Analysis: Are meaningful sanctions against Russia even realistic?

Members of the emergency services wearing protective clothing work near the bench where former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found poisoned in Salisbury

Members of the emergency services following the poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, UK. Photo credit: Reuters / Henry Nicholls.

By Anders Lorenzen

Russia is in the naughty corner yet again. And yet again talk of punishing Russia is on the cards. But how realistic is it to punish, and does anyone actually hold any leverage against the superpower?

Vladimir Putin has yet again been elected as the next president of Russia, a victory few doubted he would secure. The result came amidst tense geopolitical relations between Russia and the UK after the latter accused the former of a nerve gas attack on British soil that targeted a former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. Russia flatly denies, which also comes as no surprise to most. So far both countries have moved to expel diplomats or spies, if you like, from each others countries. Despite the UK preparing to leave the EU, they’re hoping for their support to instil tougher penalties on Russia. But there are problems, namely that of problem energy.

Europe needs Russian energy

Europe needs energy and Russia is in a position to supply it. Therefore, it’s plausible to ask if we can really expect the EU to be tough on the energy superpower?

 

Major_Russian_Gas_Pipelines_to_Europe.svg

Graphic credit Samuel Bailey via Wikipedia.

 

While the UK only receives around 1% of their gas from Russia, the situation is different elsewhere in Europe. Some countries in the EU get as much as 100% of their gas from Russia. Even the UK has increased their imports of Russian gas as the North Sea gas reserves rapidly run dry. And when the UK risked a gas shortage during the ‘East from the Beast’ cold snap – Russia came to the rescue. The UK’s biggest gas importer, Norway, who also get their gas from the North Sea, has not yet faced the problem of wells running dry – but it is predicted to happen sooner rather than later. Russia has no such problems and continues to sit heavily on the gas supply to Europe, which it has even increased in recent years.

Russia, the world’s largest gas player

This goes even further than Europe as Russia is quickly becoming the world’s largest gas player with pipelines in construction which will transport gas to the Far East. The main gas company in the country is majority state-owned Gazprom, who is also heavily invested in Nord Stream 2, an underwater gas pipeline which will run from Russia to Germany. In Norway, the majority state-owned oil and gas company Statoil is now starting to run out of fossil fuel reserves and is heavily diversifying into wind power. Not a direction you would expect Gazprom to head in. Why would they? In fact, renewable energy development in Russia hardly exists.

UK distanced from EU

Without too much disruption the UK could probably cut off their gas supply from Russia. But the bottom line is that the EU could not, and does not, want to enter into sanctions or other penalties that could hurt its own energy supply. Too much is at stake. An example could be that Nord Stream 2 pipeline project is also liked by the EU as it is developed on the basis of climate change concerns as the carbon footprint of piping gas is a lot lower than transporting it via LNG.

The key issue here that it is naive to begin to think that the EU, which borders Russia, will suddenly play tough. It is OK for the US to do so, geographically sitting miles away from the world’s largest landmass. It is a similar to the UK’s dislike of playing tough with regimes such as Qatar, (the country’s second-largest gas importer) after Norway, or Saudi Arabia, (due to their oil reserves) even though there are serious human rights violations in the country which we do not agree with. The UK might have just dug themselves a bigger hole by going all out in an attack on Russia. And in these Brexit times, they may not have as much overseas support as they thought. In looking at just how important energy security is to the EU, a fitting analogy could be drawn to the Norwegian fiction series ‘Occupied’, in which Norway has been taken over by Russia with support from the EU, as the Scandinavian country decides to shut down their gas production.

 

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