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Europe dodged Putin’s gas bullet.  But he’s still thirsty for cheap energy


From the moment the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine seemed inevitable, Europe knew it would soon have to ask itself very complex questions.

One of the main questions was whether the continent could wean itself off the Russian gas it had been craving for decades – and avoid being at the mercy of President Vladimir Putin if he cut off that supply in response to support for the crisis. ‘Ukraine.

For Europe, energy security has always been a trade-off: cheap imported energy carries the risk of dependence on the countries from which it comes.

In the case of Russia and its natural gas, officials initially speculated that a long, cold winter in 2022-23 could force Europe to temper its sanctions on Moscow. After all, developed countries like those of the European Union could not reasonably let their citizens cool down for the good of Ukraine.

However, a combination of luck, planning and European support for Ukraine has rendered the energy war – once seen as Putin’s trump card – superfluous. Europe experienced a particularly mild winter while governments and citizens made a concerted effort to consume less gas.

This combination of a mild winter and lower gas consumption created a window for Europe to deviate from its Wandel durch Handel (Change through Trade) policy – ​​which assumed that Russia would would align with Western values ​​when it comes to money.

The first step was to reduce imports from Russia. In 2021, the year before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, 45% of all gas imported by the EU came from Russia. In Germany, this figure is 52%. Those numbers have since dropped. According to EU data, in the first quarter of 2023, Russia accounted for just 17.4% of all gas imported from the bloc.

The second step was to take advantage of the warm winter and fill gas reserves in preparation for the cold season of 2023-2024.

European gas stocks are already so full this year that there is consensus that the Kremlin will not be able to weaponize energy in a way that would alter European resolve against Moscow and its support for Ukraine. The EU as a whole met its target of 90% full stocks by mid-August, months ahead of the November 1 deadline.

Moreover, Europe has considerably diversified its energy sources.

Now on to the bad news. Despite these efforts, officials and analysts fear that, as impressive as this progress is, European energy is far from secure in the long term.

The most immediate point of concern is that Europe has diversified its gas imports, much of what is currently in reserve is liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Europe dodged Putin’s gas bullet.  But he’s still thirsty for cheap energy

“LNG is such an obvious solution that it has become the priority, but since LNG is also so flexible and tradable, it is a little more difficult to trace its provenance”, explains Milan Elkerbout, researcher at the Center for European political studies.

“This means that indirectly, part of the LNG can come from Russia and thus contribute to their income,” he adds.

While the EU says most of its LNG is purchased from the United States, Qatar and Nigeria, it is often sold on exchanges where the contracts are for volumes without any reference to origin.

The second area of ​​concern – and arguably the most important – concerns the long term.

Even though Europe may have partially abandoned the policy of change through trade with Russia, it still depends on others for its energy. And when it comes to energy security, dependency ultimately brings us back to that classic trade-off: savings versus risk.

One of the ways the EU hopes to break free from its energy dependence is to implement its Green Deal, an ambitious plan to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. The project, which , according to current projections, will cost more than 1,000 billion euros (1,070 billion dollars). ), will be achieved through many means, from planting 3 billion new trees to renovating buildings to make them more energy efficient. Of course, massive investments in renewable energy and clean transport will also play a major role.

The first major step of the Green Deal is for EU greenhouse gas emissions to fall by 55% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. Critics are increasingly concerned about the slow progress on achieve this objective, in addition to huge costs for each member state, some will turn to another foreign source to help with the energy transition: China.

Europe dodged Putin’s gas bullet.  But he’s still thirsty for cheap energy

Few in Brussels will tell you that the EU’s relations with Beijing are currently satisfactory. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recently shifted her view on China to a more hawkish stance, referring in some detail to the need to “de-risk” Europe’s relationship with China. this country. However, she also recognizes that many of Europe’s long-term projects would be better achieved by working in partnership with China, including its ambitions for a green Europe.

Von der Leyen’s position reflects the divergent views among the 27 EU member states. Some are extremely warmongering and see China as an authoritarian tyrant and an existential security threat; Some see it as an obvious source of cheap solar panels, wind turbines and batteries. Others see no alternative but to work with China, but want to proceed with caution.

The threat, some say, is that China has already strategically established itself as a key player in many critical technologies and raw materials that are essential to a green transition.

“China launched its green energy industrial strategy about 15 years ago. They did it so well secure natural resources like lithium for batteries, steel for wind turbines, and we have already built the manufacturing capacity to make all of this equipment,” says Adam Bell, former UK government energy chief.

“Meanwhile, Europe has dithered and it is now probably inevitable that China will play a significant role in Europe’s green future without radical action,” he adds.

Europe dodged Putin’s gas bullet.  But he’s still thirsty for cheap energy

What does all this have to do with geopolitics and security?

“Chinese state-subsidized capitalism, together with control of a significant amount of critical raw materials, gives Chinese industry a significant competitive advantage, which European companies will find it increasingly difficult to match,” says Velina Chakarova, a leading expert on European security.

“Chinese tactics to divide and weaken unity among America’s European allies, as well as its regional ambitions in countries like Taiwan, could become a pressure point where China leverages its geo-economic influence through its reliance on minerals and rare earths to achieve its geopolitical goals,” Tchakarova said.

Several Western officials have pointed to more direct security threats posed by Beijing if Europe ends up relying on it for its green transition. These threats range from supply vulnerabilities, as Europe has seen with Russia, to direct cyberattacks via technology created in China. While European officials are often embarrassed to address this issue publicly, senior EU security officials have previously told CNN that China remains the main source of cyberattacks within the EU, most focused on industrial espionage.

China has repeatedly denied any involvement in cyberattacks.

China is not the only energy security threat in Europe. The EU imports energy from many countries whose democratic and geopolitical objectives do not correspond to those of Brussels: Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Khazakstan, Libya and, of course, Russia.

Europe has made great efforts to solve this problem and the speed with which it reacted to the Russian crisis is impressive, whereas it once seemed impossible. However, Europe’s large and aging population – combined with its stagnating economies – still needs huge amounts of energy to sustain its current lifestyle.

As one European diplomat put it: “It is one of the ironies of life that the countries that hold the energy cards are sometimes, at best, unreliable partners and, at worst, future enemies. »