LUBMIN, Germany – Past a nudist beach and a sleepy marina, a gigantic mesh of metal pipes rises from the pine forest behind the tiny village of Lubmin on Germany’s Baltic coast.
If few people have heard of Lubmin from Berlin to Washington, many seem to know the names of the two gas pipelines arriving here directly from Russia: Nord Stream 1, which transports nearly 60 million cubic meters of natural gas per year to maintain the Europe’s biggest economy buzzing. And Nord Stream 2, built to boost that throughput but shut down abruptly on the eve of Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
The pair of pipelines have become a dual symbol of Germany‘s dangerous dependence on Russian gas – and the country’s belated and frantic efforts to wean itself off it – with growing calls for the European Union to hit Moscow with sanctions harsher as atrocities come to light in Ukraine. .
On Tuesday, the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, proposed to ban imports of Russian coal and soon, possibly, its oil. But Russian gas – much more critical for Germany and much of the rest of Europe – was not on the table. At least for now.
“We depend on them,” said Axel Vogt, mayor of Lubmin, which has a population of just 2,119, as he stood in the industrial port between the two pipelines one recent morning. “None of us imagined that Russia would go to war. Today Russia is one of our main gas suppliers and it is not something that we can change overnight.
This dependence on Russia – which accounts for more than a quarter of Germany’s total energy consumption – means that Berlin has so far refused to cut President Vladimir V. Putin, from whom he effectively subsidizes the war to the tune of about 200 million euros, or about $220 million, in energy payments every day.
Images of mass graves and murdered civilians in the Ukrainian town of Bucha have horrified Europe and spurred demands for a Russian energy embargo, especially among Germany’s eastern neighbors.
“To buy Russian oil and gas is to finance war crimes,” said Gabrielius Landsbergis, the foreign minister of Lithuania, which has stopped all imports of Russian gas. “Dear EU friends, pull the plug. Don’t be complicit.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz reacted quickly to Bucha’s footage, condemning “war crimes committed by the Russian military”, expelling 40 Russian diplomats and promising new, tougher sanctions against Moscow. The German network regulator has gone so far as to buy the German subsidiary of Gazprom, the main Russian gas company and owner of Nord Stream.
But government ministers have so far ruled out a ban on Russian gas imports. The reasons are clear.
For years, Berlin has happily relied on Moscow for more than half of its gas imports, a third of its oil imports and half of its hard coal imports, ignoring warnings from the United States and other allies about the militarization of its energy supplies by Russia. Every second German home is heated with gas, and gas also powers much of Germany’s vaunted export industry.
Kicking the habit won’t be easy in the short term without a shock to a German economy which, like others in Europe, is still recovering from the pandemic.
“Our strategy is to become independent of Russian gas, coal and oil, but not immediately,” said Robert Habeck, Germany’s economy minister and vice-chancellor, who visited Qatar and Washington at the search for alternative gas contracts.
The government is taking steps to make Germany independent of Russian coal by the summer and of Russian oil by the end of the year. Already, the share of oil imports from Russia has fallen to 20% and Russian coal imports have been halved.
But gas – which Germany is relying on as a bridge to its goal of a carbon-neutral economy by 2045 – is another matter entirely. Mr Habeck and others said becoming independent of Russian supply would take at least two years.
“We cannot replace gas in the short term,” said Christian Lindner, the Minister of Finance. “We would hurt each other more than them.”
Germany had pledged to phase out nuclear power under former Chancellor Angela Merkel, leaving the country more dependent on Russia than before. The legacy of this decision is also found in Lubmin.
Behind the gleaming pipelines are the outlines of a closed nuclear power plant, once the largest in communist East Germany. The same year that Mrs Merkel celebrated the opening of Nord Stream 2, she announced that Germany would phase out nuclear power. The last three nuclear power plants are expected to come off the grid this year.
“It was a huge mistake, which in light of what is happening now is more evident than ever,” said Mr Vogt, the mayor.
Even before Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Mr. Scholz’s new coalition’s plans to phase out nuclear power and coal simultaneously while transforming Germany into a carbon-neutral economy seemed ambitious.
Now even Green politicians like Mr. Habeck are exploring what it would take to keep the last nuclear power stations working longer. Some fear that the 2030 deadline for the closure of the last coal-fired power plants may also have to be pushed back.
But pressure for a rapid exit from Russian fossil fuels is growing even in Germany, with some arguing that rooted in its own history of genocide, Germany had a moral obligation that outweighed economic considerations.
“The country that proudly proclaims that Europe will never see Auschwitz again is pumping 200 million euros every day into Putin’s war chest,” wrote the financial newspaper Handelsblatt in an editorial. “Suddenly the discussion in Germany about whether our economy would grow by 6% or just 3% in the event of an energy embargo seems petty and insignificant. We look like a Kremlin hostage.
Russia’s war on Ukraine was a wake-up call for Germany, which for decades had bet that trade and economic interdependence with Moscow would keep the peace in Europe.
But days after the invasion, Mr Scholz pledged to break with the energy policy of Mrs Merkel and her predecessor Gerhard Schröder, who still sits on the board of Russian oil company Rosneft and chairs the committee. shareholders of Nord Stream 2.
Mr. Vogt, the mayor of Lubmin, remembers hosting Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Schröder in 2011. They had come to open the gas tap with Dmitry Medvedev, then President of Russia. “This pipeline will make Europe’s energy supply much more secure,” Schröder said at the time.
In February, after Mr. Scholz suspended Nord Stream 2, Mr. Medvedev, now deputy chairman of the Russian National Security Council, said on Twitter: “Welcome to a new world, in which Europeans will soon pay 2,000 euros per 1,000 cubic meters of gas”. .”
On her morning stroll along the beach and past the Lubmin pipelines on a recent morning, Petra Krüger, a 57-year-old radiologist and mother of two, said she was worried about rising medical costs. energy and that it only heated up in the afternoon. She recalled the excitement in the village when the original Nord Stream pipeline was built after years of industrial decline.
“It felt like the community had earned that long-term lifeline,” she recalls.
“We were all duped,” she added. “We should never have allowed ourselves to become so dependent. It’s frightening.”
Rising energy costs not only in Germany but also across Europe have raised the question of who will be more affected by a Russian energy embargo – Mr. Putin or the West.
Some argue that Germany should cut gas ties first.
“We should act before Putin,” said Roderich Kiesewetter, a conservative lawmaker and member of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee.
The prospect of Mr. Putin himself turning off the gas tap is a scenario the German government is actively preparing for. Last week, Mr. Habeck activated the first stage of a national gas emergency plan which could eventually lead to the rationing of natural gas.
Every day, a crisis team made up of representatives from government, regulators and private industry meets to monitor the gas supply. If they start to run low, the government will step in to start rationing the supply of natural gas. Households and essential public services, including hospitals and emergency services, would be prioritized over industry, according to a planning document.
Not only is Nord Stream controlled by Russia. The same goes for Germany’s – and Western Europe’s – largest gas storage facility, which was taken over by Gazprom in 2015 along with others. Some of those facilities have been demonstrably low, say German officials, who are spying on a strategic move by Moscow.
“We need to increase precautionary measures to prepare for an escalation from Russia,” said Economy Minister Habeck, urging German consumers and businesses to start making efforts to reduce their energy consumption as much as possible.
“Every kilowatt hour counts,” he said.
But there are already fears that Germany is trading one dependency for another.
In the long term, the strategy is to accelerate Germany’s transition to renewable energy – or “energy of freedom”, as the Minister of Finance called it. But 95% of solar cells and 85% of solar modules are produced in China.
“If Russia and China gang up on us right now, they could flatten us,” said Gunter Erfurt, chief executive of Meyer Burger, the only European company currently making solar modules with its own solar cells. “We need to bring solar manufacturing back to Europe. Europe must diversify and accelerate.
Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from Berlin.