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Russia's attempt to use energy to pressure Europe could backfire


Russia has cut delivery of natural gas to much of Europe because of Europe's support of Ukraine. But Russian President Vladimir Putin's move to weaponize energy could backfire long term. If Europe can tolerate what could be a tough winter, it'll emerge less dependent on Russian energy. NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam has more.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Russia has been manipulating the flow of natural gas to Europe even before the war in Ukraine began, including turning off the taps intermittently. But earlier this month, it indefinitely cut supplies from Nord Stream 1, a key pipeline that brings natural gas to most of Europe. Few were surprised Putin used energy to try to achieve his goals with Europe.

LOUISE DICKSON: 2004, 2009 and in 2014, Russia also utilized energy as a political weapon to reach a compromise.

NORTHAM: Louise Dickson is an analyst in Oslo, Norway, with Rystad Energy. She says Putin may not be as successful this time around.

DICKSON: The past examples seem to not be a template for the current situation, and the stakes have been raised significantly.

NORTHAM: Instead of buckling to the Kremlin's heavy-handed tactics, Europe so far has stood firm. Many countries had been stockpiling Russian gas for months and scouring the world for new suppliers such as Qatar, Australia and Algeria. There are grassroots movements to conserve energy and talk of using more coal and keeping nuclear power plants running. Thane Gustafson is a Russia specialist at Georgetown University and the author of "The Bridge: Natural Gas In A Redivided Europe." He says Putin may have overplayed his hand.

THANE GUSTAFSON: I think that if the Europeans are able to get through the winter and stay united and they get a little bit of luck in the form of some decent weather this winter, by next winter, I think they'll have their alternatives in place. And I think by the end of that second winter, Putin's leverage will be all gone.

NORTHAM: But that's if the coalition doesn't fracture, and that's not a given. Energy prices, which were soaring even before the Ukraine war, have now reached a new stratosphere. There have been protests over energy prices in the Czech Republic. Rationing may have to be introduced in some countries. And industries throughout Europe are being shuttered or closed down. David Goldwyn, with the energy advisory firm Goldwyn Global Strategies, says many European governments are trying to help alleviate the pain.

DAVID GOLDWYN: Saying, we're going to impose a cap on the price of electricity or of gas that can be charged to consumers, but we're going to compensate the providers of those electricity services for the differential. This price relief for one winter would be a way to keep families from going bankrupt.

NORTHAM: Goldwyn says the high price for oil and gas is helping build up Putin's war chest and gives him time to inflict more pain on Europe. But Goldwyn says Putin is running a risk with this strategy. Europe was Russia's biggest customer for natural gas, and it's already slashed its imports. Goldwyn says the Kremlin's talk about selling that gas to China instead is just a pipe dream.

GOLDWYN: Leaving aside how long it takes to cut a deal with the Chinese, the construction of that pipeline, you know, and those fields, you know, you're talking years, if not a decade.

NORTHAM: Georgetown's Gustafson says now, even if the war in Ukraine ended tomorrow, it's unlikely Europe would change its course on Russian energy because Putin's moves have tarnished Russia's reputation as a reliable supplier.

GUSTAFSON: The Russians worked very hard, assiduously, for six decades to build a gas business in Europe, and now Putin has ripped it apart. It will never recover. And that is absolutely baffling.

NORTHAM: That's if Europe can stay united and make it through the next months without Russian gas. Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.