Some European leaders have struck a cautionary note. COURTESY
Sanctioning Russian oil and gas is clearly not a popular subject in NATO and the EU. Energy is obviously central to all economies, and a willingness to sacrifice on economic growth varies considerably among alliance members
Welcoming the leaders of Finland and Sweden to Washington on May 19, President Biden said that “what makes NATO strong isn’t just our enormous military capacity, but our commitment to each other, to its values. NATO is an alliance of choice, not coercion.” NATO is indeed a growing alliance; once Finland and Sweden are officially members, the alliance will count 32 countries. As Vladimir Putin has discovered, making war on Ukraine has strengthened rather than weakened both NATO and the 27-member European Union (EU). But will that unity last?
Some European leaders have struck a cautionary note. Poland’s prime minister, for instance, said recently: “Putin is counting on the fatigue of the West. He knows that he has much more time because democracies are less patient than autocracies,” repeating what Xi Jinping said to Biden shortly after Biden took office. There’s something to that warning, because despite appearances and concrete cooperation, the alliance is not entirely of one mind on at least three issues: energy, food, and the way forward on Ukraine.
Ending Energy Dependence on Russia
Europe’s reliance on Russia for energy has been a dilemma anticipated for some time. The European Union imported nearly 100 billion euros ($110 billion) worth of Russian energy last year. Russia supplies about 40 percent of the bloc’s imports of natural gas, about 27 percent of its imported oil, and about 46 percent of its coal. How to shrink that dependence is causing deep anxiety in European capitals.
Sanctioning Russian oil and gas is clearly not a popular subject in NATO and the EU. Energy is obviously central to all economies, and a willingness to sacrifice on economic growth varies considerably among alliance members. People think China is the wild card when it comes to keeping Russia afloat, but Turkey and Hungary are better candidates. The EU reached a watered-down agreement on Russian oil imports at the end of May that exempts one pipeline that goes through Hungary from sanctions, reflecting Victor Orbán’s refusal to support a total ban on Russian oil imports by the end of 2022. Orbán points to Hungary’s dependence on Russia for energy in general, including nuclear power, but in fact he is a Putin admirer, demonstrated not just by his repressive politics but also by his refusal to allow weapons to be shipped from Hungary to Ukraine. Still, led by Germany and Poland, the EU by year’s end will have eliminated all but about 10 percent of Russian oil imports.
EU solidarity is also being tested when it comes to Russian gas exports. Germany, dependent on Russia for about 55 percent of its gas imports, may fall into recession if Russia cuts its exports entirely. Moscow has just cut those exports in half. Vulnerability to Russia is nearly as high elsewhere in Europe, raising anxieties about an energy crisis when winter comes—probably just as Putin hopes will happen. Several countries—Finland, Netherlands, Poland, and Bulgaria—have refused to pay Russia in rubles and have already had their gas cut off by Gazprom. And Serbia, which has not joined in sanctions against Russia and is seeking to join the EU, shocked the alliance by concluding a three-year gas deal with Gazprom just as the oil embargo was agreed upon. That act raises a question: Why should Ukraine’s application for EU membership be delayed when countries like Serbia and Hungary impede common action?
Food supplies present a second difficult problem for the alliance, and for the world. Russia and Ukraine supply about a third of the world’s wheat, but Russia has blockaded the Black Sea to prevent Ukraine from exporting grain. Zelensky is pleading with the UN and Europe to get Russia to release a huge stock of Ukrainian wheat and other farm products—22 million tons, he says. Putin’s food warfare, which now includes apparently targeted attacks on Ukraine grain terminals and railway lines, is unlikely to change. The strategy, evidently intended to force a relaxation of sanctions on Russia, threatens the global food chain, which is already stressed by climate change and rising fuel, fertilizer, and shipping costs. Climate change has brought prolonged drought and mega-heat to food-deficit regions such as East Africa and the Indian subcontinent. The World Food Program reports that 89 million people are now considered “acutely food insecure” in East Africa alone, particularly in Somalia, where widespread starvation is imminent. Putin, of course, blames the West for the food crisis in the same way that he blames NATO for the war.
On May 19, the CEO of the agricultural analytical company Gro Intelligence, Sarah Menker, testified before the UN Security Council that the world has only 10 weeks of stored wheat reserves left in warehouses. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization published one estimate that 49 million people are at risk of famine in coming months, and 750,000 people face starvation right now. Putin, in a major speech in St. Petersburg on June 17, disclaimed any responsibility for the food shortages and denied blockading Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, saying: “They [the Ukrainians] can clear the mines and resume food exports. We will ensure the safe navigation of civilian vessels. No problem.” He pledged a major increase in Russian food exports to the neediest regions.
Turkey, which is playing both sides in the war—providing drones to Ukraine but refusing to sanction Russia and holding Finland’s and Sweden’s applications to join NATO hostage to their protection so far of anti-Erdogan Kurds—is in talks with Putin to allow Turkish vessels to exit the Black Sea with Ukraine grain. If Putin doesn’t follow through on his promise of safe navigation, some observers are favoring a military effort to break the Russian blockade in the Black Sea. Ukraine does not have the weapons to deter the Russia fleet, and aside from Denmark, which has promised to provide Ukraine with a Harpoon coastal missile battery, NATO has not moved on the idea. James Stavridis, a former NATO commanding general, has proposed a NATO- or US-led convoy to free the Ukraine ships. But he admits that such a mission would be high-risk and very unlikely to received NATO’s or the US’s endorsement.
The article first appeared on Counterpunch.org