Vladimir Putin wants to make you uncomfortable, and he has a plan. The Russian president is now prosecuting an energy war parallel to his military war in Ukraine. The goal is to force energy costs higher — way higher — during the upcoming winter, as a way of flexing Russia’s energy muscle and driving a wedge between Ukraine and its many allies in the West.
Europe is Putin’s first target, because of its heavy dependence on Russian energy. But his energy offensive targets Americans as well, since European nations that can’t get Russian natural gas will import more from the United States. That could push US heat and electricity prices to unprecedented levels this winter, while more oil use, as a substitute for natural gas, could reverse the sharp decline in gasoline prices during the last three months.
Costly energy puts Americans in a foul mood, with confidence levels dipping to recessionary lows earlier this summer as gasoline prices soared to $5 per gallon. But Americans have been surprisingly resolute in their support for Ukraine and a variety of measures meant to punish Russia for its barbaric invasion. There’s no end in sight to the war, but American resolve through the upcoming winter — and perhaps for the next year or longer — could end up being a decisive factor that helps Ukraine oust Russian forces from its territory.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, many analysts thought Russia would continue to honor its oil and gas contracts with customers in Europe and elsewhere. That was in Russia’s interest, since it needed energy revenue to finance the war. But Putin anticipated a quick victory he didn’t get. The war is now a slog pitting the United States and dozens of other countries backing Ukraine with weapons and money against a broken superpower bleeding troops and materiel. Putin needs new leverage.
So he has now weaponized energy. On Sept. 2., the Russian energy company Gazprom said it was temporarily closing the pipeline that carries most natural gas from Russia to Europe. The temporary shutdown is now indefinite. Gazprom claims the shutdown is necessary until Germany repairs a leak, but that’s dubious. Gazprom, meanwhile, has also produced an ad threatening to freeze Europe to death this winter, behaving more like a propaganda ministry than an energy company.
Putin undoubtedly wants to punish Ukraine’s many allies for sanctions that have cut off much of the Russian economy from global markets. But his energy war has military aims, as well.
“Much of Russia’s willingness to grind on in the face of setbacks has been premised upon a belief — and perhaps a self-deluding hope — that Western support for Ukraine will fade,” analyst Jack Watling of RUSI wrote on Sept. 2.
Europe faces a full-blown energy crisis this winter, with natural gas prices that could be 400% higher than the year before. The United States, unlike Europe, has plenty of domestic natural gas, yet gas prices will probably be higher here, too, due to the tight global market, capacity limitations and other factors. Current futures prices for US natural gas are roughly double what they were a year ago, implying sharply higher energy bills over the winter.
‘Last throw of the dice’
Putin hopes consumer pain this winter will lead to capitulation in the West, with stressed voters demanding their elected officials make some deal with Russia that lowers energy prices, even if it means selling out Ukraine. But Putin’s gambit is also a sign of weakness and an indication that sanctions, billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine and other measures are working.
“This is in some ways Putin’s last throw of the dice,” writes Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London. “If this move does not work, he has few options left.”
America, so far, has been relatively isolated from the worst economic effects of the Russian war in Ukraine. The United States imported little Russian energy before the war, so President Biden’s ban on Russian energy imports hasn’t caused much trouble. Americans must pay the global price for oil, which spiked to more than $120 in June, but that has since come back down to a manageable $86 or so, with gas prices plunging sine the June peak.
An August survey found high levels of support for US assistance to Ukraine, even if it means higher prices for energy and other things. Nearly 60% said Americans should support Ukraine for as long as it takes. That’s encouraging, but Americans may face a tougher test this winter than they faced during the first six months of the war.
Support for Ukraine is a bit softer in Europe, with sharp variations by region. That’s probably because Europeans are paying a much higher price, mainly in terms of energy, for sanctions on Russia. That could make US support for Ukraine crucial if Putin’s energy war causes the damage he intends, with backbreaking energy price surges and rationing across Europe. Many economists think the energy crisis will soon plunge Europe into recession, or already has.
The United States has provided more support to Ukraine than any other nation, by far, and US military support now includes advanced rockets and other weapons the Biden administration refused to provide earlier in the war. Some critics say the United States isn’t doing enough, but more help could be coming — tanks, fighter jets, missiles — if Ukraine makes battlefield gains and Russian forces continue to deteriorate.
Ukraine seems to be mounting a limited counteroffensive against Russian forces in the southeast portion of the country, near the regional capital of Kherson. Ukrainian fighters have outperformed, but they can only win with vast amounts of help.
“Ukrainian success will be determined by leaders in the West,” retired Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the former head of US European Command, said during a Sept. 6 Atlantic Council webinar. “How this rolls out will depend on what the West has done to help supply the effort.”
By this time next year, an outcome may be coming into view. It will be difficult for Ukraine to reclaim all territory Russia has seized since it invaded Crimea in 2014. It’s more plausible for Ukraine to push Russia back to pre-invasion lines of early 2022 and decisively thwart Putin’s violent expansionism. Ukrainians will be doing the fighting, but they’ll need support from ordinary Westerners who oppose, in their own way, Putin’s energy extortion.