BY: MATTHEW DOTZLER
Central Europe’s dependency on Russian oil can be weaponized to undermine the collective security of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) ability to respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltics. Promoting energy independence in the Visegrád Four (V4), who will be essential for staging an effective response, will address the Russian threat. Russia has shown before that it can throw Europe into chaos by shutting off the energy supply and this threat to security remains vulnerable to exploitation. If the interruption of the flow of oil is the preface of an invasion, the challenge of staging a response will be more difficult; governments will struggle to keep both their lights on, and their society functioning. Even a slight interruption of service could give Russia enough time to capture critical positions and capitals in the Baltics.
Oil and natural gas have kept Europe reliant on Russia for the last 70 years. Europe depends on Russian energy exports to keep the lights on, and Russia is happy to provide. Therein lies a genuine threat to the security of the region. Europe imports almost 30 percent of its total fossil fuel from the Russian-owned company Gazprom, and, according to reports, Gazprom controls 34 percent of the total market in Europe. Considering that Russia and NATO states are often at odds, it is a security risk to rely heavily on Russian energy.
In 2006 Russia turned off the flow of oil to Ukraine and again in the winter of 2008-2009 as the Ukrainian crisis continued. These occurrences highlight important security vulnerability. Since one main pipeline carries 80 percent of Russian gas to Europe, an isolated dispute can suddenly cripple the European continent. The Kremlin has the means of undermining an adequate response by NATO in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). Energy is essential to functioning societies, and as we saw in 2009, a brief shut off can bring even the strongest nations to their knees. Collective security is at risk of failing in the event of a Russian invasion if allies are forced to manage a crisis at home while simultaneously trying to stop a Russian threat. Control over the flow of oil and gas is Russia’s Sword of Damocles hanging over Europe.
Russian control of energy is a security gap that cannot be afforded, especially with the Kremlin threatening the Baltics. The only way to close this gap is to decrease dependency on Russian oil and gas — if not eliminate it entirely. Should Russia launch an invasion of the Baltics, the V4 states will be important for staging a NATO response as they border the Baltic region. Any collective security response will take the full focus of each government involved in managing the coordination of multi-national troops and resources. Threatening the process, Russia can turn off the oil supply to the V4 states, causing societal turmoil. The V4 would face the dual challenge of leading the collective security response and tending to a society that will be protesting their governments to get the lights back on. If NATO needs to respond to a Russian assault in the Baltics, their maneuverability is contingent upon stability in the V4 — an important variable that is currently not assured. Energy policy is usually left to independent states to pursue. However, in this case, it is within the realm of security to support investment in energy independence.
There are two potential options to support V4 energy security. The first is an investment in nuclear power. The V4 only has 14 operational nuclear reactors between them. The commissioning of more reactors could meet the energy needs of the countries, breaking free from Russian oil. Nuclear power plants, however, are expensive to build and require a staff of highly trained and attentive workers. While V4 member states could afford some growth, it might not be enough to close the security gap, requiring consideration of additional solutions. The second is to build on the breakthroughs in renewable energy. Portugal ran its entire country on renewable energy for four days in 2016. Germany has also made significant advancements, drawing 35 percent of their energy from renewables in the first half of 2017. Programs deemed successful in Germany, Portugal, and elsewhere might be transplantable into Central Europe, enabling energy independence from Russia. Implementation programs in the V4 work to ensure domestic stability in the event of Russia turning off the flow of resources to the region.
Kicking the Habit
Europe faces an uncertain future as Russia increases its aggression towards the Baltics against the collective security of Central and Eastern Europe. Overreliance on Russian oil and gas is a security threat, and a disaster waiting to happen if Putin decides to cut the flow of fuel to Europe in advance of an assault on the Baltics. Previous stoppages of energy imports demonstrate Europe’s vulnerability. Despite resolving the disputes, there is no certainty that oil will continue to flow in the future. Energy independence in the V4 is essential for increasing regional security to ensure NATO’s ability to stage a successful response should Russia take action in the Baltics. Failure to close this security gap leaves Russia with a dangerous tool to advance its interests against the West.
This piece was published originally with the Trachtenberg School’s online Journal Policy Perspectives
Matthew Dotzler is finishing his Masters in Public Policy at the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Administration at the George Washington University. He focuses primarily on US foreign and security policy issues relating to Central and Eastern Europe as well as the Middle East.
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