The European Union’s 28 member states have been stockpiling gas in record quantities as they prepare for the possibility that Russia may turn off the tap that provides a vital energy lifeline to the continent. And for the first time ever, Europe’s collective storage tanks are almost full – containing almost 80 billion cubic metres of gas – almost a fifth of the bloc’s yearly useage.
The EU is also drawing up contingency plans that would ban companies from selling tanker cargoes of liquefied natural gas (LNG) outside Europe and order industry to stop using gas. LNG is produced by liquefying the gas to 1/600th of its original size.
Concern about a European energy crisis stems from the dispute between Russia and Ukraine over Crimea and eastern Ukraine. This prompted Moscow to halt gas supplies to Ukraine in June and talks to settle the dispute have since broken down.
“There is something very nasty building and as long as Russia continues to use gas as an instrument in its broader dispute with Ukraine, Europe’s gas supplies will be under threat,” said John Lough, a Russian expert at the Chatham House think-tank.
“Russia uses energy strategy much more effectively than military power. The energy threat is much more powerful and much more dangerous. Russia understands that the world can’t find different sources of energy,” added Alexander Temerko, a Ukrainian-born energy consultant.
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
Nobody dares predict what will happen in the coming months. But with Russia’s dominance in European gas supply so absolute, the fallout from any significant curtailment will, at the very least, cause major shortages in Eastern Europe and send energy prices rocketing. Meanwhile, a full and prolonged embargo by Russia on gas exports to Europe would send social and economic shockwaves across Europe, experts warn.
Europe imports about a third of its gas from Moscow, of which about half flows through Ukraine. Ukraine has managed to keep its heating on since June by using its reserves, but as winter approaches supplies are running out and the country is starting to turn to Poland and Slovakia for supplies.
Reports claim Russian gas deliveries to Poland dropped by 45 per cent on Wednesday, the third day of decreases.
Russia has this week, by threatening to reduce exports to the EU, to prevent “reverse flows” to Ukraine, meaning Ukraine may be forced to siphon off gas flowing through the country to European destinations. Against this backdrop, analysts fear Russia could halt all supplies to and through the Ukraine as in 2006 and 2009.
Ukraine would be the most affected by Russia withholding gas supplies over the winter, with huge numbers of homes going unheated and industry becoming paralysed, said Mr Lough. Finland is the next most at-risk because it gets all of its gas from Russia and has no other supply options, while Poland, Turkey and Bulgaria are the next most exposed, according to a new report from Cologne University’s Institute of Energy Economics. The UK is among the least vulnerable countries. It gets only a small portion of gas from Russia, produces about half what it consumes from the North Sea, is well served by gas pipelines from Holland, Belgium and Norway and has the necessary infrastructure to import large quantities of LNG.
Although a full-scale Russian embargo on gas exports is still regarded as unlikely, experts agree that it could happen if the tit-for-tat sanctions battle between Russia and the EU continues to escalate. A gas embargo starting in November and running for several months would spell disaster for much of Europe, especially if it coincided with cold weather, the Institute of Energy Economics report warned.
Video: 'Ukraine crisis set up to revive Nato' - Putin
This found that, if the embargo entered a fourth month and coincided with a week of “extreme cold” in February there would be “supply shortages in almost the entirety of Europe”. During that week, the UK faces a potential “shortfall” between gas demand and supply of between 10 and 25 per cent, while in Ireland, the figure is higher at 25-50 per cent, according to the Institute for Energy Economics.Reuse content