With Russian gas deliveries now accounting for less than 10% of Europe’s total gas consumption, compared to nearly 40% in 2021, it is tempting to argue that the Kremlin’s ability to inflict harm has been paralyzed.
But that is not entirely true.
There are at least three opportunities for Russia to disrupt gas flows, stoke corruption, and block countries from sourcing alternative supplies, including from domestic production.
Germany’s overnight transformation from one of Europe’s most Russian gas-dependent countries into an importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG) was one of last year’s many surprises. Within a few months, it commissioned three LNG importing terminals, which typically require years to build and bring into commercial operation.
It also nationalized key infrastructure previously held by Russian companies, including an oil refinery and gas storage facilities.
Nevertheless, its gas transmission infrastructure remains vulnerable to possible disruption as some of the pipelines, which had been built to connect with the now defunct Nord Stream corridor, remain booked by the Russian state company Gazprom.
Pipelines such as OPAL or EUGAL, which were intended to ship natural gas arriving at the northern Greifswald entry point from Russia via the Baltic Sea, were intended to ship volumes further south to the Czech Republic and Austria.
With the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines sabotaged last summer and not in use, the domestic connecting lines are now needed to ship alternative supplies, including regasified LNG arriving at the newly launched Lubmin terminal on the Baltic.
However, in 2017 Gazprom booked transmission capacity along these internal German lines, as well as over 80% of the interconnection capacity on the German-Czech border until 2035.
This means that even if there is no more Russian gas flowing through these pipelines, other companies which are interested in using them would depend on Gazprom relinquishing some of this capacity.
So far, it has released it on a monthly or daily basis but there is no guarantee that this will continue. In fact, Gazprom publishes no methodology to show how and when it releases capacity. It is state-owned, and as a result, does the Kremlin’s bidding. As has been crystal clear from the past year, Russian leaders put politics before standard commercial interests.
The German government may be reluctant to nationalize the pipelines and force the transmission capacity, which had been booked by Gazprom, to be returned to the market and retendered.
This is because pipeline operators, which auctioned the capacity on a long-term basis, receive a firm income from users, even if it is not used.
Yet this presents a clear risk. If Gazprom is to retain transmission capacity on German pipelines this effectively gives the Kremlin the ability to strangle flows within Germany and to its neighbors.
Meanwhile, Russia has announced its intention to build a hub in Turkey.
A hub, as seen in western Europe where gas is actively traded on free markets, may be a misnomer in this case. Neither Turkey nor Russia is interested in opening up a bustling, competitive market.
In fact, the intention may be to deliver Russian gas via all possible routes into Turkey, including through pipelines and LNG, and then sell to the Turkish incumbent BOTAS (likewise state-owned), which would then redirect it to the European Union (EU.)
Earlier in January, the Bulgarian incumbent Bulgargaz signed an agreement with BOTAS to access Turkish terminals and infrastructure for imports of natural gas.
There are no indications that other European companies had been given the opportunity to secure similar access, raising concerns about possible breaches of competition rules.
Questions will also be raised regarding gas sales by BOTAS. The company imports volumes from multiple sources including Russia and Iran, two countries that are under heavy international sanctions.
Any association with sanctioned companies or individuals could lead to immigration bans into the EU and the US, denial of access to the global financial system.
This means that unless BOTAS provides transparent information and verifiable certificates of origin for gas sold to the EU, companies buying from Turkey may be ensnared by sanctions.
So far neither Bulgaria nor Turkey has indicated any willingness to publish clear information on upcoming gas exports to the EU, raising fears about possible corrupt arrangements. In fact, corruption remains a constant concern for the region where institutions remain very vulnerable to external influence.
A recent documentary by French-German TV channel Arte focused on Romania’s inability to develop its offshore Black Sea gas production, noting that multi-billion dollar investments had been systematically obstructed and asking whether members of the political elite had been serving Romanian or Russian interests.
Romanian politicians exposed by Wikileaks or the Romanian media as being “Gazprom men” continue to hold senior positions in key state-owned companies, and at the energy regulator, ANRE.
The fact that Romania, which could be an energy-independent country thanks to its domestic gas resources, has been deepening its reliance on Russian gas because of laws discouraging local production, shows that ties — some of which were likely established during Soviet days — remain alive and alert to Russian interests.
This may explain why in 2022, while most European countries stopped or limited Russian imports, Romania increased its share of imports to 31% of the total consumed gas in the first ten months of the year, according to the latest data, from 28% for the same period the previous year.
Unless Romania and, arguably, all neighboring countries where similar arrangements are in place, sever these links and appoint competent professionals based on merit, the region will remain vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
Europe has made a step in the right direction by switching away from Russian gas imports, but the battle to bolster its security is far from over.
It has only just begun.
Dr. Aura Sabadus is a senior energy journalist who writes about Eastern Europe, Turkey and Ukraine for Independent Commodity Intelligence Services (ICIS), a London-based global energy and petrochemicals news and market data provider. Her views are her own.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.