1. How did Russia become so significant?
With its vast Siberian fields, Russia has the world’s largest reserves of natural gas. It began exporting to Poland in the 1940s and laid pipelines in the 1960s to deliver fuel to and through satellite states of what was then the Soviet Union. Even at the height of the Cold War, deliveries were steady. But since the Soviet Union broke up, Russia and Ukraine have quarreled over pipelines through Ukrainian territory, prompting Russian authorities to find other routes.
2. How vulnerable is Europe?
A supply crunch in late 2021 provided a vivid insight into Europe’s reliance on gas flows from Russia. Storage tanks in the EU fell to their lowest seasonal level in more than a decade after longer-than-usual maintenance at Norwegian fields and Russia rebuilding its own inventories. Benchmark gas prices more than tripled. The EU vowed a decade ago to reduce its dependence on Russian energy, and continuing purchases by member nations have been a contentious issue within the economic bloc and caused rifts with the U.S.
3. What role does Ukraine play?
About a third of Russian gas flowing to Europe passes through Ukraine. Even as the crisis in the region escalated into war, analysts said Russia, with a history of supply disruptions over price disputes, probably would strive to be seen as a reliable supplier. Gazprom’s shipments to Europe and Turkey were about 177 billion cubic meters in 2021, according to calculations by Bloomberg News and BCS Global Markets based on the company’s data. When Ukraine and Russia reached a five-year gas transit deal in December 2019, assuring supplies until 2024, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the nation would earn at least $7 billion from transit fees.
4. How has Russia disrupted the market before?
In 2006 and 2009, disputes with Ukraine over pricing and siphoning of gas led to cutoffs of Russian supplies transiting through the country. The second shutdown lasted almost two weeks in the dead of winter. Slovakia and some Balkan countries had to ration gas, shut factories and cut power supplies. Since then, the most vulnerable countries have raced to lay pipelines, connect grids and build terminals to import liquefied natural gas, a supercooled form of the fuel that can be shipped from as far as Qatar and the U.S.
5. What supply networks are there?
Outside supplies, mostly from Russia, Norway and Algeria, account for about 80% of the gas the EU consumes. Some of the biggest economies are among the most exposed, with Germany importing 90% of its needs -- much of it via a pipeline under the Baltic Sea called Nord Stream, which has been fully operational since 2012. (This was the supply line Russia on March 7 suggested could be cut as part of its response to sanctions imposed over the invasion of Ukraine.) Belgium, Spain and Portugal face the problem of low storage capacity, as does the U.K., which no longer is part of the bloc and closed its only big gas storage site. The continent has a mass of pipelines, including Yamal-Europe, which runs from Russia through Belarus and Poland before reaching Germany, and TAG, which takes Russian gas to Austria and Italy. Many cross several borders, creating plenty of possible choke points.
6. What about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline?
It was against this background that Nord Stream 2, a new Russian pipeline alongside the first, was completed in late 2021. But it has become entangled in politics and a lengthy regulatory process. There was strong opposition from the U.S., which imposed sanctions that delayed construction. Following the eruption of the war in Ukraine, Germany suspended its certification process for Nord Stream 2, and the EU’s executive arm readied a revised energy strategy for the bloc to “substantially reduce our dependency on Russian gas this year.”
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