In the efforts to build a cohesive response to Russian military incursions in Ukraine and aggression in Eastern Europe, NATO member states have faced a variety of frustrations and divisions. Like any regime of coordinated action, the set of economic sanctions and political restrictions imposed on Russia by the EU is not without pain for those doing the imposing. The hope is that, in pursuing multilateral action through coordinating bodies, this pain can be lessened and that the effects enhanced. Unfortunately, recent months have suggested that, despite scant progress being made towards peace in Ukraine and a stepping down from rhetorical and physical aggression on the part of the Russian government and its regional proxies, certain NATO member states are now signalling that they will move away from sanctions renewal.
Some of these are tied to unique political, economic and cultural factors in each nation. In Hungary, for example, a much-scrutinized nuclear reactor deal with Russia, along with other economic sweeteners, is doubtless playing a role in its eagerness to roll sanctions back. Similarly, counter-sanctions imposed on Western goods by Russia have hit agricultural exports in nations such as Greece particularly hard. Coupled with ongoing internal economic difficulties in these countries, the effect of the resulting trade decline has been to undermine support for the existing sanctions in public opinion. Russia has begun to actively exploit these tensions, offering selective exemptions from its trade barriers and other incentives as a price for voting against new sanctions or extending the existing ones. In order for NATO’s mission of mutual security to be accomplished in relation to the ongoing situation in Eastern Europe, it needs to continue to persuade the governments of its member nations to support the EU sanctions as NATO has no economic leverage.
Nowhere more is this more critical than on the issue of energy security, specifically with regards to fossil fuel use in Europe. According to recent analysis by the European Council on Foreign relations, Central and Eastern Europe, in particular Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic States, remain highly dependent on Russian gas and would be highly vulnerable in the event of a disruption in these supply chains. Even those countries, such as Germany, which have a more diversified energy supply mix, still include a proportionately large percentage of Russian energy in their imports and would find themselves hard-pressed if active measures were taken by Russian companies (the majority state-controlled) to interrupt current consumption patterns. Memories of the Russia-Ukraine so-called “gas war” of 2006 – 09, which left many in nations like Bulgaria without adequate heating fuel for weeks in the middle of winter, are fresh in the minds of citizens and lawmakers alike, and few would seek a return to those days. To its credit, the European Union has stepped up with proposals to increase cross-state energy capacity sharing for essential services between Union states, and to more thoroughly vet energy contracts with suppliers outside the EU. These proposals nevertheless face an uphill climb in being implemented by national parliaments and do not necessarily solve the essential supply questions. In order to truly prevent gas supplies from being used as a geopolitical weapon, increased energy capacity not tied to hostile states is required, in the variety of forms it may come. It is in this respect that NATO can play a leading role.
The launch of the Energy Security Centre of Excellence in response to recommendations from the 2008 Budapest Summit is a promising development in NATO’s institutional awareness of energy infrastructure as a fundamental element of security. However, its mandate at present is a rather limited one, mostly concerned with increasing energy efficiency within national armed forces and securing physical energy infrastructure. These are important priorities, no doubt, but a greater impact could be had by enabling the Centre to pursue knowledge transfer between civilian authorities which could lead to a better securing of energy supplies in NATO member countries. This should be integrated with the increasing recognition on the part of NATO and other security sectors representative of the security implications of climate change and a push for clean energy. As all NATO members are also signatories of the recent COP21 climate change targets, creation of energy security through the development of less carbon intensive forms of energy supplies will go hand-in-hand with ending the contradictions between energy and security policy many nations are currently stuck in.
To this effect, NATO members not directly affected by potential disruptions in Russian gas supplies should be prepared to aid those that are in the process of transitioning their energy mix. Some of this might come in the form of measures to increase US and Canadian fossil fuel exports to Eastern and Central Europe, but it should mainly be focused on increasing energy efficiency (where these nations continue to perform below average) and facilitating shared green energy grid development. The explosion of wind power in Germany, for example, could be a very potent tool in firming up resolve to continue sanctions in the nations to its east, but only if the ability to share energy generated across borders is there.
The progress made in expansive understandings of “security” which go beyond the traditional military realm has been one of the more impressive developments of NATO’s activities since the end of the Cold War. Energy supplies are rapidly being weaponized by exporting nations in an attempt to undermine core NATO objectives, and discussions within NATO have drawn attention to this problem. This is not within NATO’s mandate, it can draw attention to the issue, but cannot make it happen. This is up to the EU in bilateral or multilateral negotiations of the countries in question.
Photo: Foreign Minister Pentus-Rosimannus at NATO Energy Security Centre of Excellence in Vilnius (2014), by Estonian Foreign Ministry via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.