NATO in Ukraine and the energy crisis in Europe
The EU and Russia seem to be walking into a crisis that may prove difficult to resolve diplomatically as tensions over Ukraine rise and the European energy crisis has no end in sight
On the one hand, an increasingly aggressive and perhaps desperate Russia attempting to keep its sphere of influence clear of European and American meddling as NATO eyes Ukraine. On the other hand, an EU that makes demands and threats without being able to carry them out due to its dependence on Russian energy. As relations reach a boiling point, the EU and Russia find themselves in a perilous situation. Neither party wants an all-out war in Ukraine if it can be avoided, nor can they afford to back down after years of rising tensions.
Russia grows desperate over Ukraine
As Russia deployed 100,000 troops on the Ukraine border last month, Ukraine responded by calling up its reserves while the EU and the US called out Russia for its aggression, promising aid to Ukraine and threatening Russia with sanctions. Ukraine has been on the back foot ever since the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014 and its support of the separatist forces in Donbas, and this is unlikely to change anytime soon. According to Kyiv the only way that Ukraine can continue to be a sovereign state is by joining NATO, and the EU, as well as the US, seem to agree. However, Russia wishes to block such an alliance and has demanded that NATO keep away from the region or face the consequences.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned the EU multiple times of rising tensions over the years, although according to Moscow, it is Russia who is the victim in this scenario. As late as December 2021, Putin went on to say in a security meeting, “Russia has been forced to respond at every step. The situation kept worsening and worsening, deteriorating and deteriorating. And here we are today, in a situation when we're forced to resolve it somehow." From a geopolitical viewpoint, it's rather obvious why Russia seems desperate. With NATO seemingly surrounding Russia and expanding ever more Eastwards, Moscow finds itself in a less than ideal situation, especially from a military standpoint since Ukraine can easily be used to invade Russia from the West.
In the eyes of the Kremlin, NATO is an institution that cannot be dismissed as a real threat to Russian sovereignty. Comments such as those from Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš during the EU Summit in Brussels in December, "It's up to NATO to decide if, when and how it expands its membership numbers, this can't be dictated from the outside", will only escalate the issues with Russia. The European Council has been somewhat more reasonable and goes straight to the point that matters, Ukraine's sovereignty, "The European Council reiterates its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Any further military aggression against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe cost in response." However, such threats may be somewhat unrealistic.
Europe's dependency on russian energy
The EU is currently facing an energy crisis, one that may last until 2025. This crisis has raised energy prices, and in turn, Europe is now at the mercy of Moscow, with 43% of natural gas and a further 25% of petroleum oil coming from Russia in 2020 alone. As a matter of fact, Russia has weaponised the energy crisis in the EU to further its own geopolitical goals. Gazprom, the largest natural gas supplier to Europe, refuses to increase supply, yet Moscow continues to push the EU to greenlight the Nord Stream 2 project, which is finished and simply awaiting approval. This begs the question, what exactly will the EU do to punish Russia? European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated that "Let there be no doubt: if Russia moves against Ukraine, the EU will be in a position to take sanctions that could extract a massive cost."
Such talk is praiseworthy, the EU should indeed protect the sovereignty of Nation-States under threat, however, sanctions will not only escalate the already existing tensions, but it's mostly empty talk. The EU had already sanctioned Russia from 2014 to July 2021, yet Russia did not back down from its involvement in Ukraine. This comes down to two factors, Ukraine is vital for Russia in securing its borders, and 60% of all Russian exports to the EU are energy products. Unless Europe is willing to stop importing energy, Russia will continue to ignore sanctions, but this is borderline impossible. Without Russian energy, Europe has no way of powering itself for the foreseeable future.
Germany has threatened to close the Nord Stream 2 project, but this threat is counterproductive during an energy crisis. To make matters worse, on the 31st of December, Germany decided to close down three of its nuclear power plants. Berlin may view its actions as admirable, but the timing has proven to be strategically unsound, leaving Europe's largest economy ever more reliant on Russia.
Reaching a boiling point?
This energy situation, therefore, limits the EU's ability to sanction Russia. With this dependency on Russian energy along with Russian military superiority in Ukraine, the EU is now in a precarious situation. In an ideal world, the EU would aim to find peace in Ukraine by understanding Russia's fear of NATO, and its concerns that American and European armed forces will be located on the Russian border. The EU’s interest in Ukraine should be an economic and political one, to establish a stable democracy, a fair economic market, and help Ukraine develop. Instead, Ukraine seems to be developing into a battleground. As relations between the EU and Russia worsen, it is difficult to understand what exactly the EU plans on doing if energy from Russia fails and if Russia does invade Ukraine.