Culture Politics

Ukraine Crisis: Why Putin Is Running Out Of Time

By Adam Bennett

On Ukraine’s Eastern border, the unthinkable is slipping further from nightmares and closer to reality. With the buildup of Russian troops matched by increasing support from Western powers, a region sprawling from the edge of Belarus to the black sea has become a tinderbox surrounded by matches. There’s little doubt as to the severity of what is at stake, as the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson highlighted when he noted the prospect of Europe’s “biggest war since 1945”.

Russia’s relationship with Ukraine is a mesh of cultural and geopolitical strings, threaded together over the course of centuries. Putin has long sought to reunite former Soviet regions under the banner of what he sees as ‘historic Russia’, arguing in a speech on February 21st that “Ukraine has never had traditions of its own statehood”. The Russian president used similar justification around the time of Crimea’s annexation in 2014. Now, however, it seems that Putin has the Ukranian capital of Kyiv in his sights. 

But if this is a lifelong ambition for Russia’s leader – and a pillar of his country’s deep cultural heritage as he argues – why is 2022 the moment Putin has seemingly chosen to make his move? 

It’s difficult to know where best to start. Is it the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 90s? Perhaps it’s in 1793, when the territory now known as Ukraine was annexed by the Russian Empire?

But to understand the story in its modern context, the best starting chapter is somewhere entirely unexpected. It begins on a blustery October evening in northwestern Switzerland, in 2013. 

The Strength of Soft Power

In the 54th minute of a UEFA Champions League football match between Switzerland’s FC Basel and Germany’s FC Schalke 04, Julian Draxler struck the ball from the edge of Basel’s penalty area. With a curving shot, he evaded the Basel defence and scored a goal which would ultimately win the game for Schalke. But Draxler’s strike was not the story of that evening. 

Rather, the match’s most memorable moment came in the first half when play was interrupted due to a Greenpeace protest. Four activists wearing orange jumpsuits descended from the roof of the stadium, unfurling an enormous banner which read ‘Gazprom Don’t Foul the Arctic’. The protesters were looking to draw attention towards the shirt sponsors of FC Schalke – and the Champions League as a whole – the Russian energy giant Gazprom. 

Quite what Gazprom was hoping to achieve by sponsoring a foreign football team to the tune of millions of dollars is a fascinating question. The company sells gas to governments, not consumers. A Schalke fan could not stop at a petrol station and opt to use a pump marked Gazprom. 

At the time, there was a school of thought which suggested that Gazprom was attempting to ‘greenwash’ its environmental credentials by using the continent’s most popular sport to varnish its credibility. Hence the Greenpeace protest. In the light of rapidly escalating tensions in the East of Europe, however, a different theory has emerged. 

Around the beginning of the 2010s, Germany first began buying Russian gas transferred along an enormous pipeline known as Nord Stream. Having begun construction as far back as 1997, Nord Stream is arguably the jewel in Gazprom’s crown. Gazprom, incidentally, is headed by chairman Viktor Zubkov – who also served as Vladimir Putin’s first deputy prime minister. 

Perhaps the most-affected region in Germany following that shift in energy policy was the Ruhrgebiet, the country’s former industrial heartland and its main producer of coal. It’s also, not coincidentally, the home of FC Schalke 04 – whose fans tend to work in the industrial sector. As reported last year by Iris France, Gazprom’s decision to affiliate with Schalke was likely “more about influencing decision-makers in Berlin” than any environmental misdemeanours. 

In the years that followed, Germany’s appetite for cheap Russian gas only grew as it closed down its own nuclear energy plants. It’s important to note that it’s not just Germany which has developed a dependency on Nord Stream – other EU member states including Italy, Austria, and Slovakia are beneficiaries from the gas supplied via the pipeline. In fact, the project seemed to be working so well that a second pipeline (imaginatively named Nord Stream 2) soon became a popular idea amongst many of the key decision-makers in Brussels. 

Back in Moscow, Vladimir Putin must have been delighted. Whilst Gazprom has always asserted that the Nord Stream pipeline is a “purely commercial enterprise”, this seems extremely naïve. For as long as EU countries power large parts of their infrastructure via Nord Stream, the power to cut them off lies within Russian borders. With the potential of Nord Stream 2 on the horizon – which would almost double the amount of energy sent from Russia to EU countries – Russian influence across Europe seemed destined to grow and grow.

At least, that was until last year. 

Germany Changes Direction

“This pipeline is wrong, [not just] for climate policy reasons, but above all geostrategically”

– Annalena Baerbock, leader of the German Green Party, speaking during the 2021 German federal election. 

For sixteen years, Germany’s political leadership was nothing if not stable. Over the course of her time as chancellor, Angela Merkel had become known as the adult in the noisy, messy room of European politics. It was Merkel who was present at the opening ceremony of the original Nord Stream pipeline alongside Russia’s then-president Dimitri Medvedev, and it was Merkel who disregarded the advice of Joe Biden to pursue the construction of Nord Stream 2. In the Winter of 2021, however, Germany began life with its first new leader in over a decade and a half. 

In an election campaign which proved to be a disaster for the outgoing Merkel’s centre-right CDU party, a new coalition government composed of the Social Democratic Party, the Green Party, and the Free Democrats came into power. Green leader Annalena Baerbock, who had previously spent her entire political life in opposition, is now Germany’s minister for foreign affairs. For Vladimir Putin and Gazprom, this is a troubling development. 

Baerbock has spoken repeatedly – both during the campaign and in office – about the prospect of restructuring Germany’s energy policy around a ‘transatlantic green deal’ with the US. In the past few weeks, she has also intimated that all potential plans for Nord Stream 2 will be scrapped in the event of Russian incursion into Ukraine. 

The tide, it seems, is beginning to turn against Nord Stream. But for Gazprom, the bad news doesn’t end there. In the middle of 2021, Russia was home to Europe’s biggest suppliers of imported gas by an enormous margin. Today, however, that has changed dramatically. As gas prices soared at the start of the year, Europe began shopping elsewhere. At the time of writing, Russian imports are now comfortably second place to liquified natural gas (LNG) imported from Asia (and the Economist reports that this trend is only set to continue). With every day that passes, European dependence on Russian gas shrinks. 

On top of that, the days are getting longer. As temperatures begin to climb ahead of spring, Europeans find themselves with less need to heat their homes – and therefore a diminished need for gas. In an average Spring, demand for gas is roughly 60% lower than in any given January. 

And yet, large parts of Europe are still dependent on gas from the Nord Stream pipeline for the time being. Cutting off gas supply would leave many countries in the lurch, and experts believe that Gazprom has more than enough cash in reserve to absorb the economic blow of a months-long energy blackout. But with each passing day, as more LNG arrives on European shores and the sun lingers longer in the sky, this leverage diminishes.

If Vladimir Putin truly wants a war, he does not have much time left to start one on favourable terms. For Europe and its allies, and the safety of millions in Ukraine and beyond, that is a frightening fact. 

A Chance For Peace

So, after a political lifetime of calculation and ambition, this is where Vladimir Putin finds himself. In truth, the geopolitical landscape is far from perfect for the Russian president. Putin likely wishes that Donald Trump – who consistently undermined NATO and uniformly opposed US interventionism – was in the White House rather than Joe Biden. And he probably regrets that Britain’s departure from the European Union has not yet sparked a deeper fracture between London and the continent.

But nonetheless, it’s easy to imagine that Putin has sensed a moment of weakness amongst Western allies. He likely noted the French government’s incandescent reaction to being excluded from the AUKUS military deal between the US, Britain, and Australia. The prospect of war in Europe would be costly for Putin, and an outright victory unlikely. But it’s not about to get any likelier. Again, if Putin is serious about military conflict, there’s a fair chance it’s a case of now or never. 

And, in that logic, there is a glimmer of hope for peace. If it’s now or never, then Western diplomacy must pull out all the stops for ‘never’. For all the military buildup, posturing, and rhetoric, the best chance for a peaceful resolution could well be to kick the can down the road until Putin’s moment has passed. 

For peace, for Europe, and for the hope of a future without nuclear powers at war, delay might be the best chance we have. 

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