Europe is once again amid rising tensions between two great powers regarding the fate of Ukraine, and the consequences for the Euro-Russian relationship could be extensive. In the east, Russia’s role as an energy exporter for Europe is being challenged by the U.S and its proxies, mostly Poland followed by the Baltic states, due to Russian revisionism, in absence of a European political initiative, while in the west, the shale drilling industry in the U.S is very prone to expand towards the European energy market amid continuous politicization of energy policy. This time however in between diplomatic and military escalation, the actual energy security of Europe comes into play by once again disdaining the dependence on Russian energy as a major security issue while presenting U.S shale reserves as a long-term replacement. The question is, a security issue for whom? In essence, Russia does remain a military threat for parts of the post–Soviet space that have not yet been integrated into western institutions. The EU’s soft power however places it as one of the most attractive trading partners in the world. Not only Russia’s GDP gain from energy exports to the EU is of substantial size but its overall GDP gain from hydrocarbon exports extends over 50% of its overall budget. The same can be said for the EU’s benefits regarding stable and long-term imports from Russia since it serves two very strategic purposes. Firstly, it provides the EU with the lowest cost energy output through existing pipeline networks, and secondly, it serves the EU’s mid-term and long-term goals of reducing hydrocarbon emissions instead of importing oil or shale LNG, since natural gas emissions leave the lowest hydrocarbon footprint than all other fossil fuels. Thus, the EU’s energy transition towards renewable sources can be served by consolidating more favorable terms regarding natural gas imports from Russia’s massive gas reserves while meeting its aims in reducing coal and oil emissions and working towards minimizing nuclear power usage as an alternative to Russian gas. Of course, it is not at all suggested that the EU should not look to diversify its natural gas imports since dependence on Russian gas alone in Europe was well over 50% in 2020. The fact however remains that Russian natural gas is objectively the most realistic choice for Europe’s energy security and long-term strategic goals regarding energy transition and lowering the EU’s carbon dioxide emissions. After all, energy sources are supposed to support, preserve and enhance social and economic activity through careful consideration of objective factors like pricing, network interconnectivity, geography, transit, environmental treaties, and long-term stability flow, not as instruments of political bargaining or irrational security policies. Aren't all of the above reasons enough for a profitable and interdependent relationship that should entail at least Euro-Russian energy relations? Well, maybe it is for Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Italy among others. But not all Europeans agree. In fact, the economic, corporate, and energy interdependence of member states with Russia is a national security threat for some Europeans but also for the US foreign policy.
It has been clear for years that the Russian Federation is one way or another in an advantageous position when it comes to energy dealings with third, non-EU states due to its geography and military status. Being one of the biggest hydrocarbon producers and exporters in the world, Russia’s geography and size allow it to be one of the main energy suppliers of China and Europe, two of the most industrialized and rich markets of the world. Some Europeans however perceive that natural geographic dependence on Russian energy as a security issue instead of a corporate one. Although the fact is that for a Central and Eastern European state to be energy secure, Russian gas remains the most practical choice for a low cost energy transition and despite deepened political alienation between Russia and post soviet EU members, diverging foreign policies inside the EU led to securitization acts from Poland followed by the Baltic states. The German government, among many others since the early 2000s, invested in establishing an energy partnership intending to supply Europe for decades but in the case of Nord Stream I, a strategic miscalculation was made. Poland’s role as a vital transit state was ignored by German policymakers in their pursuit to directly link the German market with the flow of Russian gas. As a result, the proposed Amber land pipeline that would include Poland and the Baltic states was disregarded in favor of the Nord Stream I which would eventually lead to a structural change of energy policy in Poland and the Baltic states. Europe’s inability to coordinate such energy projects under a consensual policy framework towards third states like Russia underplayed the role of the EU and strengthened its diverging security environment, marking an age of securitization of energy policy in Eastern Europe which was deemed irreversible after the annexation of Crimea by Russia.
Like on most security issues that have troubled Europe and its neighborhood in the last two decades, disparate and conflicting approaches have been employed by national elites on the basis of national interest which includes foreign policy orientation in absence of solid European solidarity and commitment like in the case of Germany which ignored its eastern counterparts' concerns. Even when it comes to energy security, which can be argued that it should be perceived through objective geo-economic lenses, European approaches and interests don’t seem to align once again. Having access to the lowest cost piped natural gas with the lowest carbon footprint of all hydrocarbons, especially if the alternative is either far more expensive or far more environmentally dangerous, should be reason enough for depoliticizing energy policy in regard to the U.S-Russian rivalry. Does it after all matter where energy comes from as long as it’s not extremely costly or the most harmful for the environment? The answer is that it most definitely matters. Even when the EU is set to phase out its coal power plants before 2040 at the latest in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the least environmentally impactful and low-cost fossil fuel available for Europe being natural gas from Russia is being highly politicized and gradually supplanted by very expensive U.S and Gulf LNG exports among others. Why is that? Well, not simply because each state perceives its security differently but mostly because security is regularly conceived within geographic boundaries, geo-economic narratives, and social constructs. They can be pointed out through an overview of the EU’s three major energy security strategies found in France, Germany, and Poland. The three main energy security strategies of the EU’s member states perceive their security objectives as unassailable in nature and employ vastly different narratives as means to accumulate power either conceived through geoeconomics, politico-military, and cultural lenses.
In the case of France, energy security is served under a strategy of energy sovereignty that is only possible through the enhancement and modernization of nuclear power production due to its dependence on oil and LNG imports. The two main reasons that French energy security is centered around nuclear power production and as of late, marking nuclear energy carbon neutral within EU law, is because France has a very low reserve and consequently production of fossil fuels while maintaining a large nuclear infrastructure which has a low operating cost. Although it's extremely costly to invest in and expand towards nuclear power production, operating costs are quite low as explained by the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE). Thus, it’s expensive to build nuclear plants but they are cheap to run. Since France has an existing nuclear power plant infrastructure and has banned fracking while pledging to stop fossil fuel production and consumption, it would be impossible to serve its energy requirements by long-term natural gas imports and the use of its very low fossil fuel reserves. In other words, its perceived natural for France, as a great power in military and industrial terms yet without hydrocarbon reserves, to preach about green energy while intending to introduce a nuclear renaissance in energy production. France's goal to achieve energy security through domestic production while leading the EU’s carbon emission transition is through its preexisting nuclear infrastructure and can be rationalized through the interpretation of its geo-economic interests and political constructs that make up its great power narrative. No great power can be completely dependent on energy imports and France’s insecurity in terms of meeting its energy requirements without investing in its nuclear power technology and infrastructure would be impossible in pursuit of low cost and carbon-neutral energy in a highly expensive and politicized energy market.
On the opposite side of French energy chauvinism, German strategic thinking projects a different approach to what energy security looks like. German energy security does not center around imports or autarchy but is constructing a narrative of geo-economic interdependence which happens to serve one of its more strategic foreign policy goals, that of a deep and functional energy and trade relationship with Russia, followed by a gradual shift towards a carbon-neutral energy policy. Germany being mostly a coal-rich country, however, remains one of the biggest importers of fossil fuels in Europe and has chosen a long-term low carbon initiative regarding the use of coal, oil, and nuclear power. The cost of drilling its own resources is high and its energy policy is oriented towards a green transition which includes closing down what coal power plants remain by 2038 while its last nuclear plants are set to close within 2022. At the same time, it’s the largest consumer of energy in Europe. In Germany’s case, being a highly industrialized energy importer does not diminish its security unlike in France’s and Poland’s mindset. On the contrary, according to German energy policy, Germany’s position serves its interconnection with Europe’s pipeline infrastructure which connects German and European energy markets to Russia. Pipeline natural gas from Russia, followed by Norway is the most practical choice for the German political and industrial elite. As aforementioned, it provides the least expensive and most rational option for uninterrupted flow of gas which also happens to leave the lowest carbon footprint. Would Germany be more secure in terms of energy output by following the French nuclear strategy or by consuming its own coal and importing LNG and oil only to limit dependence on Russian gas like Poland? Most definitely not. Being the biggest energy consumer in Europe and the seventh globally while maintaining its position as one of the largest industrial manufacturers in the world, Germany cannot afford to ignore its geography. It’s not viable to import expensive LNG, drill domestically, make a backlash on nuclear power production, and at the same time reduce coal emissions and oil imports to a minimum. Simply put, German energy security centers around creating a strategic energy partnership with the regional military power and energy exporter – Russia - by perceiving its geography in the center of Europe both as unavoidable and fundamental for its role as an economic and industrial power. Security in Germany’s case comes through a dynamic process of geo-economic interdependence that allows the alignment of primarily energy interests which then translate to economic and trade ties and can establish an inviolable peace on the basis of powerful economic interests that cannot be supplanted unilaterally. Even after the annexation of Crimea and despite the severe sanctions that damaged Russo-German economic and trade ties, energy was left out of any political divergence between Germany and Russia. For Germany, the establishment of a strategic energy partnership with a regional military power serves more than its energy security since interdependence is the only conceivable scenario to reach an inviolable peace in Germany’s mindset, constructed through the lenses of causing and losing two World Wars. Granted that the war in Ukraine has completely changed the perspective over energy imports from Russia, it seems that German policymakers are preparing to minimize Russian hydrocarbon imports in a matter of years while the Nord Stream II project is set to remain defunct and German rearmament seems to be becoming unavoidable.
On the contrary to German and French strategic thinking regarding energy security, having in common primarily economic and industrial interests followed by climate concerns, Polish energy security projects a vastly different narrative, derivative of different social constructs over its security. Poland’s geography is much like Germany’s, located within the greater northern European plain and in absence of any physical boundary in the east, where Russian military power and its role as an energy provider for Poland and Europe, are perceived as its only security threat. Like in the cases of France and Germany, geography is perceived depending on what social constructs state elites use to interact with the regional and international environment. Polish history is a story of great power rivalry, invasions, and partition, and its collective memory is strongly centered around the costs in its strife for independence, the role of Catholicism in its history while the division between West and East remains dominating is the country’s identity. Poland’s energy security strategy intends to completely minimize its imports of Russian gas by the end of 2022 before its contract with Russian gas company Gazprom expires. At the same time Poland’s energy consumption of fossil fuels, mostly hard coal and lignite, reach over 70% while the goal to reach the EU’s target of 20% consumption from renewables failed since it has never been a priority. Before 2015 most energy imports consisted of hard coal, pipeline gas, and crude oil but LNG became a trend and is leading to the expansion of the LNG terminal at Swinoujscie that opened that year. The diversification of natural gas imports, the rising coal power production, and the plans to open two nuclear power plants in the 2030s make up Poland’s current rationale regarding its energy security. Despite the fact that LNG prices have been double than piped natural gas in the past years and despite its European obligations to reach the aim of lowering carbon dioxide emissions, Poland has been determined to supplant its high dependence on piped Russian gas for years with no regard of the financial and environmental cost. LNG imports from the U.S which have been rapidly rising in the past five years, are mostly the result of unconventional fracking, which has a tremendous impact on human and environmental health. At the same time, LNG from the US and the Gulf can be twice expensive and entails high dependency on high distance oceanic imports while maintaining coal power production. The Baltic pipeline project (BPP) is intended to connect Poland to Denmark by late 2022 and open Norway’s piped natural gas to supplement LNG imports and coal consumption.
While French security thinking perceives energy security is completely minimizing all imports through a nuclear renaissance in power production and German energy security is trying to deepen its interdependence with the main regional energy exporter, Poland is simply supplanting its dependence from Russian piped gas with dependence on LNG imports and coal. This geo-deterministic perception of Russia in Poland’s security narrative does not seem to entail the same objectivity found in Franco-German long-term economic and viability concerns. By securitizing any structural dependence on Russia, Poland is ignoring essential economic and environmental interests. Similarly, halting energy trade relations or other economic activity with Russia, Poland is creating a strategic gap in its geo-economic position by disallowing its role as an eastern energy buffer state between Russia and the rest of the EU, something that Germany would never do. The absence of powerful economic interdependence that could exist between Europe and Russia is disputed by Poland and the Baltic states even though the lack of Russian interests would, for most, be far more dangerous than long-term energy contracts which could create tremendous economic interdependence for both sides. That way, if Russia did not comply with a contract, the economic cost would be severe and its valued prestige in the energy sector would be seriously damaged. As aforementioned, the European single market is the most attractive and valued in a way that any exporter would want access. Economic interests can only change over time and through long-term strategic investments while their absence can prove a real security threat in any geographic complex. After all, it’s highly unlikely and impractical to expect Russian military power projection towards any European states that have integrated into western institutions. If Polish security thinking could dominate, rather than just influence European energy policy, as it’s trying to do in order to stop Russian imports, Europe would be in a far more insecure position in the absence of economic interdependence with Russia. Especially if Russian exports continue to re-orient towards Asia and China in particular, the EU’s lack of a security strategy would mean even more absolute dependence on US military power followed by energy imports. It’s clear that the once-promising young republic of eastern Europe is securitizing its fear of Russian military power even though it’s becoming the emerging regional U.S proxy, which along with its boycott of Russian energy, makes it a far more attractive target than a trade partner. Complete trade, economic, and energy isolation from Russia won’t deflect Poland’s construct of a constant threat in the East and won’t accomplish an energy secure state without embracing its geography and without a rapprochement in energy debates.
Germany’s approach would seem the most practical for a common EU policy since it takes into consideration energy pricing, political geography, long-term energy supply appeal, geo-economic interdependence, environmental concerns. France’s policy of autonomy through nuclear power is not rational, possible, or smart for the EU due to extensive costs and severe environmental and societal impact among other reasons. The Polish rationale as aforementioned could lead Euro-Russian relations to a new low and would in fact bring more insecurity to the continent. Despite the fact that Europe remains tied with U.S diplomatic and military power, the basis of Euro-Russian relations should be the interdependence of energy markets in Europe with that of Russia, despite the pre-existing political alienation, if Europe wants to be truly energy secure. The politicization of energy policy should not be allowed to replace extensive economic alignment of energy interests within regional complexes for it allows great power rivalry to invent conflicting security constructs, intended to bring further policy securitization and by extension disregard economic and geographic elements which would otherwise play a structural role in the realm of normal political exchange. Thus, if we are truly seeking to be energy secure, European energy strategies should take into account that the least common denominator for any prospective civil society is in essence functional and conscious energy policies that through strategic prioritization serve human security through socio-economic and environmental interventions.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, whether it’s going to be a short or long term conflict, has already changed Europe’s security thinking in an unprecedented level and as a consequence the dominant energy security strategy of the EU seems to be following the Polish mindset of an eventual all out embargo of energy imports. Granted the EU’s security identity and economic status could only have prevented the war and neither averted it nor fought it, it remains unlikely that energy sanctions will succeed in averting the serious political, diplomatic, security and socioeconomic impact of the war and the sanctions that followed it. In case of an assertive package of energy sanctions from the EU against Russia, the fallout would be unthinkable for the majority of Europeans, granted energy’s nature as a mega-commodity for post-industrial societal security and the current status of the international energy market and the inflation of European economies. However, it would be impossible to further theorize how the conflict in Ukraine and the emerging crisis of its impact, granted the intergovernmental level of governance in the domain of energy policy of the EU. I can only argue that French nuclear energy chauvinism will be strengthened, Polish influence will grow, due to its heavily invested LNG infrastructure, while severe divisions could arise between energy importing states and the commission’s role in securing energy reserves for all of the EU. Although the domain of energy policy has never been so volatile and unpredictable, it can be argued that the aforementioned diverging social constructs of energy security that have dominated European politics in the past decade will remain highly influential in Europe’s effort to redefine what energy security should look like in the emerging post-war energy landscape. Granted the EU’s historical role and determination to act as a defender of the rules based order, especially following multiple reports of Russia’s extensive war crimes in Ukraine, the impending political crisis between Russia and the EU will likely come at a tremendous cost through severe socioeconomic and energy insecurity spillover effects amid a highly politicized and profitable environment of state and corporate bargaining that surpasses the so far diverging energy security constructs and threatens core aspects of human and societal security in Europe.