Home Energy system In the Ukrainian crisis, natural gas is a strategic weapon

In the Ukrainian crisis, natural gas is a strategic weapon

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The Joe Biden administration announced on Tuesday afternoon that it was working with gas and oil producers to bolster European supplies as Russia escalates its confrontation with Ukraine.

More than a third of European natural gas comes from Russia. An invasion would therefore likely affect the supply and price of energy in the European Union and the United Kingdom, where low supplies and high prices have already generated tensions in recent months.

The soft power of natural gas has played a role in past conflicts between Russia and Ukraine. But since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has been paying Ukraine to allow its pipelines to transport natural gas to customers in Europe.

“Ukraine is a bit like a landlord, and Russia is a bit like a tenant,” said Tom Sanzillo of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. “And he’s an unpleasant tenant, you know, who you wouldn’t normally rent to.”

But Ukraine needs rent money from pipeline contracts. Even though he knows the apartment is going to be ransacked, he can’t leave the place unoccupied.

Thus, Russian President Vladimir Putin exercises his power, and he has chosen to do so in winter, when Europeans are most dependent on Russian natural gas.

This may be Putin’s last chance to weaponize gas, said Amy Myers Jaffe, who directs the Climate Policy Lab at Tufts University.

“As more and more countries become electrified and that electricity comes from a diverse source of things, the kind of leverage that large export systems like the Russian gas export system will become in less important over time,” she said.

Putin is trying to remind Europe that he controls this ancient energy system, according to Nikos Tsafos of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Europe knows this and this is one of the reasons why it wants to move away from Russian gas.

The question is, does Putin know that his influence is limited? “You would think a rational actor would understand that the energy system is changing, and you want to be part of it. [new] energy system,” Tsafos said.

Instead, if Putin disrupts Europe’s gas supply, Tsafos said, it will likely encourage more investment in renewable energy.