German utilities claim to be developing work-arounds that would provide Ukraine with gas in the event Russia cuts off supplies due to non-payment, or as part of an economic war against Ukraine.
Now Germany’s major energy utility companies are developing strategies to help Ukraine fill the shortfall if Moscow decides to cut gas supplies. Companies including RWE and E.on are working on plans to supply Ukraine with weeks’ worth of gas.
Currently, Ukraine taps around half of it gas needs from Russia. But last Friday, Russian Gas monopolist Gazprom threatened to suspend deliveries to Ukraine if the country doesn’t pay its outstanding February bill of €1.7 billion ($2.35 billion).
In an emergency, the flow through Europe’s pipelines could simply be reversed, with gas getting pumped from German reservoirs through the Czech Republic and Slovakia directly to Ukraine. Following this year’s especially mild winter, Germany’s reservoirs are much fuller than usual. Even long-term deliveries would be conceivable at the moment.
Ukraine already signed a framework agreement in 2012 with RWE to make the gas deliveries possible. Under the contract, the company has committed itself to delivering up to 10 billion cubic meters of gas per year to Ukraine, which the country was going to use this summer to fill its reservoirs for the coming winter. But RWE executives say they could provide deliveries much sooner.
RWE currently draws its gas from Norway or the Netherlands, both major suppliers in Western Europe. It would also be possible to redirect Russian gas from the Nord Stream Baltic Sea pipeline — which connects Russia and Germany — through pipelines in the Czech Republic and Slovakia to Ukraine.
Color me skeptical.
The article notes that there are clauses in the contracts with Gazprom that preclude redirection of supplies, but the German utilities claim these are readily circumvented: given that gas in German storage reservoirs comes from multiple sources, how could Gazprom prove its gas has been redirected?
But this is based on the naive view that Gazprom’s sole (or even preferred) recourse against German supply of Ukraine would be to file a legal action. It could decide instead to retaliate for German shipments of gas to Ukraine by shutting off gas flowing on the Nordstream and Yamal pipelines. Given no gas would be flowing to Germany via Ukraine, if Gazprom did so the German companies would soon be drawing down their stocks rather heavily and be vulnerable to Gazprom’s tender mercies going forward.
Would they really be willing to take that risk on behalf of Ukraine?
And there is also the matter of the huge political pressure Russia would exert on Germany if RWE and E.on were to attempt such a thing. After all, former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder chairs the Nordstream board and still exercises considerable influence in Germany, and Germany has proven quite vulnerable to Russian pressure in the past. Numerous German businesses would be importuning Merkel not to antagonize Russia.
I strongly suspect that this “plan” and the article about it have been created and planted to give Merkel and Steinmeier political cover: “See! We are doing something to help Ukraine.” But if called upon to perform on their promises, I would expect the Germans to fold like a cheap suit in the face of Russian threats to cut off gas. And Putin is playing for keeps here. Don’t think for a moment he won’t do it even though he would incur a greater economic cost than the Germans (and other European consumers of German gas).
And remember, gas is not the only lever. Coal is the major alternative to gas, but Germany (and also the UK, to an even greater degree) get a large fraction of their coal supplies through Russia. This is a real game of chicken, and I am not putting my money on the Germans.
That’s because based on experience, and my perception that Germany is trying to get short run political benefits by dispelling serious doubts about its commitment to Ukraine, I do not consider the proposed plan to be very credible. Just as the French (and British) made promises to the Poles in 1939, and then left them hanging when Poland called on them to deliver, I think there is a strong possibility that these German promises will be of the piecrust variety: easily made, easily broken.
In other words, Ukraine should not base its plans on the assumption that Germany has its back on gas, or anything else for that matter.