Russia’s decision to restart the flow of natural gas through a vital pipeline on Thursday brought a moment of relief to Germany, which uses the fuel to power its most important industries and heat half of its homes. But it’s unlikely to be much more than that.
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has made it clear that he intends to use his country’s energy exports as a club, if not a weapon, to punish and divide European leaders – by loosening or tightening taps as it pleases and according to its war aims in Ukraine. .
He is counting on this uncertainty to impose heavy economic and political costs on European leaders. These elected officials are under increasing pressure to lower energy prices and avoid gas rationing that could force factories and government buildings to close and force people to turn down thermostats in the winter. The leaders of some countries, such as Spain and Greece, are already chafing at a European Union plan to get every member country to cut its gas consumption, arguing that they are already much less dependent on the Russia than Germany.
Many questions remain about the stability of gas supplies which have started to flow again on the gas pipeline, Nord Stream 1, which directly connects Russia and Germany. But, analysts said, it is clear that Europe, and Germany in particular, could remain tense for months over whether there will be enough energy.
In the weeks leading up to the 10-day planned maintenance shutdown that just ended, Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned energy monopoly, had already reduced flows through the pipeline to 40% of its capacity. Analysts have warned that such levels will not be enough to prevent an energy crisis next winter.
“The resumption of gas supplies from Russia via Nord Stream 1 is no reason to give the green light,” said Siegfried Russwurm, president of the Federation of German Industries. “It remains to be seen whether the gas will actually flow in the long term and in the contractually agreed quantity.”
He added: “Germany and Europe must not be blackmailed into Russian politics.”
On Wednesday, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, who previously held senior positions in the German government, presented a proposal to members of the European Union to reduce their gas consumption by 15% to prepare for an uncertain and possibly unstable supply before winter.
Before Russian forces invaded Ukraine in late February, Germany got 55% of its natural gas from Russia. Few EU countries come close to this level of dependence – a fact that is beginning to shatter European unity vis-à-vis Russia and energy policy.
Many Europeans already believe that Germany, the bloc’s biggest economy, is a wealthy neighbor that isn’t always keen to help weaker countries. This characteristic was more recently evidenced by the country’s attitude towards helping Greece, Spain and other countries that use the euro when they were experiencing financial difficulties about a year ago. a decade.
Now some of those same countries are signaling that they are unwilling to make their businesses and citizens endure more suffering when energy prices soar to help lift Germany out of its dependence. vis-à-vis Russia.
Spain’s Energy Minister Teresa Ribera said on Thursday that her country would encourage but not force its citizens to reduce their gas consumption. “Unlike other countries, we Spaniards have not lived beyond our means from an energy point of view,” she told El País newspaper, echoing the description that some German ministers used during the Eurozone crisis.
The Greek government also rejected the European Union’s call for a 15% reduction in gas consumption. Although Greece is counting on Russia to cover 40% of its gas needs, its supplies have not been cut off.
Fueling such divisions is central to Mr Putin’s strategy of cutting off gas deliveries through pipelines that run through Ukraine and Poland while limiting the volume of natural gas flowing under the Baltic Sea via the Nord Stream pipeline. 1 of 760 miles.
“Europe’s entire energy system is in crisis, and even with today’s restart of Nord Stream 1, the region is in a difficult position,” Rystad Energy, a research firm, wrote in a market note on Thursday. .
Mr Putin appears to be taking advantage of the uncertainty over whether and for how long gas will continue to flow into Germany to try to maximize his leverage for as long as he can.
A few hours before the gas flow resumed on Thursday, Gazprom said in a press release that it had still not received documentation from Siemens for a turbine sent to Canada for repair. The papers are needed for the part to be returned, the company said, adding that the engine, and others like it, had “a direct influence on the operational safety of the Nord Stream pipeline”.
Robert Habeck, Germany’s economy minister and vice-chancellor, dismissed a statement by Gazprom earlier in the day that the pipeline’s takeover of gas was proof that the Russian company was a ‘guarantor’ of energy security in Europe.
“The opposite is the case,” Mr. Habeck said. “That turns out to be a factor of uncertainty.”
The German government has already activated the second of three stages of its gas emergency plan. Included was the swapping of gas-fired power plants with those that burn coal, which releases far more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than burning gas. The third and final step would allow the government to ration supplies.
On Thursday, Mr. Habeck announced additional measures aimed at increasing the country’s gas reserves, such as conservation incentives that include more ambitious targets for storage facilities and the reactivation of power plants that burn lignite – the fuel dirtiest fossil.
He said the government was also weighing tough limits on how people could use the gas. For example, the government could ban people from heating private swimming pools with gas. When asked how these measures would be enforced, Mr Habeck drew a parallel to the bans on holding private gatherings during the early coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, which were rarely enforced – unless neighbors alert the authorities.
“I don’t think the police will visit every homeowner. It’s not our intention and it’s not the country I want to live in,” Mr. Habeck said. “But if it was reported that someone is not accepting it, we would definitely look into that.”
Whether Germans, who were among the most willing Europeans to follow public health rules in 2020 when the pandemic only began to rebel months later, will be willing to sacrifice comfort in solidarity with Ukraine has yet to be fully tested.
The German government faces what Janis Kluge, a Russia analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, called “a very delicate balance” in how it communicates with the public.
“On the one hand, they have to mobilize everyone to save energy, to save gas and tell everyone that there could be an energy emergency in the winter, while preventing this from turning into a critical of the sanctions policy and in support of Ukraine,” he said.
“That’s exactly what Putin wants to achieve,” Kluge added. “That when we make the next decision about arms deliveries to Ukraine, that somewhere in the back of our heads there’s this thought, well, what’s it going to do to our deliveries gas?”
Berlin rushed to buy more gas from the Netherlands, Norway and the United States. The government has set aside 2.94 billion euros, or about $3 billion, to lease four floating terminals in hopes they will operate in mid-winter to help stave off a recession-threatening crisis .
For years, Germany ignored warnings from its neighbors and allies that it was making itself vulnerable by becoming increasingly dependent on Russia for its energy needs.
“Germany will become totally dependent on Russian energy if it does not change course immediately,” President Donald J. Trump told the United Nations in 2018.
In response, the German delegation, which included the country’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, laughed.