The energy squeeze on Europe: Putin’s ‘economic WMD’

Europe could face a winter of protest over soaring energy prices

Riders of the Night Wolves being welcomed by Pro-Russia Czech citizens in 2018
The Pro-Putin Night Wolves were involved in protests at Wenceslas Square
(Image credit: Michal Cizek / Contributor via Getty Images)

“A winter of protest.” That’s what Europe can expect now that Putin has turned off the gas, and energy prices are soaring, said TF1 Info (Paris). French nationalist politicians are already calling on their compatriots to take to the streets; so are German politicians on both the far-left and the far-right. In Naples earlier this month, unemployed Italians burned gas and electricity bills in a mass demonstration in the Piazza Matteotti.

But by far the largest protest has taken place in the Czech Republic, “where inflation has reached a whopping 17.5%”, said Marek Švehla in Respekt (Prague). About 70,000 people are said to have gathered in Prague’s Wenceslas Square to voice their anger at soaring energy bills, and to call for an end to the sanctions being imposed on Russia. But make no mistake, this protest is being led by extremists: by quasi-fascist politicians, by Putinesque outfits such as the Night Wolves motorcycle gang, and by minor figures from leftist parties; the kind of people, in short, who toe “an aggressive, murderous and warlike... pro-Kremlin line”.

No, “it’s too glib to mock the protesters as Putin sell-outs,” said Jan Stránský in Seznam Zprávy (Prague). In reality, most of those gathered in Wenceslas Square and calling for the resignation of the Czech PM, Petr Fiala, were just ordinary people driven by fear: fear that they won’t be able to pay for heating and hot water this winter, fear that they’ll freeze once the cold sets in. Brussels is now talking of ways to tamp down the record high energy prices, notably by setting a price cap. But there is no point discussing this behind closed doors: the only way the EU and Fiala are going to quell the tide of fear is by ensuring that this hopeful news is loudly relayed “to the most remote cottage” in the land, and the most dismal slum basement flat.

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But “who will blink first”, asked Tamás Rónay in Nepszava (Budapest). Putin’s decision to close the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline to Europe has put the wind up Europe’s politicians. Elements within Austria’s ruling People’s Party and Germany’s Social Democrats are calling for compromise; Italy is poised to elect a right-wing coalition this month, with a more permissive policy towards Russia than its predecessor.

The truth is that “Russia holds the whip hand”, said Andrew Sullivan on The Weekly Dish. “Putin’s economic WMD” – the gas squeeze – “vastly out-punches the West’s sanctions”. Gas prices have risen eightfold since the war with Ukraine started. How long will ordinary Europeans go on taking the punches?

Well, the good news is that ”Europe appears to be adjusting to Russia’s tactics”, said Aura Sabadus on Atlantic Council. Europe’s gas stocks are now at 84% capacity (compared with 67% this time last year), and record high prices have led large industrial consumers to curb demand. Gas prices have already dropped more than 40% since reaching record highs at the end of August. Putin not only seems to be losing his military war: he may be losing his gas war, too.

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