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With the imminent completion of Nordstream 2, the commitment of Germany, the EU, and the United States to resisting Russian efforts to exert political leverage through gas deliveries may be tested as early as this winter.
Already for four months, Russia has limited sales of gas to Europe to levels insufficient for replenishing European gas stocks. The lowest levels are in those storages in Europe that are owned by Gazprom – resulting in an enforced reliance on as-needed sales in the winter months ahead. Thus Russia is already exercising leverage by having reduced gas deliveries to Europe below the level needed for EU markets. Moreover, even if Russia raises gas deliveries to as-needed levels, but engages in new aggression against Ukraine in other areas, it carries an implied threat of reducing gas deliveries if Germany and Europe respond forcefully to such aggression.
With Nordstream 2 completed, there are a great range of potential steps, alone or in combination, that Russia could take to increase pressure on Ukraine while dissuading Europe from action. These range from reducing cross-Ukraine gas transit, to strictly limiting gas flows directly to Germany, to military moves in and around Ukraine, to action against Ukraine’s electric and cyber networks, to political declarations about occupied territories, to parallel actions in Belarus or elsewhere. Russia already claims that its biggest gas refinery in Northern Russia has been damaged by a major fire.
For Germany, the EU, and the United States, however, there is a very limited toolbox of effective action, beyond condemnatory statements.
The U.S.-German joint statement on Ukraine’s energy security reads,
“Should Russia attempt to use energy as a weapon or commit further aggressive acts against Ukraine, Germany will take action at the national level and press for effective measures at the European level, including sanctions, to limit Russian export capabilities to Europe in the energy sector, including gas, and/or in other economically relevant sectors. This commitment is designed to ensure that Russia will not misuse any pipeline, including Nord Stream 2, to achieve aggressive political ends by using energy as a weapon.”
This statement aims clearly at sanctions on a German and EU level. The United States is not similarly committed. The sanctions themselves suggest restrictions on Russia energy exports to the EU, which seems questionable as an effective tool, since it may be Russia’s own self-imposed restrictions that trigger such a crisis. Other sanctions in “economically relevant sectors” could be significant, depending on what they are. Minor extensions of existing sanctions would scarcely be noticed in Moscow; tough sanctions restricting Russian access to global financial markets, however, would be something else entirely.
In considering possible actions by Russia that could constitute, using “energy as a weapon,” the West should consider the following scenarios:
Any one of these scenarios – and others not stated – is conceivable and could be enacted by Russia within just a few months’ time. Should that occur, what should be the German, EU, U.S., NATO or otherwise “western” response? What would be proportionate and appropriate? What would be effective? What would constitute a successful response? What would be seen as harsh words with no impact?
The questions western leaders need to address – and should be the topics of YES Brainstorming discussion – are as follows:
а) What would trigger a judgment that Russia is indeed using “energy as a weapon”?
b) Other than words, what should be the Western response?
c) Should there be German, EU and/or U.S. sanctions in the event Russia restricts gas deliveries or transits?
d) If Russia engages in military action in or around Ukraine, should there be any military response? Deployments? Exercises? Assistance? NATO or not NATO? If there is no military response, would any other western action be effective in reversing Russian behavior?
e) Should there be a new format for discussing these issues involving the US, EU and Ukraine?
f) Are there things Ukraine – with German, EU and U.S. assistance – can do now to minimize the impact of future Russian actions, for example, become a net energy exporter?
g) Are there decisions that the US, Germany and the EU should take now that would deter Moscow from further provocations, and/or enable the west to respond quickly and effectively to such provocations?
h) Can Europe do more to reduce the influence achieved through Russia’s gas exports to Europe? LNG? Expanding pipeline connectivity? Ensuring that no EU member makes bilateral deals with Gazprom limiting Ukrainian access to gas? Ensuring that the third energy package applies to all NS2 and Turkstream gas? Connecting Ukraine to Europe’s electricity grid more swiftly and securely?