This time General Winter is not helping Russia – and that “pure luck” gives us another year

This time General Winter is not helping Russia - and that

ANALYSIS | December and January with relatively mild temperatures emptied Putin’s gun. And this is an opportunity that Europe should not miss.

Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine, one question has preoccupied European governments more than almost any other: what will happen if Moscow turns off the gas?

The threat to cut off Russian gas supplies to European countries, many of which for years have relied on to heat homes and activate factories, was one trump card Putin could play if the war he started last February comes to a halt. would be towed.

A compressor station on the JAGAL pipeline, the German extension of the Yamal-Europa pipeline connecting Russia and Germany via Poland, pictured on April 28, 2022, after Moscow cut off supplies. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Citizens of countries not directly at war with Russia may have wondered, as the cold began to bite, why their comforts and livelihoods were sacrificed in the name of Ukraine. National leaders, feeling the pressure from within, could argue for the relaxation of sanctions or for peace brokering on terms favorable to Moscow. It was what was thought.

“There is a traditional view in Russia that General Winter is one of his best assets in war,” explained Keir Giles, senior adviser to the Chatham House think tank.

“In this case, Russia was trying to exploit the winter to increase the power of another tool in its box: the energy weapon. Russia was counting on an icy winter to bring Europe to its senses and convince the public across the continent that supporting Ukraine was not worth the pain in their wallets,” added Giles.

But that long shiver has yet to pass. Western and Central Europe are enjoying a milder-than-expected winter, which, along with a concerted effort to reduce gas consumption, has knocked Putin out of one of his biggest bargaining chips.

Manuela Schwesig and Markus Soeder, the political leaders of the German states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Bavaria, on August 30, 2022 at a major gas hub in Lubmin, where Nord Stream pipelines create landfills. Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty

As we enter 2023, European governments have a chance to adapt and reduce dependence on Russian gas before another winter sets in. This could play a vital role in keeping the West’s front united as the war continues.

How long is this window and what short-term measures can be taken to make the most of it?

Adam Bell, a former UK government official responsible for energy, says the warm winter “effectively bought Europe a year. A colder December and January would have ‘eaten up’ much of Europe’s gas reserves, leading to a physical shortage of molecules.”

However, Bell warns that just storing gas is not enough. “More work needs to be done in terms of efficiency. Homes and businesses need buildings that waste less energy through insulation. Companies need to shift production processes away from natural gas.”

Critics accuse European governments of focusing too much on direct gas price control, rather than investing in long-term measures such as efficiency and renewable energy.

“There is an understandable political instinct to lower the price, as it directly addresses the cost concerns of households and businesses. But making gas cheaper removes the incentive to reduce global consumption’, says Milan Elkerbout, researcher at the Center for European Policy Studies.

“Politicians often see energy efficiency as a long-term project. This is partly due to the shortage of materials and the shortage of skilled workers. But even small efficiency measures taken in the short term can contribute to a major global shift in consumption,” adds Elkerbout.

In the medium term, Europe now has the opportunity to implement some of the changes in its energy consumption that have proved politically difficult. The objection to renewable sources such as onshore wind farms and the criticism of the zero-tariff policy are now in a new light as the true costs and instability associated with imported gas are more obvious.

“Governments could do more to encourage and accelerate the development of renewables,” said John Springford, deputy director of the Center for European Reform. “A big step would be to give the green light to wind ashore. It would also be prudent for governments to create storage capacity for liquefied natural gas (LNG), which could happen quite quickly and immediately reduce the need for Russian gas.”

Whether European countries will seize this brief opportunity to strengthen their energy security is another matter.

“Europe’s vulnerability, suddenly exposed, was due to long-standing complacency on the part of Western powers,” says Giles.

“Western Europe was unwilling to listen to the frontline states that had warned of the Russian regime’s intent and understood that more expensive energy was a price worth paying in exchange for not being vulnerable to Russian pressure. This complacency left Russia with several outstanding goals to achieve in the main capitals of Western Europe, namely Germany,” he added.

As absurd as it sounds, as bombs continue to fall on Ukraine, a return to old complacency and failure to support Europe’s energy independence cannot be ruled out.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) said in December that global demand for coal – the most polluting of all fossil fuels – reached an all-time high in 2022, amid the energy crisis caused by Russia’s war. Just a year after countries agreed at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow to phase out their use of coal, Europe was facing the relocation of some of its recently closed coal-fired power stations.

The IEA said that while the increase in coal consumption has been relatively modest in most European countries, Germany has seen a reversal of “significant scale”.

European countries have historically been reluctant to merge their energy policies and markets. Reasons for this range from self-interest (why should one country benefit from another country’s stock?) to market control (for example, why Spain’s cheapest LNG should reduce nuclear power production).

And even if the political appetite for some sort of common market and energy policy arose, it would be extremely difficult to administer centrally, as individual countries would inevitably compete for resources and financial subsidies.

That’s what makes this current window so important. As the battles continue, it’s vital that they also serve as a reminder that if you don’t act now, you could fall asleep next winter. And a self-inflicted energy crisis would give Putin back the power that sheer luck—and unreasonably hot weather—had denied him.

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