September 1, 2014 5:46 pm

Call Putin’s bluff – he will not cut off Europe’s gas

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The EU could weather the winter without importing Russian energy, says Matthew Bryza
epa04370164 Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures, while answering journalists' questions after his talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Minsk, Belarus, early 27 August 2014. The presidents of Russia and Ukraine met face-to-face on 26 August 2014 for the first time since June to talk about the fighting that has engulfed Ukraine's separatist east. From their opening remarks, it appeared unlikely that Putin and Poroshenko would find common ground. EPA/ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/POOL©EPA

In Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale, two tailors promise to make an emperor a suit that is invisible to unwise people. When the emperor greets his subjects in his new clothes, only a boy has the good sense to cry out: “But, he isn’t wearing anything at all!” Such plain-spoken truth is urgently needed to dispel a myth that hobbles European strategic thinking: that Europe is too dependent on Russian natural gas to risk a serious row with Russia over its escalating war against Ukraine.

As Moscow prepares to instigate a crisis over this winter’s natural gas supplies, Europe can secure its interests by remembering that Russia is dependent on Europe as its primary gas export market – and by preparing to weather the winter without buying Russian gas.

This spring, while Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine were gearing up for action, President Vladimir Putin tried to intimidate European leaders by suggesting that the Kremlin might redirect natural gas from Europe to China in retaliation for any EU sanctions. On May 21, Mr Putin suddenly reversed a decade of resistance and caved in to Chinese demands for a lower gas price, accepting $350 per thousand cubic metres. That is 42 per cent less than the price Lithuania pays – so low that it risks depressing natural gas prices throughout the Far East, including for future Russian sales to Japan. Moreover, Moscow will have to borrow $50bn to pay for new pipelines and other infrastructure, costs that must be repaid out of the paltry revenues.

Mr Putin was willing to accept such poor economics because his main goal was political: to intimidate Europe. But behind the grandstanding, the Russian president knows that Europe is the only viable market for Russian natural gas, and that it will continue to be so for decades.

Russia sends four times as much gas to the EU as it will eventually pipe into China under the new deal. By the time those exports reach their peak, an expanded Nordstream pipeline under the Baltic sea and a new South Stream pipeline under the Black Sea will increase exports to Europe by more than 50 per cent. Finally, the gasfields that will supply China are located in eastern Siberia – too far from Europe to serve EU customers.

Russia will nevertheless threaten to stop supplying Ukraine and the EU over the winter. Three practical steps would neutralise that threat.

European leaders should not argue themselves out of tougher actions to stop Putin’s military adventurism in Europe’s east

First, the European Commission should ensure that all natural gas storage facilities in EU member states are full. This could provide a reserve of 85bn cu m, more than half the 163bn cu m that Russia supplied Europe in 2013.

Second, the commission should identify suppliers of liquefied natural gas to cover the remaining 78bn cu m the continent needs, and import it through Europe’s underused LNG terminals. The EU has enough capacity to import 104bn cu m of LNG. But the bloc imported less than a quarter of that amount in 2013 because so much of Europe’s demand is met by Gazprom. By buying an additional 78bn cu m of LNG and using storage facilities at full capacity, the EU could weather the coming winter without importing a single molecule of Russian gas.

The third step for the commission is to establish a facility to finance such purchases. A €20bn fund would suffice. It would operate through bonds issued by the European Central Bank and guaranteed by EU member states, similar to the much larger European Financial Stability Facility – a €440bn fund created at the height of the eurozone crisis to provide assistance to troubled states.

Such a fund would serve as a deterrent, demonstrating Europe’s resolve to resist the cutting off of Russian natural gas. It would place the Kremlin in the untenable position of threatening a purportedly hostile act that would in fact do Europe no harm, but would cut the Kremlin out of gas revenues that account for 10 to 15 per cent of Russia’s federal budget.

Russia would also be jeopardising its long-term position as Europe’s principal gas supplier, by allowing the US, Australia and Mozambique to gain a foothold in this lucrative market. Moreover, Russia cannot cut off natural gas flows to Europe without doing permanent damage to its own natural gas reservoirs.

In short, Europe can do without Russian gas; it is Moscow that cannot afford to carry through its threat. European leaders should not argue themselves out of tougher actions to stop Mr Putin’s military adventurism in Europe’s east.

Someone needs to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Germany will not say so; it stood by while Russian companies purchased much of Germany’s gas storage capacity this year. Perhaps the Netherlands, which has shelved plans to extend the Russian-German Nordstream pipeline into its territory following the deaths of 193 of its citizens aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, will do so. Dutch resistance to Russia’s blackmail would be a fitting tribute to those innocent victims.

The writer is director of the International Centre for Defence Studies in Tallinn and a former US ambassador to Azerbaijan


Letters in response to this article:

Power of energy weapon might be overstated / From Mr Joergen Henningsen

Waiting for a fully thoughtout energy security strategy / From Sir Crispin Tickell

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