- Interview by
- Samuel McIlhagga
Almost overnight, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine transformed energy politics and disrupted supply chains around the globe. Europe and the international community are now having to reckon with a world in which the largest energy oil producer is having to accommodate itself to a situation of increased economy autarky.
On the day of Russia’s invasion, Helen Thompson, a professor of political economy at the University of Cambridge, published Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century. Her book, which outlines the geopolitical fault lines caused by global energy production and distribution, spoke to a moment in which Europe faced its greatest conflict since the end of World War II.
Thompson spoke to Jacobin about the extent to which Russia’s invasion has upturned the energy politics of Europe and the world. This interview has been edited for readability and clarity.
You were writing Disorder before the Ukraine war started. It has become a prescient book on the topics explored. Indeed, energy politics have reentered public perception. What about our current energy politics, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, aligns with your book, and what about our current impasse in terms of energy politics surprises you?
This is actually quite a hard question because I think there are two dynamics that pull in opposite directions. There is some continuity, clearly, between the story that I’m telling in Disorder and 2022 after the [the invasion on] February 24 of that year. One part of this is because I’ve made Ukraine pivotal as a European fault line going back to the beginning of the Cold War era.
The second reason is that 2022 made a lot of people more energy-conscious than they originally were. In terms of my ability to say, “I might have something in this book that we should take seriously,” that was very easy — a lot easier than it would have been without the war, which was quite disturbing. Where energy is concerned, continuity was already there before the war. The autumn of 2021 had been pretty difficult where energy was concerned. I remember at some point joking with my editor before the war, “Can’t we publish it in December on the coldest day of the year?” There was a sense, in the autumn, that there was an energy crisis brewing.
On the other hand, a good part of me, in those first weeks when the war began, thought that there was a world that ended on February 23 — a world that my book captured reasonably well. Now, there is a world that began on February 24, on the day of the book’s publication, that has somehow left the book behind. There’s a difference between saying that there are these long geopolitical fault lines in Europe — in particular, those bound up with fossil fuel energy — and then the outright war, in which you have the largest territorial state in Europe subjected to conquest by its neighbor.
I don’t want, in any way, to underestimate the rupture that the invasion was. It does belong in the world that I’m describing, in the sense that Russia and Ukraine were a growing problem. However, the way in which Putin chose to deal with that persistent fault line also radically changed the world.
You write about how the shale export boom from America, in conjunction with Angela Merkel’s energy strategy around Russia, set the parameters of European politics in the 2010s.
Are we seeing a similar configuration regarding liquid national gas (LNG) exports, which are being hiked right now in the United States? There is also a discussion regarding a contemporary decline in industrial manufacturing capacity in Germany. Could German decline and American buoyancy be described as a follow-on from the 2010s? Or is this a new development? How much continuity is there? Is this a similar dynamic but in reverse — because Germany is now having to turn toward American gas exports rather than Russian?
There’s obviously a rupture, given that on February 24 Germany didn’t have any LNG ports — let alone the import ability to source LNG from the United States or anywhere else. I think you can tell a continuous story about the structural competition between the United States and Russia for European gas markets throughout the 2000s and 2010s. This was a competition that Russia had, largely, though not entirely, seen off in the 2010s.
Although, I think Putin was terrified by the emergence of competition at the beginning of the decade. While Poland and the Baltics see American LNG as a sovereignty lifeline, the big prize for the United States was always Germany. Germany didn’t move from the status quo. This is despite the fact of the transit issue of Nord Stream 2, and the United States’ ability to put a lot of pressure on Germany — which it did through the Trump years.
In May of 2021, when the Biden administration removed the sanctions on Nord Stream 2, you could say that Germany had won, in the sense of being able to assert its autonomy in deciding between Russian and American supply. What the war represents is a complete reversal. This is not a U-turn that Germany is entirely responsible for bringing about.
Indeed, Germany continued to import oil from the east through the Yamal-Europe pipeline. So although [Germany’s chancellor] Olaf Scholz rhetorically separated Germany from the gas relationship with Russia on February 27, 2022 in the Zeitenwende speech, nothing actually changed materially until Russia made its move. After the Nord Stream explosions in September, it is now pretty difficult for Germany to change its mind without having to go through a major crisis with its relations with Washington.
A key theme in Disorder is the tension between the EU and NATO over security and energy, which is characterized by both competing interests and a synthesized mélange of geographic priorities. France and Germany stick out, historically, in terms of both monetary policy and energy policy, as being willing to distinguish themselves from the broader Atlanticist project.
France attempted to achieve this through energy autonomy and nuclear power, and Germany via stringent monetary policy. Obviously, Germany is now much more reliant on the United States for energy while France under Macron is still pursuing a nuclear strategy. Do you think that the tensions you charted through the 2000s and 2010s are going to continue? Or are we going to see a broader alignment between NATO and the EU? Or are the material contradictions between the two still a constraining factor? Is the current rhetorical alignment over Ukraine something of a blip in a longer story of tension?
I think if you look at the French-German position and, particularly, the French position under Macron, then this is clearly the end of the road. If you think back to the summer of 2019, Macron was making speeches saying that if Europe isn’t going to get swallowed up in the competition between the United States and China and disappear, then Europe needs a reset with Russia.
He talks in civilizational language about Russia being part of Europe and seems to admire Putin’s willingness to do the same. If you look at the other speeches that Macron is giving around that time, he argues that “NATO is brain-dead.” The world now — on NATO, the EU, and European strategic autonomy — is miles away from 2019. There is a chasm between what Macron had in mind in 2019 and where we are now.
There is a definitive rhetorical alignment over Ukraine with both NATO and the EU. But whether that aligns materially is another question. I read the economic historian Adam Tooze recently on the gap between the rhetoric surrounding aid for Ukraine and actual spending. For instance, Poland, Estonia, and Lithuania, per capita, are spending far more on aid for Ukraine than Germany, France, or the UK. Obviously, there are historical and geographic reasons for this difference. But a “united front” is hiding a granularity of priority in relation to EU security: Will this open up again?
Absolutely. If you take the issue of Ukraine’s candidate status for the EU, it’s pretty clear that Macron is, at best, lukewarm. He would prefer a European political community that would include Britain, Ukraine, and a couple of other countries as outliers in a hierarchy. Once you consider that in order for Ukraine to enter the EU, it would need to enter NATO (because there is no concrete or actionable EU security policy), then things get complicated.
The thing I said about Ukraine, in relation to the EU associate membership in 2014, was that when you look at all the other cases of membership, either you get prior NATO membership and then EU accession or you get both in the same year, like the Baltics. You can’t achieve associate EU membership for Ukraine without NATO membership. Look what happened in 2014. That raises profound questions because Macron clearly says he doesn’t want Russia to be humiliated, yet NATO membership for Ukraine is clearly a humiliation for Russia. There is a chasm between the words of support for Ukraine, in this regard, and its long-term material trajectory.
There hasn’t been too much serious and public discussion about where Ukraine stands once the war is over. Is it a satellite of Russia? Is it an independent but neutral buffer state? Is it a fully integrated member of the EU and NATO? Or does it buck the trend and somehow join just one organization?
I think Macron would prefer to think of it in buffer state terms rather than through the prism of membership in either NATO or the EU.
We’re not hearing much from Macron on this at the moment.
I think every time he tries to say something it’s interpreted less than charitably.
I would say that where the fraught EU-NATO relationship really does not go away is the Turkey question. The war has brought back up why the EU-NATO fault line cuts as deep and problematically as it does. I spent a lot of time on Turkey’s foreign policy in Disorder, probably as much time as I spent on Ukraine. I ran them as parallel stories
Yes — the parallels between Turkey and Ukraine are interesting. You present this image of an energy arch, consumed in Central Europe, that has two competing streams — one originating in Azerbaijan and transiting through Turkey and another originating in Russia and transiting through Ukraine and Poland.
They are both transit states. Turkey’s hope is that it is going to have it both ways — being a transit hub for non-Russian gas, particularly Azerbaijanian and maybe in time Iranian supplies, and a route for Russian energy. The war has shown how problematic Turkey still is concerning the EU-NATO relationship.
We have Macron coming out with the “brain-dead” comment about NATO, specifically in response to what Turkey was doing in Syria against both the Kurds and the Assad government. Yet, what the Ukrainian war has demonstrated is that if there is a conflict in the Black Sea, Turkey is absolutely indispensable to NATO’s security. You cannot sort the EU-NATO misalignment out by banishing Turkey from NATO. This has been made abundantly clear by what’s happening in Ukraine.
Looping back to Azerbaijan — we saw Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, talking to Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s president, in Baku last year, to secure an energy deal for the EU. There is a weird disjuncture between stating that one is going to reduce one’s energy usage and reliance on Russia because of its human rights record, expansionism, and aggression and yet, in parallel, going cap in hand to a government that is committing brutal war crimes against Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Yet, this seems to be strategically fine for some politicians in the EU. There is a catch-22, whereby if we argue that we can’t get energy ethically from Russia, we fundamentally undermine our ability to morally get it from anywhere outside a select few countries. Would you say moral hypocrisy currently seems the better option than extreme scarcity for the EU ruling class?
It’s a pick-your-poison dilemma. Obviously, not everybody in Europe can get more supplies of gas from Norway. Even an energy supplier like Algeria poses a set of complications, not least because of the disputes between Algeria and Morocco over the Western Sahara and the fact that the United States recognizes Rabat’s claim against Algiers’s.
If you go back to the history of the gas relationship, in particular between the Soviet Union, Central European countries, and Italy, the big move for mutual energy relations came in the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In the 1980s, when the volume of gas to Europe was increased because of the construction of the Trans-Siberian pipeline, the Soviet Union was also invading Afghanistan and imposing martial law in Poland. There has been a history of complete indifference in Europe — complete ethical indifference. Although, I’m not saying that’s right or wrong geopolitically.