Washington — This year began with a European energy crisis caused by Russia's cutoff of gas supplies to Ukraine, where a democratic government not to the liking of Vladimir Putin had taken power. Because Russian gas passes through Ukraine on its way to Western Europe, the pressure also dropped in Paris and Vienna and Rome - and Europeans suddenly realized they were dependent for electricity and warmth on an autocracy that was prepared to use energy as a tool of imperialism.
It looks like the year will end the same way. Georgia and Azerbaijan, two other Russian neighbors that have chosen not to kowtow to Putin, are scrambling to find gas supplies by Jan. 1 to make up for Russian cutbacks or to avoid a huge and predatory price increase. So, oddly, is Belarus, which until now has been a Kremlin client - but which has resisted a Russian demand that it turn over ownership of a key gas transit pipeline.
Western energy companies that have invested in Russia are meanwhile reeling from a crude campaign of bullying designed to force them to give up majority stakes in oil and gas fields to Kremlin-controlled companies. Shell has already caved, allowing Gazprom to take a 50 percent stake in a huge offshore gas field.
It would be nice to report that in the intervening months Western governments have taken steps to ensure that Russia, which supplies anywhere between 30 and 100 percent of the gas consumed by European Union countries as well as much of their oil, is not able to use this leverage for political or economic extortion. Sadly, the opposite is true: Though "energy security" has become a favorite topic for discussion at E.U. and transatlantic summits, next to nothing has been done about it.
That's partly because solutions aren't easy. Weakening Russia's hold over European energy supplies requires measures that would be costly and difficult, such as building new terminals for importing liquefied natural gas or new pipelines to carry oil and gas from Central Asia and the Caucasus to Europe.
There's a less excusable problem, however: the failure of European Union governments to agree on either a common energy strategy or a policy for responding to Russia's growing aggressiveness. Some politicians, like German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, propose a new Ostpolitik that would entice Russian cooperation with offers of economic and strategic partnership. Others say the E.U. should refuse to renew an expiring economic pact with Russia unless it stops trying to monopolize European energy supplies.
Though it has a vital stake, the United States has been mostly missing from the discussion. That's one reason a recent speech by Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was intriguing. Lugar has been a pioneer of some of the most farsighted U.S. policies toward the countries of the former Soviet Union, including the Nunn-Lugar program for securing and dismantling nuclear weapons and materials.
Now he's proposing that the NATO alliance formally adopt "energy security" as one of its central missions. NATO, he told a German Marshall Fund conference alongside the recent NATO summit in Riga, Latvia, is "used to thinking in terms of conventional warfare between nations. But energy could become the weapon of choice for those who possess it.
"A natural gas shutdown to a European country in the middle of winter," he added, "could cause death and economic loss on the scale of a military attack."
NATO, Lugar said, should resolve to treat "an attack using energy" the same way it would a land attack by conventional military forces - that is, an attack on one country would compel a response by all. That doesn't mean military action, he said; "rather, it means the alliance must commit itself to preparing for and responding to attempts to use the energy weapon against its fellow members."
Lugar pointed out that NATO used to hold exercises to prepare for the logistical and supply challenge of responding to a Soviet attack. A new exercise, he said, "should focus on how the Alliance would supply a beleaguered member with the energy resources needed to withstand geo-strategic blackmail." This wouldn't be easy, he acknowledged: In fact, "the energy threat is more difficult to prepare for than a ground war in Central Europe." Guarding against an energy cutoff by Russia will mean massive investments in new supply lines and reserve supplies, as well as the means to distribute them in a crisis.
That sounds daunting at a time when NATO has its hands full trying to fight a war in Afghanistan. But the energy threat goes to the alliance's historic purpose: defending democratic Europe from attack by the autocratic and belligerent power on its Eastern frontier. And, as Lugar pointed out: "The use of energy as an overt weapon is not a theoretical threat of the future. It is happening now."