Gas is not only energy – it is strategy, politics and diplomacy. And also, in the immediate future, it represents the sheer survival of our economy. This is a war that is parallel to the one on the ground. We will realize this more and more now that the battle over Russian gas is ramping up, as the supply through the Yamal pipeline (one of the three direct ones to Europe) has been cut off (source: Reuters), triggering a preventive alert from Germany and Austria; while the Kremlin has postponed, for now, its demand to pay for its gas in rubles. Beside the advances and retreats in the military campaign, Putin is doing the same on the gas front, to test Europeans’ dependence.
The prospects for Europeans and Italians are not very reassuring. It is not possible to replace Russian gas overnight, which covers a total of 38% of all imports (about 28-29 billion cubic meters out of a total annual consumption of 76 billion). According to some estimates (from Nomisma Energia), in spite of the countermeasures adopted and a small quantity of U.S. liquid gas, there could be a shortfall of between 10 and 12 billion cubic meters already during the summer. For the coming winter, once the reserves are used up, rationing looms.
From these figures, it’s clear how important the phone call on Wednesday between Draghi and Putin was. It was strategic for us, but also for Moscow. Since Putin invaded Ukraine, Europe has spent more than €17 billion to buy gas, oil and coal from Russia. Germany and Italy are particularly dependent on Russian gas, spending €14 and €10 billion in 2021, respectively. For Italy, the battle over gas is taking place on two fronts. One, in Ukraine, a tragedy happening under everyone’s eyes, which began, first underground and then more and more openly, along the gas pipeline routes, accompanied by NATO’s expansion to the east. The other, in Libya – a theater that no one wants to talk about anymore – which has an almost comic aspect, with an underlying real tragedy that some want to keep hidden.
The comedy on the Libyan side is, more than anything, Italy’s fault. Draghi has met with Erdogan at NATO functions, yet they haven’t spoken a word about Libya, where two premiers, Daibaba and Bashaga, are now competing for power. No one even dares to ask what is happening there – as if it wasn’t the country of the Greenstream pipeline and the ENI wells. And yet, Libya – where the refugees of the African diaspora have disappeared from the attention of the media while they continue to suffer unprecedented violence with total impunity – could be our gasoline and energy pump on our doorstep. Not only could, but should: Greenstream, in operation since 2004, has a capacity of 30 billion cubic meters if fully operational, but today it plays an almost insignificant role in our supplies.
We prefer not to talk about Libya because it has been lost twice over by our strategists. Once in 2011, with the air raids decided by France, the U.K. and the U.S., which Italy joined under the NATO banner. The second time, in 2019, when – as Tripoli was under siege by Haftar – we left the defense of the Sarraj government, which had asked us for some modest help, to Erdogan’s Turkey alone. As a result, no one has invested any more in Libya, which has far greater gas reserves than Algeria, just to give an example.
The other gas front is like rediscovering the wheel: did it take a war to realize that Europe was dependent on Moscow? Putin’s evil project has ravaged Ukraine, but also knocked out Europe, which gets 40-50% of its gas from Russia. Now the United States will sell us gas, at prices 20% higher than the Russian ones on average.
The case of the Nord Stream 2 is emblematic of how American and European interests are conflicting. It’s not only an economic issue, but a strategic one. Strongly desired by former Chancellor Angela Merkel, Nord Stream 2 was the real political and economic lever that kept Putin from foolish actions such as starting a war. Many had not understood this, because they attributed only economic value to Russian gas: however, it had enormous political value to keep Moscow tethered to Europe.
After Merkel left the scene, the U.S. had free rein. The “guardian” for both Putin and the gas was no longer there, and the Americans understood that the Russian president had become more dangerous, but also more vulnerable. For two months, the U.S. warned about the impending invasion of Ukraine, because they knew that by fighting against the Nord Stream 2 they were tearing open a hole in the heart of the continent. The gas pipelines were the umbilical cord that tied Moscow to Europe – our dependence gave Putin a sense of security, an instrument to condition the Europeans and make them more flexible and concerned about what is happening with Russia.
When Moscow understood that the Nord Stream 2 would not be safe with the weak chancellor Scholz, it began to threaten Ukraine, which the Russians and Germans had previously paid off so that it wouldn’t protest too much against the building of the pipeline, which was also much feared by Poland, as it was seen as an instrument for the expansion of Putin’s influence. The Americans had already put Merkel on the ropes, forcing her to buy American liquid gas, which Berlin did not need at that time, as it does not even have any facilities to convert it into gas form.
Thus the war has brought a reckoning. Europe will have to pay more to meet the NATO bar, obviously buying more U.S. weapons and fighter planes, and also more U.S. gas. All for the benefit of corporations and the military-industrial complex. This is Biden’s recipe, who is now facing the temptation to lengthen a conflict that is wearing Putin out and filling up the American coffers. It’s a perfect world to “export democracy” once again.
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