Has the West found a secret new weapon in its battle with Putin’s expansionist ambitions: reversible gas pipelines? Putin has never made a secret of his willingness to use energy as bludgeon against his neighbours. In 1999, the year before he became Russian leader, he wrote a pamphlet making the case that energy exports provided the means by which his country’s greatness could be restored.
Putin’s behaviour over Ukraine has been typical. Over the past 15 years Russia has constructed a network of pipelines which can be used to bypass Ukraine. Starve Ukraine of energy, goes Putin’s thinking, and it might be forced back into Russia’s fold. What he didn’t reckon on is that pipelines can be reversed, allowing Ukraine to be supplied from the west – using Russian gas indirectly.
Yet having developed a tool to thwart Putin’s attempts to cut off the gas to Ukraine, the EU now seems shy of using it. Putin has tried to assert that reverse flow of Gazprom’s pipelines is illegal, and threatened that he will reduce gas supply to the rest of Europe to counter the attempt to deliver gas Ukraine.
But it is bluff, David Clark of the Russia Foundation told the Spectator Energy Forum this morning. ‘Putin can’t afford not to sell us energy’. As a reminder of just how sensitive the Russian economy has become to energy prices, the rouble fell 6 per cent this morning following the crash in oil prices at the end of last week.
Putin may be a good political strategist, if one often of bad intent, but his Achilles heel is that the Russian economy has never played a big enough part in his plans. He failed to see how Russia’s political might could be undermined by economic weakness caused by falling energy prices. If the EU could just recognise the power of low energy prices in countering Putin’s aggression, and be more prepared to call his bluff, Putin could be thwarted.