The Guardian view on Russian gas: a threat to European solidarity

Vladimir Putin uses energy exports for leverage. Europe needs to develop strategic defences

Vladimir Putin holds a video meeting with Gazprom CEO, Alexei Miller Vladimir Putin holds a video meeting with Gazprom CEO, Alexei Miller. Photograph: Alexey Nikolsky/SPUTNIK/AFP/Getty ImagesVladimir Putin holds a video meeting with Gazprom CEO, Alexei Miller. Photograph: Alexey Nikolsky/SPUTNIK/AFP/Getty Images

Many European leaders are praying for a mild winter. A cold one would complicate the unfinished battle with Covid and, more awkwardly, drive up demand for the natural gas that fires power stations and heats homes. Since much of that gas comes from Russia, a fall in temperatures brings a rise in Kremlin leverage.

The connection between the current energy pinch and Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy is not all extortion, as some of the Kremlin’s critics claim, but nor is Russia an innocent bystander. Gas markets are more complex than a tap that Mr Putin turns on and off. But Russia’s closest neighbours, Ukraine in particular, know from bitter experience that energy exports are used by the Kremlin for strategic bullying.

Gazprom, the Russian state gas monopolist, says it prefers price stability to volatility and has honoured its contracts. Sceptics say the company is playing games to hasten German regulatory approval of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would increase supply but also lock Europe deeper into dependency on Russian exports. The strategic implications of that decision are now a hot-button issue in Berlin and wider EU policy debates.

It can be simultaneously true that Russia is not to blame for European energy vulnerability and that the Kremlin exploits the weakness to make mischief for political and commercial gain.

The diplomatic dimension of the crisis comes about from the interaction of two distinct but related trends. One is Europe’s failure over many years to develop the kind of strategic resilience it needs in a world that has moved on from the era of expanding liberalisation and dissolving borders. European energy policy and infrastructure bear the imprint of the epoch, before the 2008 financial crisis, marked by complacency in viewing globalisation on terms dictated by liberal democracies as inevitable and irreversible.

The second trend is Mr Putin’s abandonment of even a pretence of being a reliable partner on the global stage. Two decades have now elapsed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the flame of Russian democracy that briefly flickered is now an ember protected by a brave but endangered opposition. Parliamentary elections last month were rigged to guarantee a majority for the United Russia party that will do Mr Putin’s legislative bidding. The fraud was nothing new, but the techniques are becoming more elaborate to work around increasingly agile pro-democracy campaigners. Old Soviet-style repression is becoming more flagrant, as a means of generalised intimidation, to keep the population compliant. Mr Putin does not want momentum to build for any hint of regime change ahead of the next presidential poll in 2024.

Meanwhile, Russians have endured a prolonged cost-of-living crisis and a mismanaged pandemic. Corruption, nationalistic swagger, malicious espionage and revenue from resource exports are what keep the Kremlin show on the road. It is hard, under those circumstances, for European leaders to develop policies based on the normal rules of diplomacy. That applies to Britain as much as the EU. Brexit gives no advantages on that front. It is a weakening of European solidarity that had Mr Putin’s moral (and, almost certainly, material) support.

Relations in the short term are likely to remain volatile and chilly. Meanwhile, the whole of Europe must accelerate the transition to a more resilient, self-sufficient and renewable energy infrastructure. As the clocks go back in Britain this weekend, signalling the change of seasons, Boris Johnson must move on from petty post-Brexit ideological vendettas with Brussels, and re-engage sensibly with the EU on matters of foreign and security policy. The Channel is not a moat that can protect Britain from economic and political turbulence if the whole of Europe faces a cold, hard winter.


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