Germany’s dependence on Russian gas has left Europe short of options to sanction Moscow if it invades Ukraine—and itself vulnerable should Russia stop gas exports to the West.
A two-decade-old decision to phase out nuclear power and more recent moves to cut reliance on coal in an effort to bring down CO2 emissions mean Germany is now more reliant on Russian gas than most of its neighbors, not just for heating but also for power generation.
This year, the country’s last three nuclear power plants will be closed, just as Germany faces some of the highest energy prices in the developed world. All German coal plants are due to be closed by 2038.
With cheap gas reliably flowing from Russia for decades, successive governments never built an infrastructure to import more expensive liquefied natural gas from major exporters such as the U.S. or Qatar. The country currently has no LNG terminal of its own.
These factors have converged to make Germany the biggest buyer of Russian gas in the world. It draws more than half of its gas imports from Russia against around 40% on average for the European Union, according to the EU’s statistics agency Eurostat.
The nuclear phaseout and the exit from coal mean this proportion is likely to increase. Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that was completed last year and now awaits formal approval by German regulators, will double capacity for Russian gas exports to the country currently being channeled through the parallel Nord Stream 1 pipeline.
“The decision to phase out nuclear and coal at the same time has made Germany fully dependent on Russian gas and vulnerable to the possibility that Russia could use energy as a weapon,” said Gustav Gressel, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.
Officials in the government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz —whose party, the Social Democrats, has traditionally advocated for close relations with Russia—have said privately that it would mothball Nord Stream 2 in case of Russian aggression.
Publicly, Mr. Scholz hasn’t made any such commitment despite repeated urging from Washington and other allies. The chancellor has echoed his predecessor, Angela Merkel, who presided over the construction of Nord Stream 2, in saying that the pipeline is a purely private-sector project that must be separated from political discussions.
While the Kremlin has recently weaponized gas in its dealings with Eastern Europe, cutting supplies to exert political pressure, it has never done so toward Germany, said Erich Vad, a retired German general and former security adviser to the chancellery. That, he said, had shaped Germany’s positive view of Russia as a reliable energy supplier.
This is changing: The International Energy Agency said earlier this month that Russia is in large part responsible for Europe’s gas shortage and that Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas exporter, had reduced exports to Europe in the fourth quarter at a time when prices were high. The Kremlin has denied using gas as a geopolitical weapon and says that it is delivering on all contractual obligations.
Much of Russia’s gas shipments to Europe are channeled via pipelines traversing Ukraine, some dating back to Soviet times. The ability to replace them with direct gas exports to Germany could allow Russia to wage war on Ukraine without having to worry about transit issues, Mr. Gressel said.
“We have been warning about this scenario for years, and now it is happening,” he said. “The entire European security order is at stake, and Germany needs to be willing to pay a price to defend it.”
Gazprom controls a number of gas-storage facilities dotted across Germany, among the biggest such facilities in Europe. That gives Moscow access to an important buffer system in case of demand peaks and supply bottlenecks.
“If there is Russian military aggression, it will exemplify the degree to which we are dependent on Russian gas and how vulnerable we are to it being used as a political weapon,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank.
German energy prices have already shot up as a result of Europe’s gas shortage, with the Federal Statistics Office reporting on Thursday they were up 69% in December compared with the same month in 2020. The crisis has pushed German energy companies to secure billions of euros in credit to weather the price surge.
Germany has made considerable investments in renewable energy, but the transition away from fossil fuels has been slow and uneven. Natural gas represents around 25% of Germany’s total energy consumption and that will increase as the country shuts down more nuclear and coal plants. The use of natural gas for electricity generation in 2021 was already higher than in 1990, according to the Federal Environment Agency.
“The gas from Russia cannot be replaced in the short term,” Markus Krebber, CEO of one of Germany’s largest utilities, RWE AG , said at the Handelsblatt Energy Summit this month.
Even Germany’s energy infrastructure is highly geared toward Russian exports. In 2018, the government of Ms. Merkel agreed to support the construction of at least one large LNG terminal on the country’s North Sea shore, following pressure from then-President Donald Trump, who threatened Berlin with crippling sanctions against Nord Stream 2.
Ms. Merkel’s government pledged to subsidize the project and drafted a law to force gas infrastructure companies to build connectors to the future terminal. But the entire endeavor was then abandoned when Mr. Trump lost the election last year.
Gas imports from the Netherlands, meanwhile, have continued to decrease as output there declines due to concerns about earthquakes triggered by production drilling.
In a 2015 study commissioned by the economy ministry that simulated an abrupt stoppage of Russian gas deliveries, the authors found that German gas storage facilities would have to be at least 60% full to keep satisfying demand. On Wednesday, with warmer weather still months away, tanks were 44% full, according to data from Gas Infrastructure Europe, an association representing European gas infrastructure operators.
As a result, Germany is now facing an energy trilemma, Ms. Stelzenmüller said, as it needs to balance environmental, social impact and security factors.
“We have wildly underestimated the security part of it,” Ms. Stelzenmüller said. “A large swath of German policy makers want to believe that the Russians are reliable suppliers, which they have been for decades. But now, unfortunately, there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary.”