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Opinion Germany takes a first step toward renouncing Russian gas. But how long can it hold out?

Workers assemble the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline near Kingisepp, Russia, in 2019. (Anton Vaganov/Reuters)

Russian aggression in Ukraine has transformed German foreign policy: On Feb. 22, Chancellor Olaf Scholz put a halt to the controversial Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline — a dramatic move that recognizes that many of the German political elite’s previous assumptions about Russia no longer hold.

Recognizing that Nord Stream 2 is not a mere private business venture but a geopolitical problem was a first step in the right direction. As Scholz noted in his announcement: “There has been a dramatic change in the situation, and we must now reassess.” Germany is facing a profound rethink of its relations with Moscow.

Scholz and other German leaders should probably have gone further than just stopping the pipeline. (To be precise, Scholz merely ordered a halt to the certification process — meaning that Germany can easily resume the project when it feels so inclined.) Even so, it is hard to overstate the significance of the move. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s flagrant disregard of international law in Ukraine has pushed German politicians, commentators and the wider public to take a much harder line toward Moscow. Germany is now looking to diversify its energy supplies in the short, medium and long term. It has also vowed to reinvest in its armed forces and strengthen its commitment to NATO. Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht has demanded a bigger budget for her department to increase the deterrence value of the German armed forces. The political establishment in Berlin appears to have realized that it needs to find a way to wield economic and military power free of Russian constraints.

That won’t be easy. Germany is hugely reliant on Russian natural gas. Depending on the scale of Russian retaliation, the consequences for Germany range from vastly increased energy prices, driving up both inflation and consumer costs, to outright instability in the supply of gas and electricity. German officials believe there is enough gas in storage to get the country through the rest of the winter even if supply from Russia is halted completely. But what Germany can do beyond that remains unclear.

Germany will have to work hard to convince its neighbors that it is genuinely weaning itself off Russian gas. Polish Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski told reporters on Tuesday that he felt that “this is better than nothing but far too little, one shouldn’t keep supplying funds to an aggressive state.” The Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which started operation in 2011, will continue pumping up to 55 billion cubic meters of gas directly from Russia to Germany each year. Germany’s energy sector is still in urgent need of diversification.

The economic costs in canceling Nord Stream 2 might be high but so are the diplomatic and political benefits. The Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, recognized that this was a huge risk for Berlin to take. He tweeted his appreciation for what he knew was a tough call: “True leadership means tough decisions in difficult times. Germany’s move proves just that.” Scholz’s decision has gone some way to begin to repair the trust his country has lost in Eastern Europe in recent years.

But the policy will have an effect only if it stays in place over the long term. Russia will do everything it can to test Germany’s resolve by pretending the measures have no discernible effect while Germans struggle with unaffordable energy bills. In the wake of Scholz’s decision, Putin’s energy minister, Nikolai Shulginov, reassured a forum in Doha, Qatar, that, “Russian companies will continue [their] gas contracts to countries including Turkey and Germany. Russia will continue to provide gas to all members of the international community.”

Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev responded to Scholz’s announcement with ridicule. He tweeted Tuesday : “Well. Welcome to the brave new world where Europeans are very soon going to pay €2.000 for 1.000 cubic meters of natural gas!” This response has once again laid bare the ugly face of Russian diplomacy, which has little to offer beyond coercion and bluster. But this should not distract from the fact that Russia will need plenty of cash to realize its ambitions in Eastern Europe, in and beyond Ukraine. Selling less gas to Germany will mean less money to work with.

Halting Nord Stream 2 can deprive Putin of vital capital if it remains in effect. The new pipeline would have doubled the amount of gas that could be sold to Germany and Europe, an increase worth up to $15 billion to Gazprom, the state-owned energy company that runs the project. Depriving Moscow of this source of future income might not have an immediate effect on Putin’s actions, but it might help restrict his ability to act in the long run.

The price paid for the cancellation of Nord Stream 2 is the first step on Germany’s course to a more principled and independent foreign policy that realigns it firmly with its Western allies. That alone is worth the economic pain.