By the end of September, the Russo-Ukrainian war had entered a parallel phase of escalation not less dangerous than the battles between the two sides on several frontlines, against the background of the bombings of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 lines which transmit Russian natural gas to Germany through the Baltic Sea.
Although the perpetrator remains unknown amid investigations and mutual accusations between Russia and the West, these bombings have added a new dimension to the Ukrainian war developments, in light of considerations related to the status of energy as a tool that could double the pressure on the West due to the excessive dependence on Russian natural gas to meet the needs of most of the countries of the European continent.
Security and technical estimates agree that the pipelines were subjected to strong and well-planned explosions, and were carried out deliberately. This was indicated by Sweden, Denmark, Poland, Russia and the United States of America along with the President of the European Union Commission, where they all confirmed that the leaks were caused by a deliberate act of sabotage. Yet, the complexities associated with the perpetrator and responsible of these attacks remain controversial, especially in light of the continuous efforts by all parties to hold the second party responsible.
In this context, Russian President Vladimir Putin described the bombings as an “act of international terrorism”, considering that the attacks on the pipelines are a dangerous precedent, and therefore blamed the United States of America, Ukraine and Poland as beneficiaries, something that was rejected by Western countries saying that Russia is the one behind these acts of sabotage in order to exert more pressure on European countries.
We cannot identify the perpetrator, but we can look for the beneficiary. We will seek to determine the gains and losses of each of the parties that could benefit from these bombings, as long as the investigations have not yet revealed the real perpetrator. It is unlikely that even if it is identified, it will end accusations between the various parties.
The United States of America is seen as one of the main beneficiaries of these bombings. It can reap a number of gains, including that the coincidence of these bombings with the approach of winter can increase feelings of anger and European resentment against Russia, which may end any attempts by some countries to reverse the imposition of sanctions on Russia in order to reduce the effects of energy shortages. Washington still fears that the need of European countries for Russian gas will cause the division of the Western bloc and the departure of some countries from the American path of escalation against Russia. Moreover, Washington could maximize its gains by increasing its liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports to Europe, guaranteeing more material returns and limiting Russia’s grip on Europe. Many believe that the US general position on the Nord Stream line supports the assumption of its involvement in the bombing, with US President Joe Biden, stating at the beginning of last February that “Nord Stream will end up if Russia invades Ukraine”.
With regard to the possibility of Russia bombing the pipelines, estimates say this guarantees a number of gains, including that it will not find itself in need to justify the reasons for cutting off gas supplies to Europe, as the bombings provide reasons beyond its control, and thus ensure the continuation of energy armament with the aim of influencing collective solidarity and European alignment with Ukraine. Proponents of this theory believe that Russia can compensate for its material losses due to the cessation of gas supplies through alternative markets by increasing its exports to China, India and some Asian countries. However, some argue that exerting pressure on Europe did not need Russia to bomb, especially as it would damage the infrastructure of the Nord Stream two lines, which cost nearly 15 billion euros for construction. Others argue that Russia wanted to convey a message that it had several means and tactics for escalation other than resorting to nuclear weapons, such as blowing up submarine cables.
On the same lines, Ukraine has been among the parties that could benefit from the bombings, as this would increase European caution for Russia, and thus the rush of NATO countries to expand paths of military support to Ukraine. In addition, damage to such a vital Russian economic resource may be among Ukraine’s calculations to affect Russia’s economic performance, thus put it in the dilemma of providing funding sources for its military operations in Ukraine.
With the bombing of the Nord Stream lines and the cessation of Russian supplies through the Yamal-Europe line, only the Turk Stream line will remain available for the transfer of Russian gas to Europe. This increases the geopolitical importance of Ankara, and enables it to achieve a number of gains. Perhaps the idea of turning Turkey into a center of Russian gas supply to Europe at the Kazakhstan meeting on 13 October go in the direction of supporting Turkey’s gains from the bombing.
Amid all this circle of accusations, Poland is not far away. Former Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorsky tweeted: “I am happy that Nord Stream, against which all Polish governments have fought for 20 years, is paralyzed in 3 quarters, and that is good for Poland”. The bombings could boost Poland’s gains, especially since it coincided with the launch of the Baltic Pipeline on 27 September linking Norway to Poland, which the latter considered a strategic goal over the past years. However, the transported quantities via the line may weaken this assumption. In addition, the synchronization may have been a coincidence, as the line will transport about 10 billion cubic meters per year from Norway to Poland, and 3 billion cubic meters from Poland to Denmark.
We can assess European efforts to end dependence on Russian gas in two ways: (1) focusing on what has been done, a sharp reduction of this dependence as imports of natural gas rapidly fell from 36 percent to 9 percent exceeding all expectations, or (2) favoring Europe’s failure to end dependence on Russian gas, 9 percent still constitutes an important and influential percentage.
Whatever the case and in light of the tug-of-war over European dependence on Russian natural gas and Moscow’s efforts to compromise that card in its war with the West, we can point to two directions that may be at the center of future interactions between the two parties, whether with the continuation of the war or in the event of any other differences between the two parties related to natural gas in particular and energy in general:
First: Cutting off Supplies
This path assumes that if the escalation continues, Moscow will rush to cut off gas supplies to European countries in order to exert more pressure and put the West in the dilemma of meeting internal needs, especially since the current tensions coincide with an unprecedented energy crisis in Europe since the 1970s, due to the decline in natural gas stock and the significant rise in prices.
Therefore, the weaponization of gas may cause a kind of confusion to European countries, in light of the heavy dependence on Russian gas, especially with the war extending to winter. This exacerbates the situation due to the need for more sources of heating, in addition to the search for electricity generation to serve manufacturing purposes, especially in industries that rely heavily on natural gas, in addition to the tendency of some companies to production reduction in light of the escalation in natural gas prices.
However, in the short term, European countries may not find themselves in a bind despite the challenges associated with natural gas. European Union countries managed to stock about 90.65 percent until mid-October, thus achieving the strategic goal of the Union countries, as most European countries succeeded in exceeding the announced target set by the European Commission, to store 80 percent of natural gas by next November.
However, the EU’s strategic goal of ending dependence on Russian gas remains linked to a number of considerations, perhaps the most prominent is what alternative routes can provide, whether through LNG (Qatar and USA), promising areas with natural gas (Eastern Mediterranean gas-producing countries) or via other pipelines (Azerbaijan and Norway). The success of European countries in achieving climate goals based on reducing the use of fossil fuels and finding alternatives is in the same lines, but may take longer time, linking European countries to Russian gas to be able to achieve those goals.
In this context, Russian gas has played a pivotal role in the prosperity of Europe and may continue likewise in the future, especially since Moscow provided about 40 percent of Europe’s gas consumption during 2021, and more than a quarter of the EU’s oil imports came from Russia. Besides, European dependence on Russian gas is clearly evident in some countries, such as Germany being one of the major industrialized countries, where it is estimated that its imports of Russian natural gas amounted to 49 percent in 2021.
The European need for Russian gas confirms the possibility of employing it in the event of an intensification and expansion of the confrontation. This assumption reinforces Russia’s historical experience: the gas crises between Russia and Ukraine in 2006 and 2009 and the dispute over gas transit fees through Ukraine have shown the possibility of Moscow seeking to ban supplies, at least partially, as the Russian cessation of supplies reflected negatively on a number of Eastern European countries, especially those that are completely dependent on Russia.
However, these differences were overcome and did not last for long. In addition, the dispute was mainly based on a discrepancy in prices associated with transit fees, unlike the current tension created by the Russo-Ukrainian war, which means the use of gas may be harmful if Russia wants to step up measures to prevent gas to Europe. This path will be controlled by the course and developments of the scene at the political, military and field levels, as more Russian losses could push Putin to employ all his tools, including arming energy and rushing to cut off supplies altogether. It is estimated that the Russian president’s calculations often contradict expectations whenever his country’s position is in trouble.
Second: Reducing Supplies
This path assumes that Moscow retains the energy card among its influential tools in the conflict with the West, and seeks to use it to exert pressure on the European market starving for natural gas. Moscow could therefore resort to reducing its exports of natural gas to European countries without completely banning them.
This is due to a number of considerations, among which is Russia’s continued regular supply of gas to Europe during all previous major crises, such as the Cold War and in the wake of the annexation of Crimea Peninsula. In addition, Moscow has contractual obligations for the supply of gas to European countries, as well as the importance of the energy sector for the Russian economy.
Accordingly, Moscow is unlikely to rush to completely cut off energy supplies to European countries, especially in light of the increasing revenues of oil and natural gas. In 2021 Russia’s exports amounted to $489.8 billion, including $110.2 billion for crude oil, compared to $68.7 billion for oil products, and about $54.2 billion of revenues from the export of natural gas through pipelines.
On the other hand, LNG exports reached $7.6 billion in 2021. The unprecedented rise in prices has contributed to huge economic gains and revenues for Russia, where it is estimated that during the preparation of the 2021 budget, the Russian Ministry of Finance had expected the price of a barrel of oil to reach $45, but it reached almost $70 a barrel, which contributed to an unexpected economic boom.
Besides, it is estimated that despite the decline in the size of exports by Russia to European countries, the rise in prices contributed to reducing the worsening of Russia’s economic conditions in some way. During the first five months of the war, Moscow made gains from oil and gas exports amounting to about $95 billion, which is equivalent to triple what it achieved from exporting gas to Europe in the winters before the war on Ukraine.
Perhaps these reasons will exclude the scenario of cutting supplies completely, and Moscow may continue in the gradual reduction approach in order to pressure Europe to stop economic sanctions or reduce them. It is betting on the inability of some European countries to withstand for long times in the event of continued supply cuts, which may push those countries to adopt a position supporting the lifting of sanctions. This has clearly been expressed by Dmitry Peskov, the Russian President Spokesperson September 2022, as he stressed that Kremlin wants the EU to roll back its sanctions in exchange for Russia resuming full gas shipments to the continent.
In summary, the Nord Stream lines bombings multiplied the challenges posed by the Russian war on Ukraine. They also opened the door to various questions related to the limits of the Kremlin’s possible use of the energy weapon against the West. It is estimated that the continuation of the war and the escalation of Russia’s military losses under the Ukrainian awakening over the past weeks may increase the importance of energy in the equation of war, and this is what Moscow may resort to in the framework of testing the ability of a number of European countries to continue to survive.