Security Powered by Energy
Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine has put energy at the top of international political and security concerns. The implications for the Black Sea region are especially stark. European plans to accelerate decarbonization and diversification of supplies have profound security consequences since those plans could turn the countries in the area into models for the fundamental transformation of the energy sector expected in the next decades.
The past year’s outbreak of conflict has laid bare the political and security implications of excessive energy dependence on autocratic regimes. In times of crisis, the risk of blackmail through the weaponization of oil and gas arises. At other times, fossil fuel revenues from the pockets of Western consumers fund domestic repression activities and international atrocities.
In 2022, Russia placed bets on its status as an energy powerhouse to pit one European country against another and then hoped for a cold winter to break the West’s unified opposition to the conflict it launched. So far, Moscow has lost. The West remains united and even accelerating its military support for Ukraine while largely freeing itself from Russian energy (with the notable exception of nuclear energy).
These developments teach three lessons:
1. Solidarity among countries sharing Western values of democracy, rule of law, and economic liberalism, especially in the energy sector, is key to those countries’ strength. Ukraine and Moldova benefitted significantly when Europe permitted the synchronization of the electricity grids of all three. This was an exceptional measure in the first weeks of the war and spurred a gradual increase in energy trading on commercial terms, rather than just during emergencies. Though the quantities were relatively limited (up to 300 megawatts), EU members such as Poland, Slovakia, and Romania saw energy prices drop slightly, as did natural gas consumption for producing electricity. Ukraine, for its part, gained electricity export markets and a financial resource for repairing war-damaged infrastructure.
More critically, the connection with the EU became a lifeline for Ukraine and Moldova once Russia started targeting the former’s energy infrastructure and putting pressure on the latter by gradually reducing gas supplies. The connection permitted reverse flows of electricity to the two countries, the only reason the lights have remained on there. EU-wide efforts also facilitated the construction of additional infrastructure that allowed the bloc to diversify its energy sources and quickly end its need for Russian imports. These efforts included approving the use of EU funds for the new infrastructure, establishing new gas links, and negotiating new natural gas contracts as a bloc rather than as individual member states in competition with one another. Through increased energy efficiency, fuel substitution, acceleration of the new gas links, and identifying alternative sources for imports, the EU managed to drastically reduce its dependence on Russian gas from 45% of consumption in 2021 to less than 9% toward the end of 2022. A full decoupling from Russian gas, unthinkable just a year ago, is likely as early as2024. And it will happen without an economic collapse or Europeans shivering in their homes.
This decoupling put Germany in the spotlight, but similarly big breakthroughs occurred in southern and eastern Europe, and in the Black Sea region. Construction of liquefied natural gas (LNG) infrastructure in Croatia and Greece has accelerated, the EU has introduced plans to double gas imports from Azerbaijan by 2027, and new pipelines such as the much-delayed Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria are finally in place. The Black Sea region, as all of Europe, has realized that Russian aggression goes beyond Ukraine to reach the entire continent’s energy security.
2. Excessive reliance on autocratic regimes for critical supplies, including energy, remains a key threat to the West’s ability to uphold its core values in the international arena. Azeri gas may be a welcome substitute in the Black Sea region for the Russian alternative, but the Azeris are still competing with LNG and new Romanian natural gas sources. And continued moves toward energy efficiency, electrification, and renewables will lower overall demand for gas. Consistent and sustained efforts in this direction will increase the EU’s hand in negotiations with Azerbaijan and allow the bloc to condition gas purchases on the country’s greater respect for human rights. Brussels can also push Baku to implement global best transparency and contracting practices, including those promoted by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.
3. Western support for Ukraine’s victory and reconstruction is not a matter of generosity but one of self-interest. Ukraine’s energy potential is vital to the entire region and a testing ground for the latest technological breakthroughs in energy production and storage. The country’s hobbled energy infrastructure (50%-60% of its entire power system is now damaged) requires reconstruction with a radically different structure, one that is flexible, decentralized, focused on renewables and storage, and resilient to risks ranging from war to natural disasters.
Ukrainian consumers and local authorities have already begun building this structure by working together to produce their own energy locally and implement energy-saving measures, the very spirit of “energy communities” that the EU is keen to build. Ukraine’s power system is also innovating by decentralizing distribution. It is introducing to local electricity grids generators that supply energy only to small groups of users. These steps will be critical in shaping the country’s reconstructed infrastructure since such grids, in much of the rest of the world, are the main bottlenecks to the much-vaunted transition to a fully decarbonized energy system. Another advantage Ukraine has for creating a green energy system is its Black Sea coastline. It is among Europe’s best sites for offshore wind potential and, possibly, for hydrogen-based power generation. Ukraine’s new power system, therefore, could become a model for other countries aiming to curb their dependence on unsavory regimes and reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
Finally, Ukraine is also well positioned to be the world’s energy testing ground since much of its enormous gas infrastructure is underground (e.g., storage, pipelines) and remains relatively undamaged. Its gas storage capacity vastly exceeds that for all of the EU, which could make the country the bedrock of the bloc’s energy security for decades.
Saving Ukraine is not only morally right. It is also vital for energy independence and security in the Black Sea region and all of Europe.
Ana Otilia Nutu is an energy policy analyst at Expert Forum (EFOR), a think tank in Bucharest, Romania, and co-chair of the Steering Committee of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum (EaP CSF).
This article is part of a Black Sea Strategic Highlights series that includes assessments, goals, opinions, and perspectives of officials, experts, and activists from countries in the Black Sea region, the EU, and the United States. With this series, GMF hopes to contribute to the development of a realistic and successful Black Sea strategy for political and economic security.
The views and opinions expressed in the preceding text are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.