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Russia Blows Up Gas Pipelines, Declaring an All-Out Energy War It May Already Have Lost

7 minute read
Jayanti is an Eastern Europe energy policy expert. She served for ten years as a U.S. diplomat, including as the Energy Chief at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine (2018-2020), and as international energy counsel at the U.S. Department of Commerce (2020-2021). She is currently the Managing Director of Eney, a U.S.-Ukrainian decarbonization company.  

There may be no clearer sign of an enemy in retreat than his scuttling his own ships, which is what Putin appears to have done on Monday by blowing up the main pipelines for exporting Russia’s natural gas to Europe. Putin may be in effect declaring an all-out energy war by completely cutting off fossil fuel exports to the West, but by waiting seven months after invading Ukraine to do so he has lost the advantage. Although the energy crisis will rage on, Russia has lost the energy war.

A series of three explosions ruptured parts of both Nord Stream 1 and 2 on September 26 in what seems to have been an act of coordinated sabotage. A possible fourth leak was also just identified. The natural gas pipelines, each running from Russia into Poland with a capacity of 55 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year, were a key part of Russia’s efforts to wield energy leverage over Europe and to hurt Ukraine. Nord Stream 2 in particular was intended only as a way of bypassing Ukraine so that Kyiv would be deprived the roughly $3 billion annual transit fees for moving the gas of Russian state-owned giant Gazprom into the European Union. Meanwhile, Russia earned $120 billion per year from energy exports to Europe in the ten years leading up to the invasion, much of which came from natural gas sales through Nord Stream 1, and which constituted two-thirds of the Russian state budget.

Although both pipelines had gas in them that is now leaking out into the Baltic Sea in a literally unprecedented ecological disaster, neither was operational at the time of the explosions. Putin had used Nord Stream 1 over the last six months to blackmail Europe by gradually reducing gas flows and periodically shutting it off for “maintenance.” Gazprom then stopped it completely on September 2. Nord Stream 2 was never operational. Ukrainian officials and energy experts had long said that Russia would invade as soon as Nord Stream 2 was complete. And it did.

Danish and Swedish investigators are now looking into the explosions, while trying to contain the environmental fallout. Björn Lund, director of the Swedish National Seismic Network, reported that the explosions were clearly “blasts.” In a television interview, he said that “at least 100 kg of TNT has been used, but probably more.” E.U. President Ursula von der Leyen called the incidents “deliberate acts” but didn’t directly accuse Russia of them, instead vowing a “robust and united response.”

It is hard to see the upside in blowing up the conduits of one’s own economy, not least because the physics of natural gas mean that Russia will struggle to bring a gas industry back online in the future. Nonetheless, there is consensus that Russia is behind the sabotage. Possible logic—if one reaches—is an effort to create a false flag disaster that can be blamed on either the Ukrainians or the U.S., theoretically creating a wedge with which to fracture the western alliance against Putin. Or, possibly, the explosions were planned to distract from the Kremlin’s September 28 announcement that it would annex much of southern Ukraine.

Another explanation is an effort to exacerbate the energy crisis, symbolically timed for just after Norway and Poland unveiled the new Baltic Pipe natural gas pipeline to bypass Russia. But here, Putin has misplayed his hand. By leaving natural gas flowing to Europe for six months after the February 24 invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin gave the countries of Europe just enough time to store up just enough gas to just about survive the coming winter. Germany has 91.3% of its natural gas storages full, and the European Union average is over 87%. This energy security came at a crushingly high price, with countries paying 15 times more in August than they were in January 2022. The knock on effect on power generation sent electricity prices up 300%, leaving many utilities and factories unable to continue full operations.

Taken together, many E.U. countries are facing recessions because of the inflationary effect of soaring energy costs. But they are not facing freeze outs—at least not this year (2023 is another matter)—because of efforts to curb consumption and replace Russian gas with alternatives, such as U.S. liquified natural gas. The E.U. bloc is trying to cut natural gas consumption by 15% by the end of 2022. Tactics include everything from turning off government building lights, streetlights, and store signs, to lowering thermostat temperatures to as low as 62.6 degrees Fahrenheit. European governments are also handing out subsidies to help consumers pay their heating and electricity bills. Although these policies are likely to worsen inflation, short-term trumps long-term with winter looming, and these policies appear well enough considered for the immediate goal of surviving through to April.

In short, Putin has caused considerable economic damage by triggering the energy crisis, but absent unforeseen crises Europe should make it through winter. As such, there is no longer any benefit for him or for Russia to blowing up Nord Stream 1 and 2. There is no gas running through them to Europe, so no immediate fuel supply shortage will ensue. Natural gas prices did jump on the news of the explosions, and because of Gazprom’s threat to cut off the remaining 40 bcm of gas transiting through Ukraine as well, but beyond that very short-term consequence there is little leverage to be gained by the sabotage. That lack of logic is the single factor making anyone pause before attributing the explosions to Russia —they just don’t make much strategic or tactical sense.

That pause is brief, however, given that Russia has been blowing up or shelling energy targets across Ukraine, too. So far in September, Russian troops have shelled Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, bombed near the Southern Nuclear Power Plant, and hit the Zmiivska Thermal Power Plant. They also shelled the second largest combined heat and power plant in Ukraine, near Kharkiv. Additionally, three high-voltage substations were bombed, leaving 40 substations without power and two major overhead power lines disconnected. On September 10 Russian launched 14 rockets at the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant, which supplies electricity for the entire Kakhovka district. Many smaller strikes on energy infrastructure have also been reported. And cyberattacks against Ukrainian energy infrastructure have been identified. President Zelenskyy tweeted that Russia has the “goal of leaving people without light and heat.”

Given the targeting of energy infrastructure in Ukraine, just one incidence of which plunged five million Ukrainians into darkness, it seems likely that Putin bombed Nord Stream 1 and 2 simply to terrorize Europe. He seems to have thereby declared a full-scale energy war, but with cannons he no longer has cannon balls and gunpowder with which to load or fire. Maybe making 2023 and beyond harder for his own people and all of Europe by ensuring that Russia cannot turn back on the gas taps when he’s gone is Putin’s form of cementing a legacy.

More likely, but still entirely speculation, is that the Russian leader is merely exacting revenge, blowing up the ship under him in a fatalistic effort to inflict as much damage as possible before he does down with it. Igor Terekhov, Mayor of Kharkiv, described the September 10-11 hits on the power plants in his region as “revenge by the Russian aggressor for the successes of our army at the front, in particular, in the Kharkiv region.” The likely bombing of Russia’s own natural gas pipelines seems like solid evidence Mr. Terekhov is right.

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