The EU’s ban on coal is a step in the right direction, but is not going to deliver a heavy blow to the Russian economy. A loss of €15m per day — compared to the €850m Russia will keep receiving on a daily basis for its export of gas and oil — seems like a rather small price to pay for the unimaginable suffering and loss of life in Ukraine.
Further European sanctions against the Russian energy industry remain unlikely for now, mainly because its biggest sponsor in the EU, Germany, is yet to be convinced of the need to stop feeding Putin’s war chest.
German economy minister Robert Habeck has previously opposed a complete energy embargo over concerns that this would endanger ‘social peace’ in Germany.
It appears that, after a prudent cost-benefit analysis in light of the Russian war crimes revealed over the last weeks, this calculus still has not changed.
Germany continues to advocate ‘pragmatism’ when deciding on sanctions, which should “hit Putin’s regime and not risk the stability of Germany”, as liberal finance minister Christian Lindner said after the Bucha massacre.
It is still under the naive illusion that it can continue responding to the atrocities of Putin’s war machine by endless new rounds of sanctions without ever depriving it of its main fuel.
While Ukrainian men, women and children are slaughtered in the streets, the pipelines underneath keep Germany hooked on its addiction to so-called ‘cheap’ Russian gas. And as it nods off on a new hit, Putin’s band of war criminals moves on to the next Ukrainian village.
A rude awakening will follow whenever the Russian army commits new horrific crimes against humanity. But after a new round of self-righteous condemnation and sanctions which cautiously avoid the Russian gas sector, Germany, having done its duty, can doze off on some fresh deliveries.
Because make no mistake, there will be a next Bucha. There is no turning back from the path of moral decay; there is only the vicious spiral into more unscrupulous and depraved acts of evil.
Germany refuses to acknowledge that the time of carefully considering economic trade-offs is long over.
It sticks to the same wilful blindness which drove Europe into Putin’s web and bolstered his imperial ambitions, as the EU’s biggest member state was always willing to turn a blind eye to every new Russian transgression in Ukraine, as long as the cheap gas kept flowing.
Despite all signs to the contrary, Germany kept insisting that the energy trade with Russia had nothing to do with geopolitics. Last December, chancellor Scholz affirmed that Nord Stream 2 was just a “commercial project”.
The gradual phase-out of the dependence on Russian energy is not just absurd from a strategic point of view, it is also objectively wrong and immoral. European gas and oil imports are funding Putin’s wicked war machine by the billions a week.
In the face of the abject horror in Ukraine, Germany’s veto has become less and less tenable. If it wants to adhere to its strictly utilitarian approach, then it has to ask itself when the costs of continuing the energy trade with Russia would exceed the benefits.
What new atrocities would tip the scale in favour of an embargo on Russian oil? And on Russian gas? What line does Putin still need to cross first? Is there a number of schools, hospitals to be bombed? Massacres to be committed?
Germany’s reluctance to impose stringent sanctions on the Russian energy industry has nothing to do with pragmatism, and everything with sustaining its addiction to Russian gas. And as an addict true to its nature, Germany refuses to give up its destructive habit, even when confronted with its ruinous, blood-smeared consequences.
The time for Wandel durch Handel [‘Change through Trade’] and Ostpolitik [rapprochement with East Germany/the Warsaw Pact] is over.
The Baltic states have led the way. Germany can keep leading by veto and postpone the inevitable, or finally act as the self-declared leader of the EU it claims to be. There is no doubt that this will come at a serious cost, but true leadership has never been about making the easy decisions when the good times roll. It is about making the hard decisions when the music has stopped. History will thank Germany for it.
Simon Dekeyrel is a Policy Analyst in the Sustainable Prosperity for Europe programme at the European Policy Centre.