Matthew M. Ployhart
On the morning of February 4, 2022, Russia launched a new invasion of Ukraine. Although hostilities truly began in the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, the latest developments of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict have shocked the world, especially the European Union (EU), which is now faced with the largest conflict in Europe since the Second World War.
The European Union, whose principles and ideologies are mainly based on cultural tolerance and respect for human rights and free liberal order, is naturally greatly disturbed and opposed to the current violence occurring in Eastern Europe. Despite the significant financial aid and military equipment and technology they are providing to Ukraine, European countries are faced with a tragic fact: they are some of the largest funders of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war machine. Therefore, the hypocritical position of many EU nations appears to have one primary, complicated solution: reducing European energy dependence on Russia. Unfortunately, this is far from an easy task.
According to Eurostat, "in 2020, the European Union imported 57.5% of the energy it consumed as its own production and stock changes satisfied only 42.5% of its needs.” Their website also mentioned that, the same year, “Russia [was] the leading supplier of natural gas, oil and coal to the EU.” Specifically, Russia supplied 24.4% of the EU’s energy needs. This ensured Russia was the primary provider of hard coal, natural gas, and crude oil.
Furthermore, it would appear that Eastern – and particularly post-Soviet – countries are significantly more dependent on energy from Russia. In 2020, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Hungary were the EU countries with the most significant portions of their energy imported by Russia (the Western and Southern countries, Cyprus, Ireland and Luxembourg, were the least reliant on Russia). This makes discovering a swift exit from Russian energy dependency all the more complicated.
There are challenges to breaking away from Russia that are much more complicated than one may initially think. Until recently, European energy imports from Russia were on the rise. As mentioned in a conference in June 2022 titled European Energy Security Post-Russia, European energy dependency on Russia increased after the 2014 invasion of Crimea. Furthermore, as of halfway through 2022, Constanze Stelzenmüller, a German journalist and international relations analyst, illustrated some additional key troubles that more extreme breakaways from Russian energy would imply, particularly as it pertains to Germany. “Decision makers in Berlin know that we have no good choices, only bad and less bad ones,” she stated. “One of the key reasons…why [German politicians are] hesitant [to pursue more-drastic action against Russia]…is [because of] our deep international [ties] with our neighboring economies, particularly eastern Europe; much of our manufacturing supply chains go deep into Eastern Europe.” Thus, she stressed that the economic consequences Germany encountered due to cutting ties with Russia, such as a recession, would presumably result in other recessions in neighboring economies.
Additionally, although alternative energy sources exist, they are not necessarily numerous or always stable. For instance, DW, a German media company, stated one year ago that “in 2019, the European Union imported about 108 billion cubic meters of LNG [Liquefied Natural Gas] from Africa, over 12 billion of which came from Nigeria.” Producers in Africa – who often produce far more LNG than necessary for their own use – are a prime option for energy trade, especially considering that, in terms of oil and gas, Africa has as much as more than 7% of global gas reserves (as of 2017) – that’s about 148.6 trillion cubic meters of reserves. Nigeria, in particular, is a massive exporter of energy, with “2 million barrels per day of oil sold on the international market.”
Amazingly, DW stated that “as of 2020, Africa's contribution to global oil exports reached nearly 9%.” However, for turning to Africa to fulfill the energy needs of Europe to be successful, they would need to produce a “spare capacity of at least 7.4 million barrels per day,” according to a Nigerian energy broker (a tall order, considering that the EU needs to replace the “380 million cubic meters per day of Liquefied Natural Gas [imported] from Russia”). Furthermore, much of Africa also lacks the infrastructure or stability to take advantage of its resources to the fullest extent possible, not to mention low oil-production capacity and the need for investment. Even major oil exporters, such as Nigeria and Angola, are far from meeting their OPEC quotas. “If the leading African producers cannot even meet their quotas, there is no way they can fill the supply gap left by Russia in the short term,” Abu-Bakarr Jalloh, the journalist who authored the article, stated. Additionally, even if Africa could theoretically produce the energy needed to offset Europe’s losses that breaking off trade with Russia would have, the continent still lacks the pipeline infrastructure to transport it to Europe in a timely manner.
In addition to African markets, European countries are looking to the Middle East. Several companies in Germany, for instance, recently signed energy agreements with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). According to a May 2022 article by CNN, nearly half of the world’s proven oil reserves are located in the Middle East. Noting that “a potential EU ban on Russian oil could lead to a shortfall of 2.2 million barrels per day (BPD) of crude oil and 1.2 million BPD of petroleum products, according to the International Energy Agency,” the idea of attracting Middle-Eastern energy partners seems reasonably agreeable.
However, as in Africa, a lack of infrastructural upkeep and expansion, as well as severe political and military disputes, hinders the ability of Middle-Eastern countries to bail Europe out of its energy crisis. Several of these countries have been sanctioned by the West for various reasons, most notably Iran, which is currently under heavy sanctions from the United States and others after the U.S. terminated the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2018. In addition to Iran, four other countries in the Middle East are under sanctions. Furthermore, increased economic ties with the Middle East also push EU countries into complex moral dilemmas. The European Union is founded on principles of cultural integration, equality, and respect for human rights. They have been intervening – or at least attempting to intervene – in conflicts and tension-prone areas for decades. The outbreak and injustice of the Russo-Ukrainian war are, of course, the reason for their break from Russian energy in the first place. Yet, many Middle-Eastern countries are rife with their own conflicts which cannot be ignored. The UAE, for instance, has been accused of numerous examples of human rights abuses, many of which are pretty extreme (such as torture and acting against climate policies). Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria also have sanctions against them, be it for human rights abuses, sponsoring terrorism, or even on specific individuals (as is the case in Iraq, the EU having sanctioned the arms trade and companies which place the stability of the country at risk).
However, despite the many difficulties and risks that the European Union (and Europe at large) faces in abandoning their former energy trading partner of Russia, and the challenges they face in forging new energy sources and trading networks, there are many reasons for optimism. Increased trade with African and Middle-Eastern countries, for instance, will not be enough to satisfy European energy needs, yet it is still contributing to the forging of relations between Europe and other continents. Particularly in Africa, increased economic interaction with Europe has the potential to produce tremendous benefits for both parties if engaged responsibly. Of course, this is far from the only favorable implication of Europe's search for other energy sources. In fact, the sudden volley of European sanctions being applied to Russia, and the drive to find alternative energy sources that do not heavily depend on Russian exports, have led to significant innovation. One of the first and arguably most significant developments is the sudden incentive of European countries – particularly in the EU – to pursue clean-energy initiatives.
However, as far as energy resources go, in an effort to find alternatives to Russian oil and gas, “Europe is starting to look for alternatives,” such as liquid natural gas and renewable energy sources, stated Mr. Steve Cohen, Co. Chair of the aforementioned conference on European energy security. There is, thus, a drive to increase the use of cleaner energy since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. An article by Aljazeera, published in November 2022, stated plainly that “renewable energy production in Europe reached record levels following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, leading some energy analysts to predict that Europe is poised to surge forward in creating clean energy.” Without the EU’s solar and wind energy generation capacity, they would have had to import about $99 billion of gas (or about 70 billion cubic meters) to offset losses from Russia, according to E3G and Ember.
However, some experts doubt the extent of new EU clean energy initiatives. The head of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, Professor Jonathan Stern, expressed concerns about a new European recession, trumping even that of the coronavirus pandemic, that would hinder efforts to invest in renewables over established nonrenewable energy sources. Nevertheless, in the eyes of many European politicians, there is at least desired growth of renewable energy due to the newly-intensified EU-Russia tensions.
This drive to pursue “green energy” innovation is not restricted solely to Europe or the EU. As Executive Director of the International Energy Agency Fatih Birol made clear in late 2022, the energy crisis that is largely facing Europe can be interpreted as a global one. And just as with other challenges, from climate change to the coronavirus pandemic, global difficulties often require international cooperation or global action to solve. In addition to advocating for the diversification of energy sources for Asia, Birol also advocated for the use of clean and renewable energy: “Many governments…[are] pushing renewables – electric cars, hydrogen, batteries…and nuclear, is making a comeback.”
This last topic is an important one to consider. The prospect of utilizing nuclear energy for the production of electricity has had practical implications as early as 1951, and in spite of its slow expansion as an energy source compared with some initial estimates, it nonetheless has a firm hold on the future of energy production. According to TIME magazine, with the abandonment of Russian energy sources and “few options that offer true energy sovereignty, there is now renewed enthusiasm for nuclear energy among politicians in Europe.” Despite the skepticism towards nuclear energy in some countries in the EU (particularly in Germany, which also happens to be the largest consumer of Russian energy), the prospect of utilizing nuclear power to decrease dependency on Russia (mainly as it is a clean energy source) is appealing to many.
In conclusion, the Russo-Ukrainian War, a massive and bloody conflict on its own, has produced the added complication of forcing the EU to explore the utilization of alternative energy sources – namely, those that do not come from Russia. While this ambition has many difficulties, there are also many reasons to hope that alternative sources can be found that are not only just as good as Russian oil and gas but also better and cleaner. Optimists may speculate that the EU’s search for new energy resources may be as much a revolutionary salvation as it is a desperate and last-minute move to diversify their energy intake.