Fears are growing that embattled Russian President Vladimir Putin will use cold weather as a weapon in the fight against Ukraine by exacerbating an energy crisis in Europe. a resurgent Ukraine that has taken over thousands of kilometers of territory in a recent offensive.
“The real question is: how much natural gas will Putin supply Russia with this winter?” said Samantha Gross, director of the Brookings Institution’s Energy Security and Climate Initiative.
Putin has threatened to cut energy sales to some countries in retaliation for a European Union proposal to curb Russian oil and natural gas prices, while Europe’s energy crisis has already pushed countries on the brink of recession.
The Russian leader, Gross noted, also said last week that he would increase gas sales to Europe if the international community eases sanctions in response to the invasion, which almost certainly won’t happen.
“I think he’s running out of cards to play,” Michael Allen, former President George W. Bush’s special assistant on the National Security Council, said referring to Putin. “He seems more and more desperate because the Ukrainians took so much land this weekend.”
Ukraine has recently conquered thousands of kilometers of territory in the northeast of the country and has forced thousands of Kremlin troops to withdraw since the Ukrainian army’s counter-offensive began last week.
“It certainly doesn’t help that the war doesn’t go on” [Putin’s] way, and I think that might increase his tendency to lash out,” Gross told The Hill.
The US, meanwhile, has dramatically ramped up its own natural gas exports since the start of the crisis, but the federal government is under domestic pressure to let much of that supply go to the state for the winter.
In late August, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm called on major oil refineries to limit their exports to Europe, citing the need to build up domestic diesel stocks before winter.
“I think we’re going to feel the pain too,” said Robbie Diamond, president of energy security think tank Securing America’s Future Energy. Even as US gas exports increased, natural gas prices hit an all-time high in August, he noted.
For Putin, the lost sales due to the cessation of deliveries to Europe can be made up for by sales to other countries, Diamond noted. “So as long as he finds ways to get that oil out, even at a discounted price, he will continue to generate revenue,” he said.
While Russia’s influence on oil is a ‘global problem’, natural gas is much more specifically a European problem. Germany, in particular, relies heavily on cheap Russian gas for its industrial base, he said, so in the worst case scenario it will be not just a cold winter, but one with possible plant closures.
If Putin’s weaponization of energy continues, Gross said, its effects on the lives of individual Europeans will vary “at the country level and at the divisional level, depending on how consumers use natural gas.” [and] if they use natural gas.”
Heidi Crebo-Rediker, deputy senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, predicted that Putin will tighten more “the screws” on energy and raw materials.
But she also argued that Ukraine’s recent offensives on the battlefield will at least lead to Europeans continuing to support the Ukrainian military despite economic tensions at home.
“For Europeans, who are approaching a daunting energy situation in the winter, seeing Ukraine’s military progress is a reason to muster the extra strength they will need,” she said. “I think this particular turn of events on the battlefield shows that this case is worth pursuing and that there are military gains to be made.”
The US has shipped twice as much natural gas to Europe as it did last year, and the White House is looking at other options to help and increase national gas exports during the crisis.
Europe is under increasing pressure to reduce its reliance on Russian energy and has reportedly cut imports by 35 percent since the start of the war.
“I think they know that the criticism the United States has of them that they were unnecessarily dependent on Russian gas is true and they need to diversify as soon as possible,” Allen said, adding that Europe is looking to other gas sources, such as the US
British Prime Minister Liz Truss is expected to announce details of her plan to ease the energy crisis next week. Meanwhile, the European Commission is trying to force fossil fuel companies that have made record profits during the energy crisis to make a financial contribution to help consumers, Reuters reported.
“Europeans need to think very carefully about how they want to handle this,” said Eric Ueland, the secretary of state for civil security, democracy and human rights under former President Trump. “More may need to be done if President Putin decides that energy is one of his strongest weapons here to respond to the actions in Ukraine.”
For the countries most dependent on Russian gas, including Italy, France and Germany last year, “the question is, will gas be available for these people to heat their homes?” said Gross. “And even if it’s available, will they be able to afford it?”
The crisis also makes actual seasonal temperatures of particular concern, she added. “Is it an unusually cold winter or is it a warm winter? We don’t know, but we’re going to find out.”
Diamond said that, like both the fighting on the ground and pressure from the international community, it will likely depend on whether Putin or Europe is more willing to bear the consequences.
‘I would say this is a war of the Russian novel. A lot of people have said that the reason Russian novels are so long historically is that they have really long winters,” Diamond said.