European allies have been cautious in public about how far they would go in placing severe sanctions on Moscow if it invades Ukraine. Germany has been especially wary; it has shuttered many of its nuclear plants, increasing its dependence on natural gas imports to generate electricity.
Many European officials have said they suspect President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia instigated the current crisis in the depths of winter for a reason, calculating that he has more leverage if he can threaten to turn off Russian fuel sales to Europe.
So in recent weeks, American officials have been planning an effort that has echoes of the Berlin airlift, the attempt to keep West Berlin supplied in the face of a Soviet blockade in 1948 and 1949. That event led to the creation of NATO, the defensive alliance that Mr. Putin is hoping to undercut by massing troops along the Ukrainian border, and by demanding that NATO pull back from what he has called Russia’s “sphere of influence.”
American officials have been scrambling to find additional alternative energy supplies — particularly of natural gas. It is an effort to pre-empt what U.S. officials believe will be one of Mr. Putin’s key strategies: cutting off gas supplies to European markets unless they break with the sanctions that the United States and other allies have threatened if Russia invades Ukraine.
Understand Russia’s Relationship With the West
The tension between the regions is growing and Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly willing to take geopolitical risks and assert his demands.
- Competing for Influence: For months, the threat of confrontation has been growing in a stretch of Europe from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.
- Threat of Invasion: As the Russian military builds its presence near Ukraine, Western nations are seeking to avert a worsening of the situation.
- Energy Politics: Europe is a huge customer of Russia’s fossil fuels. The rising tensions in Ukraine are driving fears of a midwinter cutoff.
- Migrant Crisis: As people gathered on the eastern border of the European Union, Russia’s uneasy alliance with Belarus triggered additional friction.
- Militarizing Society: With a “youth army” and initiatives promoting patriotism, the Russian government is pushing the idea that a fight might be coming.
The theory is that, once they are reassured about energy supplies, European allies will be far more willing to sever Russian financial institutions from the international banking system, and to join in new export controls that would bar Russian manufacturers from receiving semiconductors and other key parts that are based on American designs.
Mr. Putin’s easiest move would be to further cut gas supplies from pipelines that run through Ukraine. In recent months, to pressure the Ukrainian government, Russia has already reduced supplies flowing through Ukraine to Europe by about 50 percent.
That is the supply most at risk if a conflict begins. But American officials provided no estimates of how much of that daily flow of gas they believe they can replace through other routes.
And clearly by announcing the effort — but not the specific sources of alternative supply — U.S. officials are trying to deter Russia from acting. This is the same strategy that led the United States to reveal that it had evidence that Mr. Putin intended to stage a “false flag” attack that could provide a pretext for invasion, and that led Britain to declare that Russia was seeking to replace the current Ukrainian leadership with a puppet government.
Russia provides about one-third of the gas and crude oil imported by the European Union. Last year, Russia provided about 128 billion cubic meters of gas to Europe, according to industry estimates, and about a third of that flowed through Ukrainian territory.
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Russia has reduced that flow this winter, and its effort to open the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, connecting Siberia to Germany, would give it a way to route all of its gas around Ukraine, crippling a key source of revenue for the Ukrainian government while increasing European dependency on Russian supply.
The initiative to get fuel from alternative sources flowing to Europe now, before a true crisis erupts, was described by Biden administration officials as a key element in assuring allies that they will be able to weather any cutoff of supply from Russia. And they argue that Russia’s huge dependency on its oil and gas sales — which accounts for more than a third of the country’s gross domestic product and much of the government’s revenue — creates a vulnerability in Moscow that the Western allies can exploit.
“If Russia decides to weaponize its supply of natural gas or crude oil,’’ a senior administration official told reporters in a call on Tuesday morning, “it wouldn’t be without consequences to the Russian economy. Remember, this is a one-dimensional economy, and that means it needs oil and gas revenues at least as much as Europe needs its energy supply.”
Understand the Escalating Tensions Over Ukraine
The official added: “We expect to be prepared to ensure alternative supplies covering a significant majority of the potential shortfall.’’
The official declined to say which countries were cooperating in the effort to rapidly replace oil and gas from Russia, but some of the sources are obvious, including Saudi Arabia, and existing providers, like Norway. But all of those suppliers face capacity limits, so the U.S. effort appears to be focused on getting incremental increases from a variety of sources.
The official, who declined to be identified under briefing rules set by the administration, said the effort involves boosting “a few cargoes of different suppliers,’’ and could involve sending shipments of liquid natural gas from the United States and other producers.
The market appears to be cooperating — motivated not by geopolitics, but by high prices. In recent weeks an armada of giant cargo ships have been bringing liquefied natural gas, which is gas chilled until it becomes a liquid, to Europe, lured by high prices. Some of the ships have come from the United States, but others have come from Asia. A single tanker can hold the equivalent of three times the current, depressed daily volumes sent from Russia, through Ukraine, and into Europe. Already this month these flows of liquefied natural gas have exceeded the amount of Russian gas coming through Ukraine.
In the briefing, officials declined to say how much of Europe’s needs could be met by diverting fuel from other sources. And some of the plans sounded preliminary, in what has turned into something of a contest of psychological warfare between Russia and the West, with the Kremlin warning European nations to stay out of the conflict over Ukraine.
President Biden met with a range of European leaders for 80 minutes on Monday, trying to keep the alliance together as it warns Mr. Putin of “massive consequences” if Russia invades.
At a news conference last week, Mr. Biden talked about the divisions inside Europe on what actions to take against Russia, depending on the actions Moscow takes against Ukraine. After acknowledging at the time that there were differences over how to react to what he termed a “minor incursion,’’ he and other administration officials have since hardened the U.S. stance, warning that any aggressive action over Ukraine’s border would bring about a coordinated allied response.