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As the European summer draws to a close, almost all EU countries are facing some form of energy crisis. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU joined the United States and others in leveling sanctions and embargoes on Russian natural gas, even though many EU countries depend on imports of Russian energy. These measures have compounded skyrocketing prices, sharply raising the cost of living for many Europeans. Some European governments have already sought to reduce energy consumption—for instance, by limiting the use of air conditioning in public buildings and requiring shops to turn their lights off overnight. But the crisis will only get worse. Governments are scrambling to prepare for what will be a very tough winter.
Policymakers across the EU are focused on shoring up national supplies. EU states have made bilateral deals to secure energy from alternative providers, including Algeria, Canada, and Qatar. Governments are now discussing how to construct pipelines that would transport gas across southern and central European countries. And European officials are seriously considering how to make their countries more energy efficient. The EU Council agreed in July to an energy-saving plan that requires member states to reduce gas consumption by 15 percent by this winter. Some governments, including those in France, Italy, and Spain, have put in place targets for cuts, but other member states, such as Germany, have been reluctant to set out measures to do so.
Such moves, however, fall short of addressing the crisis that Europe faces. European governments are dealing merely with the symptoms of their predicament and ignoring the causes. Only through coordinated foreign policy—not fragmented individual national responses—can Europe set itself on the path toward energy security. In the absence of such concerted action, EU member states will find themselves constantly threading the needle between upholding their values and meeting the basic needs of their citizens, a precarious exercise that will hurt the European project itself. European governments must act quickly to stave off the darkest consequences of the coming winter.
Europe has struggled in recent months to disentangle itself from dependence on Russian energy. But even the most valiant efforts to diversify its sources of energy have not been able to overcome its historical overreliance on Russia. In July, German officials (with the support of other EU member states) pushed Canada to circumvent its own sanctions on Russia in order to repair the Nord Stream 1 pipeline to keep Russian gas flowing to Germany. This happened just days after Russian forces struck a shopping mall in Kremenchuk while more than 1,000 people were inside. Europe’s supposed commitment to seeing Russia held to account for its actions in Ukraine seems to be trumped by its undeniable energy needs.
Another warning came in Italy this summer, when a number of political parties, including the Five Star Movement and far-right Lega and Forza Italia, effectively toppled the government of Prime Minister Mario Draghi over its attempts to transition the Italian economy away from Russian energy. The opposition parties argued that such spending was unnecessary, insisting that it would be far cheaper to remain a loyal customer of Russian gas. That Italy, one of the EU’s largest member states, has broken from the consensus on maintaining a robust stance against Putin’s abhorrent war has sent shivers through other European capitals. If Rome can abandon this collective effort, others may follow suit, given that powerful nationalist voices feature in almost all EU member states. Sure enough, in the first week of August, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Rassemblement National in France, called for an end to what she termed “useless” sanctions on Russia. Under economic and political pressures, the impressive unity that has characterized Europe’s response to the war is at risk.
The Kremlin itself may be sensing these cracks. Putin’s rhetoric has hardened noticeably in recent months, blaming sanctioning powers for the rise in food and fuel prices around the world. Moscow seems unlikely to abandon its brinkmanship, further testing Europe’s tolerance for Russia’s breaches of international and humanitarian law. Putin’s intransigence poses major risks for Europeans. If the current predictions of blackouts become a reality for businesses, European industrial competitiveness will suffer greatly. At the same time, kneejerk responses to simply replace lost Russian gas with fossil fuels from elsewhere rather than rapidly scaling up renewable sources place European climate goals in jeopardy. The EU’s planned green transition appears to be floundering as governments focus on near-term energy needs. As a result, Europe’s claims to be a world leader in tackling climate change look ever more suspect. Its avowed commitment to upholding liberal values and the rule of law also seem doubtful as it continues to buy Russian energy even as Russian forces violate international and human rights law in Ukraine. The short-term approach of the EU to this war could ultimately undermine the very credibility of the European political project.
Europe could chart a path forward through this mess that could begin to futureproof its energy security—and its broader security. The chaos that Putin has caused by simply tearing up the rule book of the international order has not gone unnoticed in China, North Korea, and Turkey. EU states now need to prepare for a world of disorder. They will need to pool their resources to equip themselves to cope. They will need to understand that achieving sovereignty can be done only in concert with one another. EU member states will sink in these choppy waters if they continue to approach crises in a piecemeal way, and if they act individually rather than collectively.
Policymakers need to advance a stronger narrative regarding the need for sustainable energy security—including accompanying energy-efficiency measures—across Europe, with governments working with industry and consumers. Leaders need to be clear that the EU will not pull through without action across all parts of European society, and governing coalitions need to be willing to shoulder the political costs of expounding such a message. For example, the various parties in Germany’s coalition government have treated the necessity of reducing energy consumption with differing levels of urgency. That inconsistency is untenable. Given Germany’s size and influence, its government’s tentative approach to pushing consumers and businesses to tighten their belts has consequences well beyond Berlin, with a corrosive effect on any united European effort to save energy.
Europe must act quickly to stave off the darkest consequences of the coming winter.
It also means collective energy planning for the winter, which must happen at a pan-European level, not individually by national governments. The EU needs to look strategically at what resources European countries can marshal together ahead of this winter—before likely shortages happen—to avoid piecemeal requests for goodwill and help from one member state to another. Such requests could easily become politicized and sow further seeds of division within the EU. A preemptive, collaborative approach may take serious investment and a willingness to envisage burden sharing at a European level to finance the response to the crisis. The EU is at the “whatever it takes moment” that it reached during the euro crisis in 2012 and during the COVID-19 pandemic in the summer of 2020. Its leaders should consider repeating some of their actions taken during the pandemic, including borrowing at vast scale from the market, to rapidly ramp up cleaner, more reliable sources of energy as a collective EU resource to meet energy demands beyond this winter. Europe’s investment in addressing the continent’s need for energy security must be equal to the scale of the current crisis.
Perhaps most crucially of all, the EU needs to develop a foreign policy strategy that builds a wide network of third-country relationships that will underpin a more sustainable and energy-secure future for Europe. The EU should, for example, increase its investment in co-innovation programs and intensify cooperation on energy-efficiency and clean-energy initiatives in countries to its east and in Africa to build up reliable sources of green energy. The EU should also support the acceleration of the green transition in key industries in partner countries, withholding access to European supply chains and finance to companies that fall afoul of stricter green criteria. For this reason, its green industrial policy must look outward and help businesses in Europe’s wider neighborhood become part of a wider EU ecosystem. If this sustainable energy diplomacy is not in place, Europe risks sleepwalking into the same sort of dangerous dependencies that predated Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Europe can weather this crisis, even emerge more sovereign in the process. But the choices it makes through the next weeks will determine whether it guarantees its independence or whether the European political project is another casualty of Putin’s cruel war.
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