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Editorial: Russia squeezes Europe

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Russia unexpectedly slashed exports of natural gas to Europe, causing higher prices and expected shortages. Experts are trying to figure out Russian President Vladimir Putin's reasons for the cutbacks. Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Russian exports of natural gas to Europe this summer were 75% below normal. Combined with a collapse in wind-driven electricity production, it’s caused gas prices to more than double and left utilities braced for major shortages of gas for electricity and heating this winter. Britain, which buys much of its gas from Russia, responded by restarting a coal-fired power plant, marking a setback in its environmental and climate policies. 

The reasons for the unexpected Russian cutback are opaque. Gasprom, the Russian gas monopoly, says it is due to topping off its gas reserves to meet winter demand while performing annual service on its equipment. But Russia might have other, more political objectives in this case. It's been suggested that it wants to prod Germany to speed up the paperwork required before the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline can begin deliveries this year. Or as it has in the past, Russia might be angling for a higher price for its regular deliveries. But there also could be darker reasons.

There have been plenty of warnings in the past two decades that Russia is willing to use its control of natural gas supplies for Europe as a political weapon. In 2009, Russia cut gas deliveries to Ukraine, allegedly over a pricing dispute, but with painful political and physical consequences for Ukrainians. It is widely assumed that Russia was applying pressure on Ukraine to distance itself from Europe and submit to Russian dominance.

When that didn’t work, Russia seized the Ukrainian province of Crimea in 2014, with its naval port Sevastopol, and backed pro-Russian separatists seeking to merge the Donbas region of Ukraine with Russia, igniting a war that continues today.

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This year’s gas crunch may have its origins in a stubborn European determination to depend on Russian gas despite the political risk. That appears to be the case with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who since 2005 has persistently followed a policy of disregarding most Russian provocations in the belief that stronger economic ties between Germany and Russia will lead to smoother political relations and reduce the danger of any new European war. 

The underlying assumption is that Russia will approach its export trade as a business proposition and be a reliable supplier. But the evidence against that is now more than a decade old. 

It is notable that the gas crunch in Europe has occurred before the opening of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Critics of Russian policy have long warned against the pipeline for two sobering reasons: Once it is in place, Russia can cut off gas to Ukraine and other bordering states without interrupting Western Europe. And Europe as a whole will be even more dependent on Russian gas — a less-than-ideal position. 

In 2019, Congress with then-President Donald Trump's strong backing passed the Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Act, in effect authorizing sanctions on companies engaged in building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Last year, the State Department announced that sanctions would be imposed. But President Joe Biden waived the proposed sanctions, suggesting that he was not alarmed by Europe’s dependency on Russia for its energy supplies. Senate Republicans on Monday vowed to block Treasury nominations until the firm managing the pipeline project is sanctioned.

We hope the concerns about Russia's darker motivations are misguided, but the time is fast approaching when we will learn whose view of Russia’s reliability as a natural gas supplier was right. 

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