Three main storylines crop up when people talk about energy’s role in the crisis. The first is the natural gas that Russia sells to Ukraine at heavily subsidized prices, in exchange for letting additional natural gas flow through to European customers. In 2006 and again in 2009, Russia’s Gazprom turned off the gas to try to force Ukraine’s behavior to change, which led to shortages in Ukraine and in Europe. Would Russia try the same trick again?
Probably not. The gas disputes were just as damaging for Gazprom as they were for its customers. So far, the threat of an energy embargo has played very little role in the Russia-Ukraine dispute, although the price of natural gas in Ukraine is going up.
The second storyline is European dependence on Russian natural gas, and how that affects Europe’s response to the crisis. Russia’s biggest customers, like Germany, are much more reluctant to apply strong sanctions on Russia than are other European countries (though the U.K. also resists, for separate reasons).
The true impact of energy dependence is probably more psychological than based in a rational strategic assessment. True, Germany and others would be inconvenienced if Russia shut off its gas. But the winter has been mild in Europe and utilities have sizable reserve inventories of natural gas. The real pain would be felt by Russia: It would lose income in the short term, and its reputation as a stable provider in the long term. A Russian natural gas embargo is a trick that can probably only be pulled once (not unlike the 1973 oil embargo). So in a sense, European dependence on Russian energy does not imply short-term vulnerability – except that European policymakers’ perceptions of vulnerability can become its own reality.
The third storyline is the most important yet most neglected: Russia’s resource curse. Russia’s energy revenues (from both oil and gas) have ensconced Vladimir Putin as an autocrat and given him a free hand in foreign policy. Russia is so heavily dependent on its energy revenues that it is a classic petrostate, making it more susceptible to corruption, autocracy and violent conflict.
Russia’s incursion into Crimea can be seen as a close cousin of petro-aggression. A state is more likely to instigate international conflict when it has a combination of (a) oil income and (b) a leader with aggressive preferences. A lot more likely: 250 percent more military conflict than a typical non-petrostate, on average. Oil income means more military spending, increasing the state’s scope for potential conflicts. Even more importantly, it distorts the domestic politics of the state, reducing the leader’s domestic political risk from military adventurism and aggressive foreign policy.
In my book on petro-aggression, I argued that revolutionary leaders are systematically more likely to have aggressive preferences (e.g., Qaddafi, Hussein and Khomeini). Putin is not a revolutionary leader, but that is not a necessary condition for having aggressive preferences. He has repeatedly avowed a hard-nosed, realpolitik view of the world. He has repeatedly asserted his ambition to return Russia to its status as a superpower of the first rank. It seems plausible to view Putin as an aggressive leader. So we ought to be wary when he lines up military forces next to the Ukrainian border.
Here lies the real risk of Europe’s energy situation: So long as it continues to buy Russian oil and gas, it is sending massive amounts of cash to a neighboring dictator. By keeping the taps on, Putin consolidates his power as Russian dictator.
What does all this imply for European and American energy policy? Any major changes to Ukraine or Europe’s natural gas consumption would involve infrastructure investments that will play out over years or decades. So we should be skeptical that energy policy can be used as a short-term solution to the crisis: Shale gas from the U.S. is not going solve anything in Ukraine just now.
But energy policy is important for the long term. America and especially Europe should have a hard look at managing their reliance on fossil fuels. Diversifying away from fossil fuels would bring security benefits (in addition to some obvious environmental ones), in part by reducing the money sent to petrostates like Russia. For Europe, this means more openness to civilian nuclear power as a source of energy that is less bad than the alternatives. At the very least, natural gas could be managed with a better pipeline infrastructure to prevent Russia from embargoing individual European countries.
In short, Europeans should get serious about an energy policy that is consistent with their political and environmental values. In doing so, they can help wean Russia off its energy income, and thereby reduce its leader’s scope for autocracy at home and belligerence abroad.