As tensions simmer on the Ukraine-Russia border, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has become an emblem of the energy and climate issues underlying the conflict—even though it has yet to deliver a molecule of natural gas.
Last week, the U.S. State Department vowed that Gazprom’s $11 billion conduit beneath the Baltic Sea to Germany would never open if Russia invades Ukraine. Much of eastern Europe, the environmental movement and even the U.S. oil industry opposed Nord Stream 2 as a tie designed to solidify Russia’s energy hold on Europe, but Russian President Vladimir Putin took advantage of leeway offered by President Donald Trump to push construction through.
Trump’s tacit acquiescence on Nord Stream 2 (often while voicing protest) was one of his only moves counter to the interests of Texas oil and gas producers, who coveted the Europe gas market themselves. But it was right in line with two other Trump impulses: to reject climate policy and to yield to Putin.
Now, the Biden administration is left with the consequences. And although it is attempting to use Nord Stream 2 as a threat, the pipeline also has served as a weapon for Putin—a wedge to divide Germany, and separate Europe’s largest economy from other members of the NATO coalition while he threatens Ukraine.
Whatever happens next as 127,000 troops encamp on Russia’s western frontier, the conflict already bears the imprint of Trump’s climate denial, Putin’s drive to maintain Russia’s fossil-fueled power and the slow pace of global transition to clean energy. In other words, it’s a textbook example of how climate change is amplifying foreign policy perils, said Erin Sikorsky, director of the Center for Climate and Security think tank in Washington, D.C.
“Climate is unlikely to be the sole driving force of a geopolitical confrontation or competition, but it will intersect with other existing risks and challenges in such a way that it shapes the environment,” she said.
Putin’s Winter Squeeze
The very fact that Putin chose winter for his troop build-up on the Ukraine border underscores the geopolitical importance of climate.
It’s the season of highest energy demand for Europe, which relies on Russia for 35 percent of its natural gas—making it especially vulnerable to any threatened stoppage, accidental or intentional.
The risks are especially great this year, as natural gas reserves in Europe are unusually low. The economy and weather spurred increased gas demand, while the supply shrank due to continued depletion of Europe’s own gas production and a slow-down in 2021 shipments from Russia.
“Part of what happened is Russia just didn’t send as much gas to fill up storage in Europe; they just kind of sent the bare minimum,” said Nikos Tsafos of the energy security and climate change program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “So the backdrop to what’s happening in Ukraine is that the natural gas price has just been at an insane level—incredibly elevated, and governments are feeling it and consumers are going to feel it.”
Since July, Europe’s benchmark natural gas price has been above the previous all-time high set in 2008—and in December, it spiked to four times that record.
At last fall’s annual Russian Energy Week International Forum in Moscow, Putin chided his European neighbors and gas customers, saying they had set the stage for their own energy woes with their efforts to wean themselves from fossil fuels.
“Over the past 10 years, the share of renewable energy sources in the European energy balance has skyrocketed, which, on the face of it, appears to be a good thing,” said Putin. “However, this sector is notorious for erratic power generation” and Europe tapped natural gas stores to make up for lower-than-expected wind and solar generation. Those who are attempting to blame Russia, Putin said, “are just covering up their own mistakes.”
But analysts familiar with Europe’s energy security history note that it was vulnerable long before it enacted effective climate policy. In 2005 and 2006, when renewable energy supplied just 9 percent of the European Union’s power, its nations were jarred when Putin temporarily cut off the natural gas supply in the first of what would be a series of disputes with Ukraine. Today, 34 percent of the EU’s power comes from renewable energy.
“The whole idea that Europe wouldn’t be in this mess if it wasn’t for the energy transition, that’s crap,” said Samantha Gross, director of the energy security and climate initiative at the Brookings Institution. “More renewables actually insulates economies from problems like these. It doesn’t cause them.”
But in the short term, at least, Europe remains dependent on natural gas. And Biden’s team has been scrambling to secure gas and crude oil supplies from the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, so European allies will be less vulnerable to threats from Russia. It’s not the Biden administration’s first effort at diplomacy to ramp up fossil fuel production short-term, despite criticism from progressives that it is counter to his vision for a net-zero carbon future. Others argue that there’s no conflict between Biden’s immediate geopolitical goals and his long-term climate agenda.
“Gas, the green transition and energy security are not either-or issues,” said Richard Morningstar, who served as U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan under President Barack Obama, and also was a special U.S. envoy on Eurasian energy. “Gas can continue to be important in a responsible way, in the short- to mid-term, but it’s important to double down as quickly as possible on the green transition,” said Morningstar, who is founding chairman of the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center. “The quicker the green transition, the less dependence on fossil fuels. And by definition, the less dependence on Russian gas.”
Unfavorable Climate for Russia
For now, though, Ukraine is caught in the squeeze between Putin and Europe. Putin has repeatedly denied that he is planning an invasion of the former Soviet state, characterizing the troop build-up on the border as a defensive response against the threat of NATO expansion. The United States delivered a written response last week that Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said “sets out a serious diplomatic path forward should Russia choose it,” but Russia’s immediate response was cool.
Among the factors working against Putin, though, were several related to climate and energy. Nord Stream 2 appeared to be losing its power as a wedge to divide NATO, as new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz made clear for the first time that his government was open to sanctions against the project if Russia invades Ukraine. The foreign minister in his coalition government is Annalena Baerbock, co-leader of Germany’s Green party, who has long opposed Nord Stream 2 as not only destabilizing to Europe, but contrary to European Union climate targets. The pipeline, though complete, has not yet received regulatory approval, and environmentalists argue it will lock in hundreds of millions of tons of new carbon emissions annually.
Putin’s own drive to cut Ukraine out as a natural gas conduit between Siberia and Europe also may have weakened his hand. Nord Stream 2 is the fourth pipeline he has built to cut Ukraine out of the mix and avoid paying the transit fees that made up as much as 4 percent of Ukraine’s GDP. The amount of Russian gas that flows to Europe through Ukraine has fallen from 80 percent at the time of the 2006 Russian cutoff to just 25 percent today.
“The multi-decade effort by Russia to diversify how the gas gets to Europe means that even before Nord Stream 2, the impact of a Ukrainian disruption on Europe would be much more limited,” said Tsafos.
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Finally, U.S. officials believe that climate conditions have not been working in Putin’s favor. January has been unusually warm, with temperatures in Kyiv rising as high as 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius), far above the average of 23 degrees Fahrenheit (-5 degrees Celsius) that causes the ground to freeze solid. The New York Times reported that senior U.S. officials believe Putin won’t risk invading Ukraine when the ground is soft and wet, and tanks and other heavy equipment could get stuck in mud—conditions Russians call “rasputitsa,” or “slush.” But Biden, who the Times reports has enlisted meteorologists to help in strategic planning over Ukraine, has warned that he believes an invasion in February remains a “distinct possibility.”
Biden portrays Putin as a leader struggling against the realities of both a warming world and the global move to cleaner energy and reduced dependence on fossil fuel giants like Russia. “He has eight time zones, a burning tundra that will not freeze again naturally, a situation where he has a lot of oil and gas, but he is trying to find his place in the world between China and the West,” Biden said.
For now, Putin is looking for that place on the border of Ukraine. The more urgent call for his leadership, though, may be in tending to his own backyard, and an economy perilously dependent on fossil fuel.