In March 2014 Russian president Vladimir Putin gave a speech at the Kremlin following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He said: “If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard. You must always remember this”. The compressing of the spring, in this case, was the perceived threat of an increasingly Western-leaning Ukraine and former Soviet states joining NATO. The snap back saw Russia take Crimea, starting a military conflict that remains active today.
Russia’s strategy along its border with Europe has been to construct a buffer zone to protect the country’s heartland, through military or political means. When faced with an existential threat – like the growing regional presence of NATO – it has responded with force to strengthen this border, most recently with incursions into Ukraine and Georgia. Putin’s regime now faces an existential threat from the EU, but rather than military or geopolitical one this threat instead comes from policies to decarbonise the EU and stop burning fossil fuels.
These policies present an economic threat that is just as dangerous as a military one. Russia is the world’s second largest producer of gas and third largest for oil, and together they account for around 40 percent of state revenue. Gas sales at state-owned firm Gazprom alone account for over 5 percent of the country’s annual GDP.
The EU has spent more than a decade unsuccessfully trying to reduce its dependency on Russian gas – a policy that intensified after disruptions to Russian gas flows through Ukraine in 2006 and 2009. But declining EU gas production, a switch from coal to gas in power generation, and more competitive pricing mean that Russia gas supplies reach record levels – and Russia remains the EU’s largest supplier of both gas and oil.
Yet where energy security policies have failed, increased ambition on climate change may yet make a difference. Most EU member states support a target of climate neutrality by 2050, while some – such as the UK and Netherlands – have set policies aimed at ending the use of gas for heating, which is the EU’s largest gas consuming sector. The very real threat of this decarbonisation spring being compressed in the years ahead is already a provoking snap back from Moscow that will only intensify.
Moscow is deepening links with populist right-wing and Eurosceptic political groups, which are against greater action on climate change. It has bolstered alliances in countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, as well as in the Baltic and Balkan regions. Its reach has also extended to Austria, France, and Italy. Central to this is a narrative of anti-Americanism and anti-European integration, with closer links to Russia part of the alternative political vision.
Weakening the EU’s standing in central and eastern European countries that Russia regards as within its sphere of influence is a long-standing policy; but the growth of climate ambition in the EU has given Moscow an added imperative to do this as it seeks to defend its most important economic sector. Earlier this summer Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic blocked the adoption of a carbon neutrality target for the EU by 2050, which would have significantly reduced fossil fuel consumption across member states.
But there is a dilemma for Moscow in this strategy. Destabilising the EU politically would lead to a weaker economic outlook, in turn lowering energy consumption and meaning less demand for Russia’s oil and gas. Although new gas pipelines and LNG routes to Asia will grow new markets for Russia in future, the EU will remain the largest consumer of Russian gas. This presents Putin with a difficult balancing act of weakening the EU along Russia’s border while needing to allow enough political integration and economic development in the EU to maintain its demand for Russian energy.
As ambition on climate change grows in the EU, Putin will push further to destabilise these efforts and keep central and eastern Europe in its sphere of influence. Military posturing, cyber-attacks and border-incursions will all remain part of Russian foreign policy, but the destabilisation of liberal democracies and the rule of law through more subversive means will also increase. Decarbonisation and renewable energy are central to the EU’s approach in tackling climate change, but they are also integral to disentangling itself from fossil fuels and Russian geopolitical influence.