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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