Jim Sperling is professor of political science at the University of Akron. He has taught at Akron since 1988. Prior to that time, he held appointments at Davidson College and the James Madison College, Michigan State University. He teaches World Politics and Government (the introductory course to comparative politics and international relations), International Politics and Institutions, and Comparative Security Policy. His publications have explored various facets of German foreign economic and security policy over the course of the postwar period as well as the problem of the new security agenda, global security multilateralism, and regional security governance in the contemporary international system. His publications include the coauthored NATO’s Trajectory into the 21st Century (Palgrave 2012) and EU Security Governance (Manchester University Press 2007) and so on.
Since the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the European Union has taken many measures to support Ukraine, while at the same time trying to gradually get rid of its dependence on Russian energy. In response to this situation, the Center conducted an exclusive interview with Professor Jim Sperling to learn about his understanding of issues related to EU energy security in the context of Russia and Ukraine.
James Sperling: EU Energy Security and the Russo-Ukrainian War
The Russo-Ukraine war underscored the dangers of Europe’s excessive upon Russian oil and natural gas imports. Europe’s vulnerability has two dimensions: first, the Russians could impose an embargo of oil and gas exports that could cripple the European economy; and second, the asymmetrical dependence within Europe on Russian fossil fuels allows the Putin government to pursue a weakest link strategy to pry apart the EU and NATO, particularly the latter. The current European reliance upon Russian oil and natural gas is paradoxical: it represents the European efforts in the 1970s to diversify their sources of energy in the wake of the OPEC-induced oil crisis in 1973/1974. The OPEC embargo and differential supply of oil to European nations was linked to a nation’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a linkage that the western states sought to sever via the diversification of supply. Moreover, the Dutch suspension of natural gas contracts to offset the oil embargo had the secondary effect, particularly in Germany, of demonstrating that energy security was best served with a diversified supply of natural gas regardless of the source. The turn to the Soviet Union as a major source of oil and natural gas reflected the calculation that the Soviet Union had always fulfilled their contracts with western European companies and governments.
Today, the EU imports 41 percent of its natural gas and 37 percent of its oil from Russia. As important, the EU only provides 13 percent of its natural gas and 3 percent of its oil consumption. The overall level of individual European nation’s natural gas dependency is staggering: 13 member states import between 50 and 100 percent of their natural gas from the Russian Federation, including Germany (59 percent). Dependence of Russian oil is less severe: only eight member states import more than 50 percent of their oil from Russia. Of the major European states, only France has a low level of dependence on Russian fossil fuels. European dependence on Russian oil and natural gas after 1990, however, would have appeared to be mutually beneficial and a safe bet: Russia oil and natural gas production and reserves make it the world’s third and second largest producer of each, respectively; there had been no diplomatically-motivated disruption of supplies to western Europe; and the construction of the pipelines connecting Russia with its European market and the energy network connecting the EU member states was assumed to be so mutually beneficial that the Russian supply and European demand for fossil fuels was effectively ring-fenced from diplomatic or geopolitical conflicts. Moreover, the dependence of the EU on Russian imports reflected both geographical propinquity and a complex pan-European pipeline system connecting energy-poor Europe with energy-rich Russia. The Russo-Ukraine war has not only negated those calculations and compelled the EU to seek alternative sources of energy, but may cause incalculable damage to the Russian economy if the EU goal of zero imports of Russian gas and oil by 2030 is realized.
Some claim that the regional and geographic distribution of energy resources and regional energy dependencies are embedded in geopolitical security complexes. This assumption is plausible on first blush, but the fungible nature of fossil fuels, the small number of major oil and natural gas producers, and structure of the energy market more generally effectively free consumers and suppliers from regional security complexes. Europe could be viewed as an exception: it would not be unreasonable to assume that post-Cold War pipeline system linking the Russian and EU energy markets locks both parties into an exclusive relationship. Yet, Russia could find alternative markets for fossil fuels in the event Europe reaches the unlikely decision to embargo Russian oil and natural gas imports. If China and India, for example, were to become alternative markets owing to lower prices or strategic calculation, it would not only blunt the impact of the EU embargo on Russia but also have a neutral impact on the global supply unless China, particularly, were to simply expand its strategic oil reserve and continue to purchase OPEC oil for current needs. The EU is already seeking alternative sources of supply from the Gulf of Guinea and the Caspian Sea, and undertaking measures reducing the demand for both natural gas and oil.
EU energy security will remain precarious so long as the EU depends imports for 80 percent for natural gas and 97 percent for oil. The challenge facing Europe today is largely an artifact of the Russo-Ukrainian war. Were it not for that conflict, there would be no short- or medium-term concern over the security of supply (although concerns over the excessive dependence on Russian fossil fuels would have continued, especially within NATO). The EU’s import dependency on Russian supply has become especially problematic in 2022: the EU and NATO are unable to implement an embargo on Russian exports underwriting their offensive in Ukraine and Russia could conceivably stop exports of oil and natural gas that would impose unacceptable pain on virtually all EU member states, thereby breaking the remarkable political cohesion of the West. Yet, the expectation in Washington and Kyiv that the Europeans, especially those in eastern and central Europe, absorb the inevitable economic shock of an embargo is unreasonable and counter-productive; it could undermine rather than support EU and NATO efforts to support Ukraine militarily and diplomatically. What Washington and Kyiv can expect is that Europeans undertake short-term policies reducing the current level of demand for Russian oil and natural gas.
The International Energy Agency published a set of recommendations on 3 March 2022 that would reduce the level of Russian natural gas imports by 50 percent (80 billion cubic meters) by the end of 2022. The recommendations range from the non-renewal of contracts with Gazprom expiring in 2022, a greater reliance on alternative sources of liquefied natural gas (LNG), efficiency savings, and accelerating the production of wind and solar energy. In a contemporaneous publication, the EU Commission issued REPowerEU that identified the long-term goal of reaching ‘independence from Russian gas well before the end of the decade’ by adopting ‘new actions to ramp up the production of green energy, diversify supplies and reduce demand’. The Commission estimated that these policies would save 170 bcm of annual natural gas consumption—a savings in excess of current Russian imports—by 2030. It estimated that 60 bcm of LNG could be imported from more secure and diversified sources (the US, Norway, Azerbaijan, Gulf of Guinea, and Qatar among others), while the balance would be derived from substituting biomethane, hydrogen, reduced consumption, and renewables for Russian natural gas. REPowerEU also deepened the securitization of energy with the designation of gas storage facilities as a critical infrastructure and expectation that the EU member states fill their natural gas storage facilities to at least 90 percent of capacity—a move that would absorb or soften any future supply shock.
The invasion of Ukraine has had any number of unexpected and untoward consequences for Putin’s Russia, the most important of which is the renewed cohesion and purpose of the NATO alliance and the likely future membership of Sweden and Finland in it. The decision to achieve total energy dependence from the Russian Federation has yielded a double benefit: many of the goals and policies of REPowerEU will not only free the EU and Europeans from the Russian threat of disrupted energy supplies, but also accelerate the EU’s contribution to mitigating the climate crisis. The severing of the energy relationship with Russia does pose a potential downside: if the European goal of no longer importing natural gas succeeds, how will an immiserated post-Putin Russia escape another bout of revanchist authoritarianism?
Interviewer: Chen Liyuan
Translators: Xu Houkun, Wang Xuetong