Energy, war, and the crisis in Ukraine

Energy, war, and the crisis in Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is having a global impact on many areas of the world today, affecting the balance of power among states and creating a contest between democratic and authoritarian alliances. It is also having a major impact on the global energy supply. European states have scrambled to reorient their consumption away from Russian natural gas, while Russia has used its energy assets as political leverage while finding new economic partners.

In short, there is also a battle over energy surrounding the invasion, as a panel of experts analyzed at a public MIT event on Friday. The online discussion, “Energy As a Weapon of War,” was the latest Starr Forum, MIT’s prominent event series on foreign policy and international relations.

The forum’s two featured speakers both discussed energy issues as well as the larger course of the war. Margarita Balmaceda, a professor of diplomacy and international relations at Seton Hall University and an associate of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, listed three key aspects of the energy issue implicated in the invasion.

In the first place, she noted, European reliance on Russian natural gas is a long-term issue that also existed with the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014, but is only now being managed differently.

“If we look at the case of Germany … you can see that the temptation of this reliance in particular on Russian natural gas was not simply something that you could ascribe to one or two corrupt politicians,” said Balmaceda, author of the book “Russian Energy Chains: The Remaking of Technopolitics from Siberia to Ukraine to the European Union.” Instead, she said, “it’s something that went to all levels of economic life,” including industrial consumers of natural gas, regional governments, and other stakeholders. 

Secondly, Balmaceda observed, many core manufacturing industries, especially in Germany, have been particularly dependent on Russian energy, making the need for alternatives something that has direct effects in key production sectors.

“In my view, the real story, and the story we have to pay much more attention to, has to do with … industrial users of natural gas,” Balmaceda said. In fact, she noted, gas consumption is a major part of the production cycle in Europe’s chemical, cement, steel, and paper industries, supporting about 8 million jobs.

Finally, Balmaceda observed, European boycotts of Russian energy may have temporarily stymied Russia, but the regime has subsequently found new markets in China, India, and elsewhere.

“It’s very important to understand that this story does not end in the European Union and North America, and if we don’t deal with the real energy concerns of global South countries, we will not get very far in trying to reduce Russia’s energy power moving forward,” she said.

Constanze Steinmuller, director and Fritz Stern Chair of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, offered some political context as well as her own perspective on paths forward in the war.

While policymakers in Europe frequently praise the response of the Biden administration in the U.S., in support of Ukraine, “It’s also remarkable how steadfast the European response has been,” Steinmuller said. She added, “It’s something I was very worried about.” She also praised the German government for “decoupling German dependence from Russian gas and oil imports in ways I honestly would not have thought possible.”

While the alliance supporting Ukraine has been valuable, Steinmuller said, she believes the U.S. and Europe need to give Ukraine even more backing in terms of weaponry in particular. “It is unclear, at this point still, whether Ukraine will have the means to retain full control over its territory.”

Meanwhile, Russia’s relationship with China, she added, is profoundly consequential for the long-term trajectory of the war. So far, China has been nominally pledging broad support of Russia while publicly de-escalating the nuclear rhetoric arising from the war. However, Steinmuller added, if China decides to “actively support” Russia militarily, “That would be, I think, the worst game-changer of all, and one that … would be the single greatest challenge that I can envision to our ability to help Ukraine win, and to maintain our own security in Europe.”

The Starr Forum is organized by MIT’s Center for International Studies (CIS). Friday’s event was co-sponsored by MIT’s Security Studies Program and the MIT-Eurasia program, in addition to CIS.

The event’s moderators were Elizabeth Wood, a professor of history at MIT, author of the 2016 book “Roots of Russia’s War in Ukraine,” and co-director of the MISTI MIT-Eurasia Program; and Carol Saivetz, a senior advisor in MIT’s Security Studies Program and expert on Soviet and Russian foreign policy. Wood and Saivetz have helped host a series of Starr Forum events over the last year scrutinizing several aspects of Russia’s invasion and Ukraine’s defense.  

Understanding the role of energy in the war “is obviously of critical importance today,” Wood said in her opening remarks. That includes, she noted, “How energy is being used by Russia as a tool of aggression, how Ukraine is suffering from attacks upon its critical infrastructure, and how the alliance of European [states] and the U.S. is responding.” 

In response to audience questions, the scholars outlined multiple scenarios in which the war could end, either on more favorable terms for Ukraine or in ways that strengthen Russia. One audience member also queried about the extent to which the current war could also be thought of as a “carbon war, or climate war,” in which a move toward clean energy also lessens global dependence on large gas and oil suppliers, such as Russia.

In response, Balmaceda noted that the ongoing infrastructure development in Ukraine might, in theory, leave it with no choice but to modernize its energy infrastructure (though its own orientation toward fossil fuels represents just a small portion of global demand). Steinmuller added that “Ukraine will need much more than just to reorient its energy [demand]. … It will have to change its role in the global economy,” given its own industrial reliance on coal and other fossil fuels.

Overall, Balmaceda added, “Regardless of whether Russia wins this conflict or loses, the rottenness within Russia is deep enough to be bad news for all of us for a long time.” For her part, Steinmuller underscored again how vital increased alliance support would be.

“We should show that we are willing and able to defend not just a country that has been attacked by a great power, but willing to defend ourselves,” Steinmuller said. Otherwise, she added, “If we didn’t do that, we would have set for all the world to see a precedent of giving in to blackmail, including nuclear blackmail, and allowing this to happen without us being willing to see the defense of Ukraine through to the end.”

An expert panel examines the implications of energy use and energy policy during Russia’s invasion.



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