What happens when Europe’s strongest economy is made strong by Russia?

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, leaders around the world have weighed the consequences of sanctioning Russia and have shared a sense of moral obligation to Ukraine. Many countries, including the United States and several member states of the European Union (EU), have retaliated against Russia by cutting off a large source of its income: energy exports. 

In 2020, the EU depended on Russia for 35% of its crude oil, 40% gas, and 20% of its coal. Cutting those resources entirely could cause economic catastrophe in many of its member nations, but the bloc is taking steps to phase out Russian energy over time. Their plan, called REPowerEU, will taper off Russian coal over the course of four months (while remaining dependent on Russia’s natural gas and oil), and plans to completely replace Russian fossil fuels with biomethane, hydrogen, wind, and solar by 2030. 

This decision required a consensus from all 27 EU member nations, which posed a challenge as some members depend more heavily on Russian energy than others. One of the main dissidents in the conversation was none other than Germany, Europe’s largest economy, and my home.

According to the New York Times, more than half of Germany’s coal is imported from Russia — about 2 billion euros worth. The country’s dependence on coal as an energy source rose to 27% last year, and key industries in Germany’s economy rely heavily on that source — chemical, pharmaceutical, and mining industries in particular. According to the Financial Times, breaking up with Russian coal could “trigger a sharp recession in Germany,” running the risk of cutting 400,000 jobs.

In 2010, Germany generated about 22% of its energy from 17 nuclear power plants in the country. But, in March of 2011, an earthquake caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in northeastern Japan to melt. The disaster started a wave of fear in Europe, and culminated in Germany’s former Chancellor, Angela Merkel, promising to shut down all nuclear power plants by 2022.

When the ripple effects of Fukushima reached Berlin, my school, and my household, I was swept up by the popular opinion that nuclear energy is an unstable and destructive industry masked as green energy. I feared what I saw as 17 ticking time bombs strewn across my country and was confirmed by the knowledge that these plants weren’t as clean as they seemed — that they produce toxic waste that is difficult to repurpose, and that they rely on non-renewable uranium-ore for fuel. 

I didn’t understand at the time that the reactors would have allowed Germany to build its economy from the inside, and remain powerful without relying as much on energy trade with other countries. 

The same year that the first nuclear reactors were closed in Germany the country expanded its energy relationship with Russia through the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which runs from St. Petersburg in Russia to Lubmin in Germany. The pipeline was finished last year and was predicted to supply Europe with a quarter of the gas it uses each year. 

While I don’t seek to advocate for nuclear energy in general, I do see Merkel’s decision to shut down all of our reactors as a mistake. She was guided by a fearful populace and came to rely on deep ties with a volatile nation for energy that is the building block for Germany’s economy. 

None of Russia’s hostile actions since 2011, including its intervention in Syria, the annexation of Crimea, and the meddling in U.S. elections, has fazed Germany’s energy relationship with the country. It has continued to expand and is only now being questioned as the globe seeks to sanction Russia for its attack on Ukraine. 

Merkel’s sympathizers might recognize her insistence on building a relationship with Russia as the German notion of Wandel durch Handel or “change through trade,” the idea that the relationship between two countries can stabilize through increased trade. Yet, the relationship in this particular case seems more like a bargain with the devil. 

Ukrainian President, Vlodomyr Zelensky, described the continued trade with Russia as “blood money.”

While Germany is unable to cut energy ties with Russia immediately without facing major economic backlash, the country is working to lessen its dependence incrementally. According to the Financial Times, the government has “reduced its dependence on Russian coal from 50 to 25 per cent, oil from 35 to 25 per cent, and gas from 55 to 40 per cent” since February. 

Germany’s Vice Chancellor and Economics Minister, Robert Habeck, has announced that the country aims to increase its renewable resources by investing in more wind and solar and will allow coal-fired power stations to remain open (Merkel announced last year that all coal-fired plants were to close by 2030). He has also begun conversations with countries like Qatar, who could provide Germany with the gas that they will phase out from Russia.

Seeing the German government caught between a rock and a hard place has reminded me of how complicated our globalized world is. It has revealed to me how deeply interconnected we are both through political and economic ties and through our moral obligation to one another. 

This moment should be treated, where feasible, as an opportunity for Germany, and the EU at large, to make a real shift toward green infrastructure, and not to develop new ties to fossil fuels. It should be treated as a moment of moral reckoning for a country that gambled with Russia despite its knowledge of its immorality. 

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