In 1970, West German politicians and gas executives signed a landmark deal with the Soviet Union that would shape the next half-century of European energy policy. West Germany promised to supply the USSR with steel pipes, while in exchange the USSR would extend a gas pipeline to the border of West Germany and start pumping Soviet gas beneath the Iron Curtain and into Western Europe. The trade deal was one form of Ostpolitik—a wider policy of thawing relations between the USSR and West Germany that would earn then West German chancellor Willy Brandt the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971.
Brandt—who died in 1992—may not have imagined just how intertwined the two former enemies would become. By the time of German reunification in 1990, gas from the USSR accounted for more than 30 percent of the country’s gas consumption. By 2021, Russia was supplying around 40 percent of the European Union’s natural gas, with some smaller countries, such as Latvia, almost completely reliant on Russia for their supplies. Germany, with its heavy steel industry and gas-powered heating, relied on Russia for just under half of its natural gas.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 exposed deep fissures in the EU’s energy policy. After EU sanctions on Russia, the Russian state-controlled energy firm Gazprom announced it was slashing gas exports through one of its main pipelines to about 20 percent of capacity. The share of Russian gas entering Europe has dropped to 15 percent, squeezing already-inflated prices to new highs. In the UK, which is sensitive to gas prices on international markets, average energy bills are projected to reach nearly four times their January 2019 levels.
“It is important to acknowledge for the EU that increasing this dependency on Russia has been a policy failure,” says Ganna Gladkykh, a researcher at the European Energy Research Alliance. The continent is now facing two challenges. First, a cold winter—or several—with gas supplies stretched to their limit, could mean forced blackouts and industry shutdowns. Second, Europe must reduce its dependence on Russian gas, striking new deals with different suppliers and stepping up its renewable rollout. At the end of that road, Europe may find itself in a new era of energy security—no longer reliant on an unpredictable neighbor to the east, but with new dynamics that may bring their own problems.