Germany is caught in Putin's trap

23 July 2022

4:00 PM

23 July 2022

4:00 PM

A collective sigh of relief went through Berlin this week as Russia resumed its gas deliveries through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline after a scheduled ten-day maintenance break. But even with the immediate crisis averted, Germany remains palpably jittery: it is unclear whether it will have enough gas to get through the winter.

Threats from Vladimir Putin to curb or even stop energy supplies to Europe altogether have been part of the Russian war strategy right from the beginning. Shortly before the invasion of Ukraine in February, when the German chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a halt to the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev sneered: ‘Well. Welcome to the brave new world where Europeans are very soon going to pay €2,000 for 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas!’

Since then, Putin has been keen to highlight the vulnerability that Germany’s dependence on Russian gas, oil and coal has created. The Kremlin has already cut off other countries, such as Poland and Bulgaria, from its gas supplies. Last month, the state-controlled energy giant Gazprom blamed a missing Siemens turbine for cutting Nord Stream 1 flows down to 40 per cent of capacity: a staggering amount given that the pipeline is capable of delivering 55 billion cubic metres a year to Europe.

Putin indicated on Wednesday that gas flows could be reduced even further. Speaking to reporters during a visit in Iran, he stressed that the missing turbine, which had been sent to Canada for repairs due to the ‘crumbling of (its) inside lining’ had still not been returned, impairing the pipeline’s capacity.

‘There are two functioning machines there, they pump 60 million cubic metres per day…If one is not returned, there will be one, which is 30 million cubic metres,’ the Russian president continued ominously.

So Europe held its breath as specialists monitored the return of the gas flow through Nord Stream 1. All indications so far suggest a resumption of the pre-maintenance levels of 40 per cent, putting Germany and Europe back where they were before the ten-day break. But the EU’s largest economy continues to rely on a third of its gas from Russia while currently receiving less than half of the agreed amount. The fact that Putin has decided to resume this reduced delivery for now ‘is no reason to think we are out of the woods,’ says Klaus Müller, the head of the Federal Network Agency.

Germany is now bracing itself for a looming crisis. What began as a vague debate on diversifying energy supplies and medium-term contingency planning, is rapidly turning into outright panic. Many experts have pointed out that Putin is using the excuse of a faulty turbine to stir up political and social insecurity in Germany by summoning the spectre of imminent energy shortfalls and rising prices. But this hasn’t stopped the government from pressuring Canada into delivering the component to Russia in spite of economic sanctions.

Alarmingly, German politicians are doing very little to hide their own panic over the matter. The German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock admitted to journalists that her team had tried to impress on the Canadians that the turbine must be returned to Russia because, ‘otherwise we won’t get any gas anymore and then we won’t be able to support Ukraine at all anymore because we will be busy dealing with large-scale social unrest.’

Such rhetoric from German government officials is playing right into Putin’s hands, revealing that the Kremlin’s psychological and economic warfare on Germany is more effective than the reverse. As the German journalist and Russia expert Christoph Wanner points out: ‘the Russian president is keeping our country on a short leash.’ Baerbock’s open admission that Germany might be willing to drop what support it has lent Ukraine altogether if the social, economic and political price for it becomes too high domestically, will only serve to encourage Putin to turn the thumbscrews again.

The Russian plan is as predictable as it is effective: keep gas supplies to Germany going on a level that allows the country to function, yet low enough to create price hikes and uncertainty. In this way, Russia will continue to generate enormous revenue to fund its brutal campaign in Ukraine while grinding down German commitment to the war and driving a wedge into the Western alliance.

All the indications suggest that the Kremlin will succeed with this tactic. Public morale is already waning in Germany. A recent survey indicated that energy prices have become the top issue. The poll also suggested that the majority of Germans think economic sanctions have hit them harder than Russia.

Worryingly, this is accompanied by increasing pessimism regarding the West’s ability to help Ukraine win the war. While over half of those surveyed still support the supply of heavy weapons to Ukraine, the figure has dropped since the last survey. Nine in ten Germans want their government to continue to talk to Putin. Alongside a previous survey, in which half the respondents said they wanted Ukraine to cede territory in the east to Russia, this suggests the German public is becoming war-weary and might push for a quick end to the conflict, even if that means rewarding Russian aggression in Europe.

The mood in the country certainly seems at a dangerous tipping point. Energy prices are soaring to record highs as the government is forced to return to resources it had hoped were on the way out. Coal, oil and possibly even a continuation of nuclear electricity generation beyond the planned phase-out at the end of the year are all back on the table, so that the scarce gas supplies might be reserved for heat generation in the winter. In some regions, people have already been told to expect reductions in room temperatures and limited availability of hot water.

In the middle of a European heatwave the prospect of a cold winter with dwindling gas supplies may be hard to imagine, but Germany is palpably edgy. While it is likely that private households and essential services will be shielded from the worst effects of shortages, the country’s industry would be left to take the brunt. Some economic models are forecasting a contraction of over 12 per cent of Germany’s GDP.

As summer moves into autumn, the Kremlin will be watching very carefully what happens to German resolve. Caving to Putin’s demands domestically and in Ukraine will not reduce the conflict but encourage it. Instead of watching gas meters and Putin’s announcements with bated breath, Berlin should look for realistic solutions, communicate them clearly to the public and prepare the country for a tough winter.

There is no easy way out of a trap of Germany’s own making. The sooner Berlin confronts this reality, the better so that it can find a way through the looming crisis. Panic is helping nobody but Putin.

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