The belief that oil and gas are no longer an element of the international political equation has been shaken by the looming war in Ukraine and the political, military, and economic escalation that ensued between the West and Russia. Choosing the winter season as a setting for the crisis, Moscow is leveraging its gas weapon to pressure Europeans into non-intervention, threatening to halt vital gas exports to the Old Continent.
The Ukraine crisis sets the scene for two key observations: the persistence of the international geopolitical competition, and the use of gas as a weapon.
In the United States, some believe Washington’s considerations have shifted after the country attained energy self-sufficiency, and the old grounds for geopolitical conflict were no longer present, especially as post-Cold War tensions died down and the confrontation shifted ground toward China in the Pacific Ocean. However, the Ukraine crisis has reaffirmed Europe’s geographical importance in the international conflict and proven that energy resources still are a crucial weapon.
If no alternatives to Russian gas are secured, Europe will keep silent in the event that Moscow invades Ukraine, which could kickstart the test of re-demarcating the borders of Russia’s new spheres of influence. For decades, gas was a vital commodity for Europeans, and today, it has become all the more important against the backdrop of the Ukrainian crisis.
If we were to draw historical parallels, oil, too, was a game changer in the 1973 war, when it was used as a weapon. In fact, the oil weapon did not influence the war with Israel much, but the victors in that war were oil producing countries, with oil prices changing forever: from $3 a barrel, prices jumped to $12, and later to nearly $60, a barrel.
In Russia’s eyes, gas is a vital political factor at hand. A strategy far from nascent, Russia’s gas weapon was already heralded in a 1981 US intelligence report entitled: “USSR and Western Europe: Implications of the Siberia-to-Europe gas pipeline.”
Today, alarms are being sounded, warning that “Russia is using its power as a gas supplier and increasing prices to drive a wedge between Ukraine’s allies.” Even back in November 2021, before Moscow’s deployment of 100,000 soldiers on the border with Ukraine, the prospect of Russia’s resort to its gas weapon had already been evident. Moscow cut its gas supply to Europe, prompting prices to soar from $300 to $800 per cubic meter. Then, it began amassing troops on the border with Ukraine.
This prompts a crucial question: can industrial countries like Germany truly forgo the use of fossil fuels? Alternative energy resources like solar and wind power cannot compensate for the shortfall, and electric power needs gas. The soar in gas prices is contributing today to the inflation that’s troubling Europe at both the economic and political levels. But for Russian President Vladimir Putin, “taking back” Ukraine is more strategically important for his country than gas and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that Washington threatens to axe.
With global energy security back in the spotlight, an inevitable question arises: being the world’s biggest energy reservoir, will the Gulf region, and the Middle East as a whole, be the next theater of war where major powers fight over geography and resources?
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.