Russia’s so-called ‘gas weapon’ is just a myth | Russia–Ukraine War
Much has been said and written about Russia’s proverbial “gas weapon”. The argument is that heavy reliance on Russian natural gas makes countries in Eastern and Southeastern Europe think twice before considering taking action against Moscow. The Kremlin is able to punish those who dare to oppose it by introducing harsh clauses in gas contracts or, even worse, by cutting off deliveries. Friends, on the other hand, are rewarded. Case in point: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “incredible” deal with Serbia, which many believe secured the re-election of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.
However, we have seen recently that this so-called “gas weapon” does not really exist. On April 26, Gazprom turned off the tap for Bulgaria and Poland after they refused to comply with a unilateral change to their supply contract dictated by Putin and pay their monthly consumption in roubles. Several weeks later, both countries are doing very well. The Russian decision did not trigger pandemonium in either economy. It did not trigger a domestic political crisis, let alone lead to a major shift in Polish or Bulgarian foreign policy. On the contrary, the cut has strengthened the determination of these countries.
Even Bulgaria, the most pacifist of doves vis-à-vis Russia, has shown courage. On April 28, hours after the gas stopped flowing, Prime Minister Kiril Petkov traveled to Kyiv to talk with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy about what Sofia can do to help. Although Bulgaria does not officially send military assistance to Ukraine, it is an open secret that ammunition and weapons from its defense manufacturers are transferred via third parties, including Poland.
Bulgaria’s response to the disruption of gas flows from Russia deserves particular attention. Unlike Poland, which currently receives less than half of its gas from the Russian Federation, the Balkan country depends on Russian Gazprom for more than 90% of its supplies. But unlike previous cuts in 2006 and 2009, this time the government in Sofia clearly had a plan. For example, state-owned trader Bulgargaz contracted shipments of liquefied natural gas (LNG) which now enter Bulgaria via the Revithoussa terminal in Greece. Additional volumes also arrive from Romania, via the Trans-Balkan pipeline which, until TurkStream started working in 2020-21, served Gazprom. The fact that the disturbance happened in summer, after the end of the heating season, also makes life easier for the Bulgarian authorities.
The bottom line, however, is that the long-delayed Bulgaria-Greece Interconnector Gas Pipeline (ICGB) is due to go live on June 30 or soon after. Once it is operational, Bulgaria will import one billion cubic meters (bcm) – corresponding to about a third of its annual demand – from Azerbaijan, as ICGB connects to the so-called Trans Adriatic Pipeline.
The LNG will come from terminals in Turkey and, after the end of 2023, from a floating storage and regasification unit (FSRU) next to the port city of Alexandroupolis in northeastern Greece. On May 3, Prime Minister Petkov attended the launch of the work of the FSRU together with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and EU Council President Charles Michel. Also present were Aleksandar Vucic and Dimitar Kovacevski, Prime Minister of North Macedonia. The war in Ukraine has given favorable winds to new infrastructure projects that will diversify gas deliveries to the Balkans and redesign supply routes.
However, in the short term, it is as if nothing had happened. Although avoided by Gazprom, Bulgaria does not stop flows from Russia to Serbia and Hungary via TurkStream. Sofia derives income from transiting Russian shipments, does not want to spoil relations with Budapest and Belgrade, and also wants to appear in good faith on its contractual obligations vis-à-vis Moscow in light of the arbitration case which looms .
Contrary to popular belief, South Eastern Europe does not depend on Russian gas. The main reason is that the local countries consume limited volumes: three billion m3 per year for Bulgaria and Serbia each and six billion m3 for Greece. Romania, a large market with annual demand of 12 billion cubic meters, absorbs virtually no Russian gas. With the right infrastructural links, Gazprom can be replaced by alternative suppliers.
This is why Greece and North Macedonia are considering an interconnecting pipeline which could also be extended to Kosovo. Ditto for Bulgaria and Serbia. There have long been plans for an offshoot of TAP in the Western Balkans: the Ionian-Adriatic pipeline that could serve Albania, Montenegro and Bosnia. More immediately, gas itself can be replaced by electricity, particularly if prices move in favor of the latter. Thanks to a large spare capacity, Bulgaria and Romania both export electricity to Greece and Turkey, where demand often exceeds supply. Last but not least, there is the green transition. Investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency – a priority the European Union values more than ever – will shape the future of South Eastern Europe.
The question, really, is about the price. Today, Russia’s gas pipeline based on long-term contracts and pegged to oil is cheaper than spot markets are charging – reflecting supply and demand. Diversification outside of Russia comes at a price. However, tomorrow the balance could change. Slower global economic growth and lower energy demand will also make gas cheaper. The Balkan countries will then be in a much better position to negotiate with Gazprom, if the Russians want to consolidate their market share.
The main problem is related to politics. As long as there are politicians and businesses in Southeast Europe benefiting from the current setup and happy to put diversification of supply and modernization of the energy sector on the back burner, Russia will have a card to play. He can buy all the support he needs and easily build gigantic projects like TurkStream. This is why the current crisis is also an opportunity to make things happen. What is happening in Bulgaria can serve as an example for others in the region.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.