In the face of Russia’s growing threat to invade Ukraine, Europe has remained ambivalent. The latest spectacle was a defiant Vladimir Putin dismissing at the same press conference the statements of French President Emmanuel Macron, who claimed there was a willingness to negotiate, while Putin standing beside him denied it.
This embarrassing event turned out to be a display of geopolitical power. Although Russia is a military power, its economy hardly exceeds that of Spain and pales in comparison to the GDP of economies such as France, the United Kingdom or Germany and, of course, the United States: all member states of the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO).
Russia also has serious internal problems in its economy, with an increasingly devalued currency and a host of international sanctions, which may even lead to its removal from the world banking system. A protracted war is simply untenable for Vladimir Putin’s government and undesirable for the Russian people.
Russia’s precious natural gas, Europe’s Achilles heel
Even so, in the meeting between the two presidents, it was Putin and not Macron who seemed to have the upper hand, as Russia provides up to 40% of Europe’s gas. This is something essential to supply electricity and heating to millions of European homes in winter.
European leaders fear the political and social consequences of compromising the continent’s much-needed gas supply. Europe suffers from high energy dependence, both because it lacks its own sources and because of its reluctance to use coal and nuclear power.
Natural gas accounts for up to one-fifth of Europe’s energy sources and up to 20% of electricity generation. While 40% of European demand is supplied by gas from Russia, in some countries such as Sweden and Finland the dependence is 100 %. Poland and Austria are 50% dependent, and Germany 40% dependent on Russian gas.
After Russia, the other major supplier, with 30%, is Norway, with its North Sea fields. In third place is Algeria, whose supplies reach the Mediterranean countries: Spain, Portugal, Italy, and France.
Erdoğan claims that Turkey and Israel can supply Europe with natural gas
“We can use Israeli natural gas in our country, and beyond using it, we can also work on a joint effort in its passage to Europe,” said Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan after a visit to Ukraine.
Israel’s President Isaac-Herzog will visit the Muslim country in mid-March to discuss with Turkey the expansion of the gas pipeline, among other issues.
Despite the fact that Israel has since 2013 intensified its exploration efforts and considerably increased its natural gas reserves, the Middle Eastern country barely produces 333,000 million cubic feet (MMcf) of gas, while Russia, the second-largest gas producer in the world, produces 22,000,000 MMcf annually.
Germany’s gas consumption alone exceeds 3,290,000 MMcf so Israel could not supply the demand of a single country, much less that of the European Union.
Even if Erdoğan’s proposal is joined by other sources from the Middle East, the Iran-Azerbaijan pipeline, through which the Israeli gas line would be connected, is not finished and only goes as far as Greece.
The European Union is looking to liquefied natural gas from the United States as a possible substitute
The European Union has also looked to the United States as another possible source of gas. In recent months, imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the United States to the European Union have reached 14,126 MMcf, which is equivalent to the amount to supply gas to 17 million homes in the United Kingdom on a winter’s day.
Unfortunately, LNG imports from the U.S. have to be made via ship, so the natural gas has to be frozen to a temperature of minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit (126.67 °C) (or minus 162 degrees Celsius). This necessary strategy reduces the volume of gas that in its natural state would take up 600 times more space.
Once in port, the LNG has to be re-gasified and put back into circulation to power European home heating. Europe currently has around 29 regasification plants; however, a recent study by energy consultancy Argus revealed that the capacity to regasify LNG is simply insufficient to replace imports from Russia.
Another problem arises from the location of the regasification plants, of which up to a third are on the Iberian Peninsula, whose gas network is not widely connected to the rest of Europe, so bringing more gas from the Atlantic would mean new pipeline investments in the west of the continent.
Although Europe is planning to expand its regasification capacity, these efforts will take years, so in the short term, Europe will remain dependent on Russian natural gas.