What is Europe’s freedom worth to us?

Foto: Ligovsky /​ Shut­ter­stock

We must stop funding Putin’s war with our energy imports

The war in Ukraine is on a knife edge. If Putin has spec­u­lated that Ukraine will fall into his lap like a ripe fruit, he has thor­oughly miscal­cu­lated. Not only Kiyv, but also the towns in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine are fighting back with desperate courage. Putin is now resorting to the methods he has already demon­strated in Chechnya and Syria: Bombing resi­den­tial neigh­bor­hoods, cutting off besieged towns from food and medical aid, attacking energy supplies. We should have known what he was capable of — if we had wanted to know.

A human­i­tarian cata­strophe is unfolding before our eyes. No one knows how long the Ukrainians can hold out. We have hesitated too long to provide them with the weapons needed to keep Russian supe­ri­ority at bay. We have taken too long to put in place economic sanctions that will hit hard. However, their full impact will be delayed, espe­cially since the sanctions have a gaping hole: the Russian energy sector is largely exempt.

The Russian banks through which the oil and gas trade is conducted, are not subject to any restric­tions on their inter­na­tional business. Since Putin unleashed the war, Rosneft and Gazprom have been exporting at full throttle. Due to record oil and gas prices, their revenues have skyrock­eted. In other words, the European Union is under­mining its own sanctions by increasing imports of Russian hydro­car­bons. We are flushing hundreds of millions of euros a day into the Kremlin’s war chest. What schiz­o­phrenia, supplying Ukraine with weapons with one hand and financing the Russian war machine with the other.

We are now reaping the poisonous fruits of an energy policy that has maneu­vered us over a long stretch into ever deeper depen­dence on energy imports from Russia. It was pushed by a well-lubri­cated Russia lobby, headed by a lowlife ex-chan­cellor. The “strategic energy part­ner­ship” with Russia pursued by both the SPD and the CDU/​CSU delib­er­ately or negli­gently ignored the security policy impli­ca­tions of this strategy. It ignored the warnings of our partners in Central and Eastern Europe just as callously as it ignored the security interests of Ukraine.

Now we are stuck in a trap of our own making. 55 percent of Germany’s natural gas consump­tion and more than 40 percent of our oil imports come from Russia. We have financed Russian armament and Putin’s propa­ganda apparatus for years. Russia is a fossil empire. Revenues from oil, gas, and coal exports make up the between 30 and 40 percent of the state budget. They are the source of shameless enrich­ment for the power elites, who use petro-euros to finance their palaces and luxury yachts.

To stop Putin, we must act now and immediately

The exit from this dirty alliance is not witch­craft. It requires, above all, the massive expansion of renewable energies, the estab­lish­ment of an inter­na­tional alliance for green hydrogen, the elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of transport, the increased use of heat pumps and thermal solar energy for heating homes and offices, and a leap in energy effi­ciency. The problem is: This trans­for­ma­tion of our economy takes years. But to stop Putin, we must imme­di­ately cut off his financial resources for his war machine. Ukraine cannot wait until we pain­lessly replace Russian oil and gas with alter­na­tive energy sources.

If we have good reasons to avoid getting into a direct military confronta­tion with Russia, we are left with two means of supporting Ukraine’s defensive struggle. We must supply it with the most effective weapons systems and cut off Putin’s money supply. Every day we hesitate and dither will be paid for in the blood and tears of Ukrainians.

Oil export revenues are the largest item in Russia’s trade balance. The most consis­tent response, therefore, seems to be an import freeze on Russian oil. The lost supplies would have to be replaced by increased imports from OPEC countries. However, the Kremlin could probably get over such a step. If Arab oil flows increas­ingly to Europe, Russian oil can fill the resulting gaps, provided the country is not completely isolated from inter­na­tional payments.

The situation is different with gas: Russia would not be able to compen­sate for a loss of the European market in the short term. Therefore, this is the regime’s financial Achilles heel. However, the costs of a gas embargo are also higher for the EU. Russia dominates the global gas market. Current demand exceeds supply, and natural gas imports can only be diver­si­fied to a limited extent in the short term. Liquefied natural gas (LNG) is also scarce and expensive.

Chal­lenging, but manageable

Russian natural gas covers a good 40 percent of the EU’s current demand. If we were to pull out completely, we would be left with a gap of round­about 15–20 percent in the coming winter season after exhausting all the alter­na­tives available in the short term. In Germany, this gap may be even larger due to its partic­ular depen­dency on Russian gas. It would mainly hit industry, espe­cially basic chemicals. The power sector is the least of the problems. If necessary, gas-fired power plants can be temporarily replaced by coal and nuclear. The biggest gas guzzlers are homes and office buildings. Here, a reduction in temper­a­tures of just 2 degrees would save consid­er­able amounts. No one would have to get cold feet because of this. Saving energy helps us out of a tight spot.

It is also true that a gas and oil boycott against Russia would drive up energy prices even further. Rising energy costs are already a poverty risk for low-income earners and a compet­i­tive disad­van­tage for energy-intensive companies. The state would have to provide social compen­sa­tion and ease the burden on busi­nesses to give them time to switch to alter­na­tive energy sources and more efficient processes.

Measured against the Ukrainian tragedy and Putin’s threat to the European peace order, however, these problems appear in a different light. Tackling them would be less grueling than the show of force that Covid 19 has called for. This applies to the federal budget as well as to civil society. In the end, the price we would have to pay to deprive Putin of funding for his war policy here and now would be much less than the cost of a future confronta­tion with a neo-imperial Russia.

If German and European poli­cy­makers still balk at a complete cutoff of gas imports from Russia, we should at least join with the U.S. in imposing an oil boycott. In addition, the EU could decide to shut down Nord Stream 1. This would affect about one-third of Russian gas imports to the EU and could be managed without much friction. Never­the­less, it would be a strong signal to the Kremlin that the Europeans mean business. Gazprom would then have to send its remaining exports to the EU through the conti­nental pipeline network, much of it through Ukraine. That would be the best rein­sur­ance against destruc­tion of Ukraine’s gas infra­struc­ture by the Russian military.

Either way, we must act quickly now to prevent more suffering and destruc­tion. Putin is spec­u­lating that European democ­ra­cies are not willing to pay a tangible price for defending law and freedom. He must not get away with this. The price could otherwise become much higher.

This text was first published in German at spiegel.de.


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