Stepping on the gas

By Rebecca Coleman

This morning, the world awoke to the news that Russian troops had crossed the Ukrainian border into the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, following the Kremlin’s decision to recognise both regions as separatist ‘republics’.  

While Putin claims that troops are merely carrying out ‘peacekeeping functions’, in reality, the invasion represents a significant escalation in tensions that have been brewing along the border over the past three weeks. At an emergency session of the UN Security Council last night, UK Representative Barbara Woodward warned the decision “unleashes the forces of war, death and destruction on the people of Ukraine.” 

Reactions today have been both fast and furious, with leaders across the world condemning the move which “plainly” violates international law. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson swiftly unveiled the UK’s latest tranche of economic sanctions, targeting five Russian banks and three high-net-worth individuals. Speaking in the House of Commons, Johnson also ruled out holding the Champions League final “in a Russia that invades sovereign countries.” 

The EU is expected to follow suit tomorrow with their own package of sanctions, which are anticipated to closely mirror those imposed on the state following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. A list of 27 persons and entities linked to Russia’s actions has been drawn up, as well as the 351 members of the Russian Parliament that voted to recognise the breakaway territories, along with commanders of the military mission. 

However, the most significant reaction today has come from Germany, which announced at midday that the planned Nord Stream 2 liquified natural gas (LNG) pipeline will no longer come into operation. The undersea pipeline, owned by a subsidiary of Russian energy giant, Gazprom, was intended to ferry natural gas from Russia to northern Germany. Alongside Nord Stream 1, it was expected to transport over a quarter of all LNG used by EU countries.  

The announcement marks a step change by EU members whose sanctioning ability is heavily constrained by their own dependence on Russian energy. Russia is the main EU supplier of crude oil, natural gas, and solid fossil fuels, with gas imports via pipelines alone accounting for 42% of gas used by member states in 2021. The conundrum for Europe has therefore been how to effectively sanction Russia, without simultaneously funding it through payments for oil and gas or indeed, without threatening its own energy supply. Getting to the heart of the issue, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev mocked the decision to cancel the pipeline, tweeting: “Welcome to the brave new world where Europeans are very soon going to pay €2,000 for 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas!” 

As such, sanctions on energy were unthinkable as of last week and ruled out by most major European states.  However, President of the European Commission Ursula von Leyen has stated that all options are on the table. The UK has also signalled its intention to shift further away from Russian oil and gas, with Johnson urging EU countries to do the same. Whilst only three percent of the UK’s gas supplies come from Russia, the government is expected to grant more licences for UK gas reserves and promote low-carbon energy, including nuclear power.  

However, regardless of the severity of the sanctions, Putin’s radical speech in Donbass last night warned that this is a crisis that will not go away any time soon. Having simmered over the last six years, tensions at “the border of the democratic world” now look to be at a boiling point. In the midst of the continent’s own energy crisis, it can only be hoped the EU holds its nerve and hits Russia where it hurts.