Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine, one question has troubled European governments more than almost any other: What happens if Moscow turns off the gas?
The threat of cutting Russian gas supplies for European countries, many of whom have relied on it for years to heat their homes and power their factories, was a trump card that Putin could play if the war he started last February dragged into a long winter.
Citizens from countries who were not directly at war with Russia might wonder, as the cold started to bite, why their comfort and livelihoods were being sacrificed on behalf of Ukraine. National leaders, feeling domestic pressure, might agitate for sanctions to be softened or for peace to be brokered on terms favorable to Moscow, it was thought.
“There’s a traditional view in Russia that one of its best assets in warfare is general winter,” explains Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow at think tank Chatham House.
“In this case, Russia sought to exploit winter to augment the power of another tool in its box: the energy weapon. Russia was counting on a winter freeze to bring Europe to its senses and convince publics across the continent that support for Ukraine was not worth the pain in their wallets,” Giles adds.
But that long chill has yet to pass. Western and Central Europe have enjoyed a milder winter than expected, which, along with a coordinated drive to reduce gas consumption, has taken one of Putin’s largest bargaining chips out of his hands.
As we head further into 2023, European governments now have a window of opportunity to get their ducks in a row and reduce reliance on Russian gas before another winter comes around. Doing so could play a crucial role in maintaining the West’s united front as the war drags on.
Read the full analysis here.