Russia-Ukraine crisis: What if Vladimir Putin cuts off gas supplies to Europe?

Russia remains a major energy supplier to Europe. As major sanctions are imposed, there’s fear that the Kremlin might disrupt the supply of natural gas. However, even during the peak of the Cold War, the Soviet Union did not resort to such extreme tactics

FP Explainers March 02, 2022 14:46:14 IST

Russia continues to bomb cities across Ukraine, further isolating itself from the world. In response, the US and Europe have imposed sanctions after stringent sanctions on the Kremlin, hoping to hit its economy.

Last week, Germany halted the Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea gas pipeline project, which was expected to double the flow of Russian gas to the European nation. The US also slapped sanctions on the company building the pipeline.

However, these restrictions can prove costly. Countries in Europe depend heavily on natural gas from Russia to generate electricity, power factories, and heat homes. The massive sanctions have caused energy prices to soar.

Amid the escalation, there’s a constant fear that Russian president Vladimir Putin might use what is called the “gas weapon”. Even before the invasion, Russia limited its gas exports, sending less than usual, and kept storage levels at gas facilities in Europe owned by state-run Gazprom at a low, The New York Times wrote in a January report. What’s the possibility of Putin then shutting off gas pipelines to Europe and what will be the fallout?

How dependent is Europe on Russia for natural gas

Around 35 per cent of the European Union’s supply comes from Russia. One-third of Europe’s gas supplies go through Ukraine and there’s fear that pipelines might be damaged in the conflict.

Of the 167.7 billion cubic metres of natural gas Europe imported from Russia in 2020, Germany bought the most – 56.3 billion cubic meters – followed by Italy, with 19.7 billion, and the Netherlands, with 11.2 billion, according to an Al Jazeera report.

Most of the supplies are routed through pipelines like Yamaal-Europe, which crosses Russian ally Belarus, then Poland into Germany. Nord Stream 1 goes via Ukraine directly to Germany, and TurkStream runs from Russia to Turkey.

The other European nations of Norway, The Netherlands, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary all depend largely on Russia for natural gas.

But there are a few other options in place. Germany is the biggest consumer of Russian gas but it can also turn to Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Britain for import.

Norwegian prime minister Jonas Gahr Støre said that Norway will continue to be a reliable supplier to the continent. The country is Europe’s second-largest gas supplier after Russia. However, in January, the prime minister had said that Norway was supplying gas to its maximum capacity but could not replace missing supplies from Russia.

Does Europe have any other options?

In a February 2022 review, the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies came up with a few scenarios assuming Russia cuts off gas supplies. It suggested importing more liquified natural gas (LNG).

In February, European nations reportedly imported three times the LNG it did last year, according to business data company Independent Commodity Intelligence Services. Most of it came from the United States but Qatar also remains an option. Meanwhile, Germany has recently announced that it plans to construct two LNG terminals soon to reduce its dependence on Russian gas. However, LNG might not be sufficient to meet the requirements if Kremlin takes extreme measures.

For countries in southern Europe, Trans Adriatic Pipeline to Italy and the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) through Turkey are an option. Interconnectors could be used to transfer gas to neighbouring nations, but with so much anxiety over gas, there might be a reluctance to part with its resources. Plus, the cost of imports is expected to be sky-high, Euronews reports. The other option is to boost power generation from nuclear, renewables, hydropower, or coal.

The EU has a contingency plan in place which involves turning to alternative supplies like LNG and stored gas. In case of an emergency, non-essential industries will have to reduce the use of gas. EU members with more gas are expected to back those with less.

Russia’s record

There were concerns about Putin cutting off gas supplies in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. Despite sanctions, Russia delivered gas to Europe. Even during Cold War, the Soviet Union did not restrict its gas exports. However, southeast Europe faced disruptions in 2008 and 2009 as Russia cut-off gas supply through Ukraine.

In 2006, Gazprom cut off supplies to Ukraine for a day, and in 2014, after the Crimea crisis, supplies to Kyiv were distributed, reports Reuters.

Will Russia do the unthinkable this time?

Experts believe that it is unlikely that Russia will voluntarily cut off gas supplies. Such a move will further damage its reputation. “If Russia proactively cuts off the gas, it would be very difficult for a German utility to say, ‘we want to sign another 10-year contract with a Russian counterpart’, Tom Marzec-Manser, head of gas analytics at ICIS, told Al Jazeera.

Political risk consultancy Eurasia Group also believes that a complete shutdown of gas supplies is least likely. It will have massive financial repercussions for Russia and push the EU to reduce imports from Krelim permanently. However, they have not ruled out a partial disruption. “If this happened, Moscow would likely try to shield its biggest customers, Germany and Italy, from the worst impact,” Eurasia Group analysts told CNBC.

With inputs from agencies

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