To those who questioned its reliability as an energy supplier, Russia always had a ready response. Yes, it had cut off natural gas — twice — to Ukraine during payment disputes. But it had never interrupted suppliers to a European customer, even in the tensest moments of the cold war. By suspending gas to Poland and Bulgaria this week, as its war in Ukraine entered a third month, Moscow has crossed the Rubicon. More countries may be cut off within weeks if they, too, reject Russia’s new demand to pay in roubles. Either way, the implications are clear: Europe must radically accelerate efforts to end its dependency on Russian gas.
This week’s cut-offs are more complex than pure “weaponisation” of energy by Moscow. Western sanctions on its central bank have complicated Russia’s ability to use its hard currency revenues from energy exports entirely as it chooses. President Vladimir Putin’s decree that buyers’ euro payments must be converted into roubles in a system of parallel accounts in Gazprombank is an attempt to weaken the resolve behind those constraints.
Poland and Bulgaria refused to use this system, calling it unworkable and a breach of contract. Some buyers elsewhere, including big consumers such as Germany and Italy, have signalled they may comply — but EU officials say this could violate sanctions.
Putin has succeeded in a favourite pursuit — sowing division between EU countries — but has shredded what was left of Russia’s reputation as a supplier. Moscow has shown it is ready to cut off European customers, even ones that are actively trying to pay their bills. Any illusion that Russia’s energy flows could somehow be ringfenced from its assault on Ukraine, and associated sanctions, has evaporated. In reality, Russia began “weaponising” gas even before the war — declining to send extra volumes through its export pipelines during the autumn supply squeeze, driving up prices and depleting European storage.
Ending Russian gas supplies is not just about squeezing Moscow’s ability to finance its war but ensuring Europe cannot be held to ransom over energy in future. Doing so will come at a hefty cost. But there is a price — which, unlike Ukraine, the rest of Europe is not paying on the battlefield — for defending liberal democracy, and the freedoms and prosperity it has brought.
Alternative pipeline and liquefied natural gas from Norway, the US, Qatar and elsewhere can partly make up for lost Russian gas. Destructive competition between EU states for scarce supplies should be avoided by gas-sharing agreements and joint procurement, which Brussels is already examining. Studies have suggested much of the remaining shortfall can be made up through energy efficiency measures, accelerating rollout of renewables, postponing Germany’s phaseout of nuclear power, and — strictly temporarily — boosting coal- and oil-fired generation.
Governments must draw up plans to cushion the poor and vulnerable. They also need to begin now to prepare the public for shortages and price spikes — and explain the necessity. Europeans who have shown great hospitality to Ukrainian refugees may be receptive to the need to “turn down the thermostat to help Ukraine”.
For all the short-term disruptions in Europe, the big long-term loser — especially with EU states also moving towards restricting Russian oil imports — will be Moscow. In his early years as president, Putin set about turning Russia into an “energy superpower”. Now he is sacrificing economic interests to his overriding goal of restoring Russia as a geopolitical great power. By undermining the former, however, he will eventually struggle to fund the latter.