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Let’s kick the Russians out of EU energy supply, Poland argues

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Poland thinks Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows it’s high time for the EU to do something that it’s abjectly failed to do in past crises: Boot the Russians out of Europe’s energy supply chain.

Past pledges to end Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas never got far. The EU made repeated promises about finding new energy sources after the supply crisis of the winter of 2009 and after the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, but didn’t achieve much. In fact, the situation only worsened. Some 35 percent of total EU gas imports came from Russia in 2020, up from 26 percent in 2010. 

Anna Moskwa, Poland’s energy minister, argued that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s all-out war on Ukraine could change the calculus, and said she would like to see the whole EU now “de-Russify” its energy sector.

“This ongoing conflict and the war is convincing us all that we don’t need more tools of blackmail from Gazprom and the Russian Federation,” she told POLITICO in an interview, referring to Moscow’s state gas export monopoly.

Moskwa’s remarks came hard on the heels of an intervention by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who fulminated last week that the Kremlin was simply turning its revenues from oil and gas sales into “aggression, invasion.” On Tuesday, Morawiecki called on Brussels to add first coal, and then also oil and gas to the list of banned imports from Russia. He added Poland is ready to put an embargo on coal “even tomorrow” but needs the Commission’s approval.

Poland has been preparing to minimize its dependency on Russian supplies for years. As of 2023, its contracts with Gazprom are running out and gas will start flowing from Norway via the new Baltic Pipe. It’s also expanding its liquefied natural gas terminal in Świnoujście on the Baltic Sea, and signing new contracts with more suppliers from countries like the U.S. and Qatar. 

Currently, 55 percent of Poland’s gas imports come from Russia. The Baltic Pipe will allow Poland to import the same amount of gas as it’s now buying from Gazprom, according to Forum Energii, a think tank. Russia also provides 75 percent of Poland’s imported coal.

Poland insists this model of diversification is transferable. “We’re absolutely ready and we’re ready to share our experience,” Moskwa said.

Breaking ties

While the EU response has been weak on branching away from Russia in the past, it is now significant that Germany is also sounding at least some similar notes to Poland.

“Energy policy is security policy,” German Economy and Climate Action Minister Robert Habeck said ahead of a meeting of EU energy ministers on Monday. “Strengthening our energy sovereignty strengthens our security. Therefore, we must first overcome the high dependence on Russian imports of fossil fuels — a warmonger is not a reliable partner.”

In perhaps its biggest sign that Berlin is willing to rethink its long-running cozy relationship with Russian energy, the country has halted the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project to pump Gazprom’s gas straight into Germany.

Germany has also said it will build LNG terminals in the near future to reduce its dependence on Russian gas. And in a development that would have been unthinkable only days ago, politicians are also reopening a debate on whether nuclear power plants in the country should operate longer than the planned phaseout later this year — although a change of policy is still very unlikely.

In other signs of countries stepping away from Russia, Helsinki’s energy company Helen, Finland’s largest district heating provider, decided to boycott Russian coal. British Gas owner Centrica said it is working to “exit our gas supply agreements with Russian counterparts.” Other major energy companies are also seeking to sell or otherwise limit their business involvement in Russia.

On Monday, EU energy ministers called on the Commission “to assess further options to decrease the reliance on a single supplier without delay.” Moskwa said Brussels will come out with a “roadmap” on how to minimize energy dependence on Russia. But this is a long-term perspective since many countries are still too reliant on Moscow for raw materials. 

The big challenge for a wholesale break with Russia is that it would be likely to set prices soaring in a Continent already grappling with an inflation bomb.

“Cutting off Russian imports would result at a minimum in maintaining prices at extremely high levels and, most likely, if the ban were to last, to have them go higher, especially during peak periods of consumption,” said Phuc-Vinh Nguyen, energy research fellow at the Jacques Delors Institute.

He also stressed that the EU would have to look for alternative supplies but added: “Annual Russian imports will not entirely be covered by other sources and it will also require [EU] member states to put in place sufficiency measures to reduce energy demand immediately.”

Despite those costs, Moskwa said that Poland will be advocating for the inclusion of oil, gas and coal into the EU’s sanctions package, although such a step is adamantly opposed by countries such as Italy.

“We would be able to make this decision, keeping in mind that today Ukraine is not defending only Ukraine, but … it’s de facto defending the whole Europe,” she said,

Moskwa admitted that the bloc is unlikely to make such strong move now, but added: “The issue of sanctions and the positions are changing every day.”

“If we look at SWIFT: A few days ago it wasn’t possible, two days ago it was possible,” she said, referring to steps to cut Russia’s access to the international payments system.

“We see that as the conflict continues, more flexibility appears. So we hope that the sanctions on raw materials are the element that may come up. We will keep raising, calling, and endorsing, counting that the understanding will eventually come.”

Aitor Hernández-Morales contributed reporting.

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