Stop blaming Russia for the energy crisis

The West is playing a foolish game of pipeline politics.

Mary Dejevsky

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Topics Politics UK USA World

Over the past few weeks, the US and the UK have been engaged in an extraordinary example of what we have come to know, courtesy of Boris Johnson, as ‘cakeism’ – simultaneously demanding two different things that logically, and under normal circumstances, would rule each other out.

On the one hand, they have been doing their utmost to prevent Nord Stream 2 – the new Arctic to Germany gas pipeline – from going into operation, accusing Russia of energy imperialism. This is because the pipeline bypasses Ukraine – now a sort-of honorary Western ally – and could deprive Kiev of several million dollars a year in transit fees. On the other, they have been almost begging Russia to supply more gas to Europe. They have accused Russia variously of withholding gas, unilaterally reducing supplies and manipulating the market to maximise returns.

Characteristically, the US and the UK have taken slightly different approaches. The US has weighed in on the diplomatic front, with national security adviser Jake Sullivan warning Russia against using Europe’s need for Russian gas as geopolitical ‘leverage’. The UK, meanwhile, has used the tried and tested channel of tabloid fury. The Sun, under the headline ‘PIPE DOWN’, accused President Putin of ‘sending gas prices soaring so UK supermarket shelves are left bare’. The Daily Mail’s headline blustered: ‘At the mercy of Putin: Russia flexes muscles over gas supplies.’ The paper charged a ‘bullying’ Putin with having the West ‘over a barrel’.

Of course, at the height of the double crisis in the UK, with petrol stations dry and smaller gas companies going bankrupt by the day, it was oh-so-convenient to find a tried-and-tested scapegoat in Russia. Small matter that the fuel dearth has nothing whatsoever to do with Russia and the high gas prices are related to Russia only insofar as Russia is a major producer and supplier to Europe.

The stratospheric rise in prices is rather the result of a malign combination of market forces – last year’s cold winter, rising demand from Asia, less wind power generated in Europe, and the faster-than-expected recovery of industry following the pandemic. This was exacerbated by the decision of UK and Europe to abandon the practice of signing long-term contracts, choosing to gamble instead on lower spot-market prices – a bad call if ever there was one.

As so often happens, the West rushed to blame Russia for difficulties that were at least partly of its own making. There was also the presumption – never far from the surface – that Russia should somehow recognise a moral obligation to help Europe, either by supplying more gas or reducing prices, or preferably both. There is often something of the injured adult upbraiding a petulant child in the way the US and the UK address Russia on all manner of disagreements, but here was a particularly blatant example.

Why on Earth should Russia, whose economic fortunes rise and fall to a large extent in response to international energy prices, be expected to engage in acts of charity? No one expects that of other producers, such as Saudi Arabia or the Gulf States. Why should we expect that of Russia? Why, too, should Moscow be expected to refrain from exercising the leverage that it may now enjoy, thanks to poor decisions by its European customers, to smooth the way for Nord Stream 2 to come into operation? That’s not blackmail; that’s realpolitik.

Given the opprobrium that has headed its way, Russia’s response could be described as – unusually – measured. Putin himself went on the record to say that Russia was not averse to supplying more gas to European countries, if they asked. This led at once to a calming of the price frenzy. Russia’s ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, for his part, suggested to Brussels that a change of attitude might help. ‘The crux of the matter is only a matter of phraseology’, Chizhov told the Financial Times. ‘Change “adversary” to “partner” and things get resolved easier… when the EU finds enough political will to do this, they will know where to find us.’

Now, Putin has put Russia’s position on the record. Addressing Russian Energy Week in Moscow on Wednesday, he insisted that Russia was meeting all its contractual obligations and more – something that no one familiar with the energy sector has challenged. He suggested that Europe had staked too much on renewables without having sufficient reserves in the event that the wind dropped (which he cited as one cause of the rising gas prices). And he proposed high-level talks with the EU to discuss measures to help stabilise the gas market. How the EU will respond remains to be seen.

In the end, the US, the UK and the EU need to learn from Germany how to separate the Russia they (still) need as an energy supplier and the Russia whose treatment of opposition figures at home and actions abroad they deplore. Angela Merkel and her predecessors mastered the art of dealing with Russia in a way that served Germany’s own interests, while at the same time communicating their disapproval on other matters in no uncertain terms.

President Biden was doing no more than recognising reality when he halted US efforts to prevent the completion of Nord Stream 2 earlier this year. Now, members of his entourage, their UK counterparts and those EU countries still fulminating against that pipeline need to follow suit. If they need Russian gas – and most do – they would do well to follow Chizhov’s advice and start treating Russia as a grown-up trading partner. They might find, miraculously, that prices start to fall.

Mary Dejevsky is a writer and broadcaster. She was Moscow correspondent for The Times between 1988 and 1992. She has also been a correspondent from Paris, Washington and China.

Picture by: Getty.

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