Matthew Dotzler, MPP, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives
The fight for the soul of Eastern Europe has continued since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the rise of the Russian Federation. The former Soviet states have come far since being released from the shackles of the USSR, but their independence and freedom is always under threat. The European Union provided them with economic opportunity, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) offered security, and Eastern Europeans wrought their democracies through blood, tears, and honest hope for a better life. For all of this progress, there remains the looming shadow of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his hatred of the West, which leaves Eastern Europe in a state of continual tug-of-war between liberal beliefs and autocratic power. The Kremlin’s attempt to influence and subvert through soft power and clandestine tactics is not always successful, but there is one thing Russia has always relied on in its fight to bind Europe to its will…oil and gas.
Oil and gas have binded Europe and Russia together through the turmoil of the last 70 years. Europe depends on Russian oil and natural gas to keep the lights on and Russia relies on their sales to stave off economic collapse. However, within this free market ideal, there lies a very real threat to security. Europe imports almost 25 percent of its total fossil fuel and gas from the Russian-owned company Gazprom. According to Bloomberg Markets, Gazprom owns 34 percent of the total market in Europe. Considering that Russia and the European Union are often at odds, it is a risk to rely so much on Russia for energy.
This risk has manifested before. According to the BBC, Russia turned off the pipelines in 2006 following price disputes, and again in the harsh winter of 2008-2009 as Ukraine and Putin clashed. The latter incident occurred during the Crimean conflict and in retaliation to failed energy talks. These occurrences highlight an important vulnerability, one felt not just by Ukraine, but by the entirety of Europe.
As one main artery carries 80 percent of Russian gas to Europe, an isolated dispute can suddenly become a continent-wide problem. Russia has, for some time, put pressure on the nations making up Europe’s edge. Should the Kremlin get bold and choose to push the boundaries of these territories, like it did in Crimea, it has a means of holding the European Union hostage and pressuring NATO member states. Energy is essential to functioning societies, and as we saw in 2009, a brief shut off can bring nations to their knees. When it comes to the security of European and NATO allies, any potential threat is a serious issue.
Long term dependence on Russian energy is a security risk that the European Union cannot afford. The only way to keep this risk in check is to decrease dependency on Russian oil and gas, if not eliminate its need entirely. A decade ago this suggestion would have been impossible, but with advancements in renewables and alternative energy sources, it is time to break the addiction to Russia.
One obvious alternative to gas and oil dependency is nuclear energy. Much of Europe already has an abundance of nuclear reactors, but there should be greater investment in the power source in order to gain energy independence. While clean and safe, nuclear energy comes with a stigma so harsh that the public outcry could derail any proposals. Nuclear power plants are also expensive to build and require a staff of highly trained and attentive workers. For some states, these costs might prove too much and they may not have the population to justify a reactor’s production.
That leaves Europe with one serious option: renewables. Several European nations have made substantial advancements on this front. Portugal ran its entire country off of renewable energy for four days in 2016. Germany has also made significant advancements in renewable energy use, drawing 35 percent of their energy from renewables in the first half of 2017. The European Union should take the opportunity to increase funding available to its members states to invest in renewables and seek to provide incentives for countries to make the change. Countries should share their renewable knowledge and in turn strengthen the collective security of Europe.
Beating the Reliance
Europe faces an uncertain future as Russia steps up its soft power assault on the security of the continent. High dependence on Russian oil and gas is a security threat and a disaster waiting to happen should Putin decide to cut the supply lines. Previous stoppages in imports demonstrate Europe’s vulnerability and, while those disputes were resolved, there is no certainty that the lights will remain on in the future. Europe’s best option is to break free from oil and gas dependence. There are viable alternatives and it is in the collective interest of all European states to invest in this initiative. Failure to do so could be dangerous.