James Kirchick is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of “The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age.”
Russia’s state-controlled gas provider, Gazprom, has just announced that it is cutting down to 20 percent of capacity the amount of natural gas it delivers to Germany through the main pipeline connecting both countries. Whatever pretext Moscow might offer for the move, the real reason is clear to all: Russia is retaliating for E.U. sanctions levied because of its war against Ukraine. “Russia is blackmailing us,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen complained. “Russia is using energy as a weapon.”
Von der Leyen made her announcement as if it were news. But it’s not — not to anyone who’s been paying attention over the past two decades. Using energy as a political weapon is hardly a novel tactic for Russian President Vladimir Putin. That Europe faces an energy crisis because of Russian energy blackmail, then, is just as predictable as Russia’s atrocious conduct in its war on Ukraine.
It did not have to be this way. Led by the continent’s biggest and richest power, Germany, Europe had plenty of time to avoid the unenviable predicament in which it now finds itself. The European energy dilemma is the result of three interrelated illusions: that dependence on Russian gas was worth whatever (minor) risks it entailed, that the supplier of that gas was a partner rather than an adversary, and that conventional war on the continent was a thing of the past.
For years, German politicians routinely deflected criticism of Nord Stream by stating that their hands were tied. The pipeline was a “commercial project,” they insisted, over which the German government exercised no control. But increasing European dependence on Russian gas at the expense of other sources has always entailed a political dimension, especially in Germany. No one forced Berlin to shutter its nuclear energy sector in a fit of characteristically German panic in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Unlike the island nation of Japan, Germany sits in the middle of a continent, safe from the earthquake-induced tsunamis of the sort that destroyed the Fukushima plant. Thanks to then-Chancellor Angela Merkel’s hasty decision to phase out nuclear energy by the end of 2022 by the time Putin decided to wage energy war against Europe, Germany was even more addicted to Russian gas.
Belying their excuse that Nord Stream 2 exists beyond the reach of politics, the German political establishment fell under the spell of another illusion, which was that the project represented the apotheosis of Russia’s integration with the West. A mere week after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, the chief executive of German industrial giant Siemens visited Moscow, where he spoke of the first armed seizure of territory on European soil since World War II as mere “short-term turbulence” in an otherwise constructive relationship. A few months later, then-foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier traveled to Yekaterinburg, Russia, to endorse an “economic-political” partnership between Moscow and the European Union.
Plans for a second Nord Stream pipeline proceeded despite the threat of sanctions from the Trump administration. Last February, nearly 80 years after his country’s invasion of the Soviet Union, Steinmeier (now Germany’s president) defended Nord Stream 2 as “one of the last bridges between Russia and Europe,” imbuing the enterprise with the moral gravity Germany usually reserves for initiatives related to postwar reconciliation. Only after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was the pipeline put on hold.
Europe would not be facing an energy crisis today had more of its leaders seen through the third and final illusion, that of a continent blessed with perpetual peace. Putin’s belief that he could subjugate Ukraine — the precipitating cause of the imminent energy crisis — owes a great deal to Western Europe’s lackluster military support for its embattled neighbor as well as its own anemic defense outlays. NATO’s refusal, at the behest of France and Germany, to provide Georgia and Ukraine with pathways to membership in 2008 sent Putin a greenlight to invade both countries. The decrepit state of European militaries, Germany’s in particular, similarly signaled a lack of seriousness about defending the continent from Russian predation.
Western European leaders were warned repeatedly as to the nature of their illusions, no more forcefully than by Eastern Europeans. As early as 2006, Poland’s defense minister compared Nord Stream to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which infamously divided the nations of Eastern Europe between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Three years later, in response to the Obama administration’s ill-fated “reset” with Moscow, a group of distinguished Central and Eastern European statesmen issued an open letter, declaring that “Russia is back as a revisionist power pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-century tactics and methods.” Their admonitions went unheeded.
If Germans find themselves shivering more than usual this winter, they have no one to blame but themselves.