MOSCOW — For years, Russia’s ability to choke off energy shipments any time tensions spiked with the West was a potent threat, one that could force much of Europe to shiver during the wintertime. But with energy prices swooning, the Kremlin’s pipeline politics are looking a lot less threatening.
Russian energy giant Gazprom, which has long been accused of working as the Kremlin’s bludgeon, has seen demand for its natural gas drop to the lowest level in its post-Soviet history. Nations that were once fully dependent on its gas now have other options. And the company must decide by next month whether to contest an antitrust case brought by the European Union that could force it to give up its hardball tactics in Europe for good.
Gazprom’s new weakness has empowered the West to push Russia hard for its role in stoking conflict in Ukraine without fretting about the consequences of a vengeful gas cutoff in return. With the Iran nuclear deal likely to send a wave of Persian oil and gas to Europe, Gazprom may soon lose even more leverage. It is a stark reversal for a company that twice cut winter gas flows to Europe in the past decade during moments of political disputes with Ukraine. Eastern Europe took the collateral damage and had to turn down thermostats for days because of dwindling supplies of crucial natural gas for heating that normally flow through Ukraine’s pthirdipelines.
“Gazprom is in a very precarious position,” said Mikhail Krutikhin, an energy analyst at the Moscow-based RusEnergy consulting firm. The company is flailing for cash — and it no longer has a captive market to fill its coffers.
By now, Gazprom was supposed to have been the biggest publicly traded company in the world. That was what Chairman Alexey Miller boasted to a French news agency in 2008, when he said that it would be worth $1 trillion by the middle of this decade. Instead, it has shriveled to a seventh of its 2008 market valuation. In Western Europe, it has even been surpassed as a supplier by Norway, a Nordic rival with a far less expansionist agenda.
The newly sour prospects are yet another consequence of a sharp decline in energy prices that has upended alliances and assumptions from Caracas to Tokyo. But a host of challenges have conspired against Gazprom all at once.
Even during the Soviet era, Europe bought much of its natural gas from its energy-rich neighbor to the east. The Soviet Union collapsed, but the old arteries of its energy network remained, keeping Eastern Europe deeply dependent on Russia for the crucial fuel. Balkan countries are almost completely dependent on Russia for natural gas, as are Hungary and the Baltics. Overall, Russia still supplies Europe with about a third of its natural gas.
But after Russian cutoffs in 2006 and 2009 that coincided with moments of geopolitical tension, Europe became increasingly skeptical of the old model — particularly since Gazprom’s high prices made even expensive alternatives attractive. Frightened by the constant threat to its energy supply, Europe sparked a boom of construction to make it easier to get gas from other suppliers and to ship gas from one European nation to another.
“The Russians have reaped what they sowed,” said Dieter Helm, who teaches energy policy at Oxford University. “If they want to make supplies unstable, you can’t expect the customer to take it in a lying-down form.”
At the same time, vast new stores of natural gas were unlocked in the United States as part of the shale gas boom, further increasing global supplies. Europe’s own economic challenges have idled factories and slackened its appetite for energy. Ukraine, long an important Russian customer, has tried to make steep cuts to its gas consumption so that it is less dependent on a neighbor that annexed the Crimean Peninsula and then helped fuel a bitter war in the eastern part of the country.
Even the weather conspired against Gazprom. The last two winters have been unusually warm, idling radiators and furnaces.
“We suddenly find that we have a cornucopia of gas supplies,” Helm said.
Now there are signs of conciliation from Gazprom’s leaders, an unusual development at a company that has more often been a fount of bristling defiance. Miller, the chairman, said in June that Russian President Vladimir Putin had asked him to hold talks to keep pumping gas to Europe through Ukraine, a tacit recognition that attempts to find other routes were unrealistic for now.
Gas supplies to Ukraine itself remain a contentious issue. Last winter, Ukraine narrowly squeezed by despite a Russian cutoff for many of the coldest months. The two sides continue to negotiate ahead of this coming winter.
Gazprom leaders have also said they want to find a compromise with the E.U. in the antitrust case. That move came after they initially said they were not subject to European jurisdiction because they were effectively an arm of the Russian government.
“Gazprom was in a denial mode for a very, very long time,” said Ildar Davletshin, a Moscow-based energy analyst at Renaissance Capital. “It’s clear that the golden years when everyone was competing for Gazprom’s gas are over, and Gazprom is quietly adjusting.”
The antitrust case has the power to force Gazprom to adopt significantly different business practices in Europe, with prices tied closer to the cost of shipping and production rather than the vulnerability of the customer. The E.U. has leverage in the clash because Gazprom needs Europe’s cash more than Europe needs the gas, analysts say. Gazprom must provide a formal response to Europe by the middle of September.
“Oil prices are currently moving down, as we all know,” said Andrei Zotov, a deputy department head at Gazprom’s export division, in a conference call with investors last week, explaining whyrevenue was waning. Last month, Russia’s Economy Ministry forecast that Gazprom’s output could fall as much as 7 percent this year, a record low for the company.
But it has cushions that soften the blows. One major factor is the ruble, which has lost more than half its value against the dollar since the beginning of 2014. That means that even though Gazprom’s profit was down in dollar terms, when converted into rubles, it was actually up 71 percent in the first quarter of 2015. Sales to Europe may also pick up in the coming months, as countries that have put off purchases because of dropping energy prices prepare for winter.
Gazprom has tried to turn eastward to lessen its reliance on European customers, signing a major deal last year to supply China with gas. But the project will take years to complete, and China’s slowing economy is reducing demand. U.S. sanctions imposed this month against a major eastern gas field will also complicate its expansion efforts.
A few years ago, “Russia looked like it was in a pretty strong position,” said Edward Chow, an energy policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But some countries and companies have prepared themselves much better for yet another gas cutoff.”