Moscow's destructive war in Ukraine is not coming to an end.

Meanwhile another battle, not bloody, but potentially painful, is underway.

It includes Russia, the world's largest exporter of natural gas, against the European Union, the world's third-largest economy - and the situation could escalate before it has an epilogue.

The European Union has made it clear it plans to end its historic dependence on Russian energy - in a bid to block funding for Russia's unprovoked attack on Ukraine, which has left thousands dead.

The European bloc has already imposed a ban - which will be implemented from August - on Russian coal, and this week may impose a ban on Russian oil, starting implementation from January 2023.

But with natural gas the situation is not so simple.

Although some European Union officials have called for a halt to Russian gas, the issue is more complicated because - unlike oil and coal - the 27-member bloc can not replace the substance in the short term without harming its economy, experts say. .

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who does not want to be left without the biggest consumer of gas, nor even his war-torn state, is aiming to exploit this weakness.

Last week, Russia announced it would cut off gas supplies to European Union member states, such as Poland and Bulgaria.

European officials and analysts say this is Putin's attempt to divide the EU and send a warning to the entire European bloc.

"Putin is trying to convince Europe of the consequences - to show that Europe will pay for its support to Ukraine," said Will Pomeranz, acting director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington.

"If the economy hurts and people suffer (it is possible) for European countries - Germany or France, or even other countries to say - 'This is not worth it,'" he said.

Some in Europe are already saying this.

Days before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Germany suspended the $ 10.5 billion North Stream 2 pipeline project, which was set up to send Russian gas to Germany via the Baltic Sea.

But in April, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner resisted calls for an EU embargo on Russian gas imports "in the short term", saying such a decision "would do more harm". for the bloc than for Russia.

Germany is the largest customer of Russian gas within the EU, as it buys a third of its imports from Russia.

That means 155 billion cubic meters of natural gas last year, including 140 billion cubic meters through the pipeline.

That figure accounts for about 40 percent of natural gas use across the EU in 2021, making Russia the European bloc's largest supplier.

For decades, Russia has been a major source of gas used to heat homes, schools, and hospitals, to generate electricity, and to operate industrial facilities in Europe.

As ties between Russia and the EU continue to wane, and critics accuse Putin of using energy as a weapon, interdependence has grown strangely in recent years.

Through aggression and data on atrocities that some have not imagined in Europe in the 21st century, Russia's unprovoked war in Ukraine has prompted the EU to sever what could become a dangerous relationship in the future.

The European Commission said in March that the bloc could not halt imports of Russian gas as much as two-thirds this year, or halt them completely by 2030.

Is this possible?

Carlos Diaz, an analyst at Oslo-based energy research firm Rystad - has called 2022 a "challenging" target.

"They may be able to replace it to some extent, but there is limited gas capacity in the energy sector," he told Radio Free Europe.

Diaz said the EU has the capacity to import even more liquefied natural gas than the 50 billion cubic meters it currently imports, but the problem is finding a reasonable price.

Liquefied natural gas supplies will increase by just 25 billion cubic meters this year, meaning Europe will have to import large quantities of gas from Asia - the largest liquefied natural gas market - to meet its needs. , he said.

European liquefied natural gas prices have risen to record levels over the past year and may now outperform Asian prices, making the EU a more attractive destination for exporters, especially those in the United States.

Liquefied natural gas markets will face difficulties by the middle of the decade, when the United States and Qatar are expected to significantly increase supplies, Diaz said, implying that Europe could hardly increase imports of this product in 2023. .

Review of plans

Although Europe has invested heavily in alternative energy in the last decade - with the aim of reducing demand for crude oil - its gas production has fallen sharply.

EU member states, including Germany, have been led by Russia to fill the gaps.

That is why European nations are rethinking their production plans.

Norway, which is not a member of the EU, plans to increase gas production this year to meet the European bloc's growing needs for Russian energy.

As the second largest supplier to the EU, after Russia, this Scandinavian country plans to complete a new pipeline to Poland, through Denmark, later this year.

This project will have the capacity to carry 10 billion cubic meters of gas.

The Netherlands announced in January that it would almost double production in Groningen, once Europe's largest natural gas producer.

Production has dropped due to major fluctuations in that production area and the government plans to shut it down in 2023.

But after the Russian occupation of Ukraine, locals are supporting the increase in production to 12 billion cubic meters.

Thierry Bros., an energy expert, told Radio Free Europe that if European natural gas prices skyrocketed, the Dutch government "could reconsider its policy" and increase production even more than planned.

In search of resources

Romania, the EU's second-largest natural gas producer after the Netherlands, has the potential to increase production to 10 billion cubic meters per year from Black Sea areas, but disagreements over offshore taxation have repeatedly delayed projects.

Romania can now "attempt and speed up these processes" because of the crisis, Diaz said.

If we look beyond Europe, the EU could get more gas this year from countries like North Africa, including Algeria, its third largest supplier after Russia and Norway.

Italy has recently signed an agreement with Algeria to increase imports, starting in the autumn.

The agreement envisions an additional 9 billion cubic meters of natural gas in the period 2023-24.

Azerbaijan will also be able to increase gas exports to the EU by 2 billion cubic meters, as well as further increase exports later in the decade if the pipeline capacity is expanded.

Meanwhile in Moscow

Russia is also taking action, amid growing confrontations.

After the EU imposed new sanctions on the Russian economy - after the start of the war in Ukraine - Putin demanded that the "unfriendly" countries of the European Union pay for Russian natural gas in rubles.

The ruble scheme poses a potential breach of sanctions, and some countries, such as Poland and Bulgaria, have refused to comply.

The two countries together exploit about 12 billion cubic meters of Russian natural gas and have planned not to extend the contracts when they expire at the end of the year.

Poland will receive gas directly from Norway when the new pipeline is completed, while Bulgaria will receive gas from Azerbaijan via Greece.

Russian dilemma

Russia will face a difficult economic situation if the EU meets its targets for 2022 onwards.

Russia has supplied the EU with 140 billion cubic meters of natural gas from areas of Western Siberia and has no alternative export routes.

Moscow has mentioned plans to build a pipeline connecting West Siberia with an export pipeline to China, but analysts believe it will take many years to implement.

A complete shutdown of Russian gas in Europe, initiated by either side, would cost Russia the tens of billions of dollars lost within a year.

Price to be paid? 

No matter what happens, a confrontation over gas supplies can have serious legal consequences.

Russia has long-term contracts with more than 20 European countries - until 2040, as is the case with Austria.

As Russia has had to invest billions of dollars to develop gas transportation infrastructure in Europe, it has in turn sought guarantees for the sale.

Contracts require European companies to pay for a minimum amount of gas each year, even if they do not use it.

"The EU will have to analyze whether it is violating any contract while aiming to halt gas imports, because that could have major legal implications."

"At the same time, European countries can sue Russia if the Kremlin stops their gas supply."

"There will be a high price to pay from each side," he said, adding that the claims could run into the hundreds of billions of dollars.

As for efforts to reduce dependence, Bros. said the EU should announce a halt to Russian gas by the end of the year in order to spur progress, including investing in alternative energy and building plant infrastructure. of regasification of liquefied natural gas.

Although this could hurt European industry, Bros. believes that this is the price to pay to stop the Russian occupation of Ukraine.

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