Vladimir Putin just engineered a massive energy shortage in Europe. Is there anything world leaders can do about it?
In the uppermost echelons of fears held by foreign policy experts, economists, war-hawks and dovish politicians on three continents with regards to the conflict in Ukraine, what happened yesterday ranks very near the top.
Not that experts haven’t been anticipating the terrible move- that Russian President Vladimir Putin would cut off European Union access to vital Russian energy supplies in answer to sanctions and embargoes coming from that quarter; many foreign policy experts have been expecting it since long before a 10-day “maintenance shut-down” of the Nord Stream 1 delivered a sharp preview in the previous weeks.
“Russia Cuts Gas Flow to Europe, Intensifying Fears It Is Weaponizing Fuel,” fretted the New York Times today. “On the eve of a European Union meeting to debate a gas conservation plan to make the bloc less vulnerable to a Russian squeeze, Moscow slashed the flow to Germany.”
That last sentence really should be: “Moscow slashed the flow to Germany…to 20%.”
Just what exactly did European Union leaders, and the New York Times, think would happen?
Of course Putin is weaponizing fuel supplies; so far, in as far as the EU is concerned, Putin’s aggression in Ukraine has been a war of punitive embargo measures designed to inflict maximum economic havoc on a nation’s citizens.
Those citizens experiencing abject poverty and privation due to Putin’s actions in Ukraine were supposed to be Russians, of course, who would then- ideally and according to plan- turn on their leader and his increasingly unpopular war.
Had EU measures taken since the invasion of Ukraine worked, that might have even happened.
Instead, the opposite has happened; Putin has turned the tables on EU leadership and now has the entire European political class between crushing inflation and a winter without fuel.
Did the expert class think Vladimir Putin would invade Ukraine, then meekly accept diplomatic chastisement and crushing economic sanctions while not using every lever and tool at his disposal to both blunt the embargoes and punish European leaders for using them?
It is possible the EU government in Brussels and other world leaders thought the Ukraine conflict would be over by now. Perhaps they thought so many punishing sanctions, combined with fierce Ukrainian military resistance, would combined do what neither could have hoped to accomplish alone.
That is, world leaders hoped the combined diplomatic pressures of a united European and American front, plus Ukrainian military resistance, would make Vladimir Putin cease and desist his campaign to reintegrate Ukraine back into the Russian protectorate by force.
It might have worked; had this entire conflict been happening in a vacuum.
As it is, EU leaders seem to have forgotten how much the landscape of the global marketplace has changed over the past decades. As it is, the combined buying power of China and India blunted the impact of sanctions and embargoes against Russia so much, the ruble is now one of the strongest currencies on the marketplace and the euro is trading down near the dollar.
Between March and May 2022, China bought double its Russian energy imports over 2021; India bought five times as much.
Now that Putin has Germany and the EU right where he wants them- mortally dependent on Russian energy supplies- the best European Union officials and leaders can do is frantically propose rationing and alternative sources at least two years away from viability- optimistically.
Before this terrible news about Russian energy cut to 20%, the EU was already asking countries to voluntarily cut their energy use by 15%. Will this work?
Russia cutting its supply of energy to Europe to 20% must represent a worst-case scenario for EU central planners. 0% would be worse, of course, but the EU and its officials would be remiss not to consider the almost certain probability 0% will indeed soon be the case.
European households are likely going to have to cut their energy use by a great deal more than 15%. And it is very unlikely a majority of citizens in all EU nations will agree to do so voluntarily.
It is more likely this latest gambit by Vladimir Putin will do everything he hopes it will do to eliminate popular support for Ukraine and for the EU politicians championing it.
Paying an outrageous sum for gas is one thing; higher gas prices causing wildfires of inflation to spring up everywhere are another. People freezing to death in their homes this winter is something else entirely.
Putin seems to understand the concept of how a lever works; he obviously knows how to use this one.
“The autocratic Mr. Putin has shown since invading Ukraine in February that he has plenty of leverage on his side, particularly in tightening or loosening the energy spigot, and can use this at his sole discretion,” admitted the NYT. “He has also demonstrated his knack for keeping adversaries guessing and off-balance, with his government often sending contradictory signals.”
Besides taking Mr. Putin to task for failing to deal fairly and honestly with the EU, the NYT echoes the same dismayed surprise coming EU leaders that Putin would do such a thing.
Of course Putin’s actions are reprehensible; he is at war with world powers opposing and undermining him in Ukraine and he is trying to win. That he would try to turn the tables should have been no surprise to anyone.
That he was able to do so- and so easily- is a bit of a surprise.
Germany is perhaps the most vulnerable nation in this coming energy crisis and it is no ordinary country in the European Union. Germany is the wealthiest nation in the EU, the linchpin of the entire cooperative, especially since the UK absconded from the fold.
With this latest move by Putin, there may be no winning this war for Ukraine by EU nations and the US: Not with sanctions, embargoes or any combination therein, no matter how many are imposed or how many stern diplomatic reproaches are issued.
To win the war at this point would mean nothing short of full-scale military support for the Ukraine.
And even that might not do it.
If the EU and US turn the Ukraine-Russia conflict into a global one, Russia might not be standing alone- as now.
The Chinese Communist Party has designs on Taiwan similar to the ones Russia had on Ukraine for over a decade. The CCP might easily back Putin in this conflict in exchange for an equal level of partnership and support once China takes Taiwan.
“The prospect of an unprecedented total shutoff is fueling concern about gas shortages, still higher prices, and economic impacts,” wrote the International Monetary Fund on July 19, 2022. “While policymakers are moving swiftly, they lack a blueprint to manage and minimize impact.”
If policymakers don’t find the blueprint soon, this conflict may be long lost. It may be lost already.
Whatever EU leaders have been doing to stop this crisis before it started, mitigate its impacts, or influence the behavior of Vladimir Putin, hasn’t worked. It’s time to go back to the drawing board- before it’s too late.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)