscow’s gates in December 1941. Now Vladimir Putin has the opportunity to cut off the gas being sent to Europe – a strategy against which Germany seems to have no defense.
Gazprom, Russia’s monopoly supplier of piped gas, has given Germany a taste of what life could be like if Moscow plays badly. He recently halved the amount of gas sent through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, using bogus technical excuses. Germany, which still depends on Russia for more than a third of its gas, now realizes it may have to contend with a total gas embargo – and a cold winter. Last week, his gas risk level was raised to stage two, an “alarm” state.
Putin can keep the gas flow at a reduced volume. But what if he completely cut off Germany? To say that Germany has become dependent on Russian gas does not quite reflect the enormity of what is happening. The Germans need Russian gas to heat their homes. The country’s heavy industry depends on Russian hydrocarbons. According to Robert Habeck, the German Minister of Economy, any sudden stop in the flow of Russian gas would trigger a domino effect: an economic crisis which he compares to the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in 2008.
Habeck is also the vice-chancellor of Olaf Scholz and the highest representative of the Greens in the German government. He was quite adamant about his country’s vulnerability to Putin turning off the taps. “Companies would have to shut down production, lay off their workers, supply chains would collapse, people would go into debt to pay their heating bills and people would get poorer,” he said last week. “It is the best breeding ground for populism, which aims to undermine our liberal democracy from within.” It’s not just about gas. It is about German democracy itself.
Why would Habeck say that out loud? Don’t such warnings have the perverse effect of inducing Putin to trigger a gas embargo? Maybe that’s Habeck’s intention? The Green party has been the most hawkish about cutting Germany off Russian gas completely and might even welcome such a cut for environmental reasons. But if Putin were to shut off the gas, Habeck’s ministry would be responsible for the consequences. At present, the German government can blame the country’s energy problems on its predecessors. If they encourage Putin to further cut supplies, the blame will be placed squarely on that leadership.
German newspapers are trying to prepare readers for what could happen. “The oil crisis of 1973, with its four car-free Sundays, looks like an empty race compared to what awaits German industry and consumers today,” says an analysis in Die Welt. Germany aims to have its gas reserve containers 90% full by winter, up from 60% currently.
The German gas regulator recently published seven scenarios for winter and spring. Six relate to critical shortages. Only one envisages capacity at a moderately safe level of 25% in winter (and 40% in summer). But this is the scenario in which the Russians honor all gas storage requirements under German law. In other words, there is no room for deviations. So if Putin keeps the flow of gas at a reduced rate, Germany could experience massive shortages this winter. This may well be Putin’s ideal option. He could inflict damage while getting most of the money, as Russian gas is selling at massively inflated prices.
Putin has resisted the use of gas and oil as diplomatic weapons before, even in previous wars. When he annexed Crimea, gas continued to flow through Ukraine. What is different this time is that the EU, US and UK have all imposed sanctions on Russian fossil fuels. Habeck has set himself the goal of reducing Russian gas consumption in Germany to zero within two years – although he is unlikely to achieve this given the lack of alternative suppliers.
Faced with an inevitable loss of business in Western Europe, it might become rational for Putin to pull the trigger himself and inflict maximum damage, rather than let the Europeans dictate the terms under which they can do so. ‘to abandon.
Closing the taps would be very expensive for the Kremlin: the gas that is not delivered cannot be easily stored or pumped back into the ground. Putin can afford it, however, thanks to his windfall from soaring fuel prices. Russia’s current account surplus could reach some $200 billion to $250 billion this year, about double that of last year.
However, the sanctions are causing significant disruption under the hood of the Russian economy. We can see more damage over time. Yet what is indisputable is that Putin can afford a gas embargo, while Germany cannot. Scholz told him that he was losing his German gas buyers anyway, so what was to stop Putin from getting out and inflicting maximum economic damage?
The big question is whether Germany’s solidarity with Ukraine can survive a cold winter – or force the German government to postpone the closure of its last nuclear power plants (a policy on which Habeck and the Greens are not skeptical). willing to compromise). The last three German nuclear power plants still supply 6% of the country’s electricity. But without Russian gas, Germany will need all the energy it can get.
What is Putin likely to do? We can ignore rumors about his health or a Kremlin coup: such information is wishful thinking. Remember the respected armchair generals who told us in March that Russia would be militarily defeated? Or the predictions of Russian experts that Putin would never invade? Putin repeatedly told us what he thought: that “Ukraine is not even a state” and should be part of Russia.
Putin’s failure to capture Kyiv demonstrated that his army is not as strong as he thought – but in economic warfare he has fared better. He managed to make EU governments blink first when it came to paying for gas deliveries in rubles (even pretending that was not the case).
Putin is now so awash with money that he can afford to use gas sanctions against the EU. Norbert Röttgen, the former chairman of the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee, was right to say that Germany should have acted alone and acted from the start to reduce its gas consumption.
In due time, the West will find alternative suppliers and clever ways to weed out Russian products. Until then, Putin could use his vast commodities as instruments of leverage and blackmail. It already has wheat shipments from Ukraine. With Russia being the world’s largest exporter of wheat and fertilizer and the second largest exporter of oil, Putin will try to bring the West to the negotiating table by making all sorts of threats.
Putin knows that Germany is the weak point of the Western alliance and that energy security is its greatest vulnerability. A gas embargo is not without risk for him, but he has a strong hand. He can choose to play it.