Henry Smith is the Member of Parliament for Crawley and sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Russia’s massive build-up on the Ukrainian border is a threat to European stability, as I recently saw for myself on a visit to Kyiv and frontline in Donetsk. NATO must deter the threat of invasion, however, longer term we and our allies must also reduce Putin’s capabilities to harm us, including the exploitation of energy.
I am proud of the UK’s response to Russia’s aggression against its neighbour. We have trained over 20,000 Ukrainian troops through Operation ORBITAL and supplied them with anti-tank missiles, loaned over £1.25 billion to help develop Ukraine’s naval shore facilities, and we are helping Ukraine to develop frigates while providing eight fast missile craft and two mine hunters.
For all the aggression from the Kremlin, however, Putin knows he would be dooming the Russian people were he to attempt to take on NATO in a straight fight. Although Russia has invested heavily over the past two decades in its conventional and nuclear capability, it still cannot match up to the combined power of the alliance’s thirty member states and partners.
However, Putin does hold the advantage over Europe in one strategically crucial area – energy. Russia supplies the continent with 40 per cent of its gas, which provides Putin with leverage. Through state-backed companies like Gazprom, the world’s largest natural gas company, he has his foot on the hose.
This is why Putin’s number one foreign policy concern is gas. By pushing up the cost of living or striking lucrative bilateral deals like Nord Stream 2, he can weaken the resolve of Western allies to push back against his aggression in the east and undermine friendships like that between Poland and Germany.
We only receive three to five per cent of our gas directly from Russia in the form of liquified natural gas (LNG) shipments. But this does not mean the UK is safe from this malign use of energy markets to cause harm.
The UK and Europe are connected through pipelines which bring gas from the wells to boilers in homes. North Sea gas is going up in price too, as energy companies seek to capitalise on the higher demand in Europe as countries want to replace their reduced supply from Russia. September 2021 saw a record amount of UK produced gas exported to Belgium, pushing prices further up at home.
Rises in the cost of gas leads to rises in the cost of food. All of this adds up to a cost of living crisis which is putting severe pressure on the finances of my constituents, right as we are on the tail end of a pandemic which inflicted pain and misery on everyone.
Ministers have been searching for solutions to ease the pain in the short term, but ultimately we must reduce our dependence on gas in the long term. Unfortunately, we cannot simply rely on ramping up production in the North Sea to cut bills: Norway, the world’s seventh largest gas producer and Western Europe’s largest by far, has also been hit by the price surge.
Our own North Sea gas sector, meanwhile, has struggled to increase production for several years, despite strong government support and the enshrined principle of ‘maximum economic recovery’. The basin is also heavily oil-weighted; gas only makes up around 30 per cent of remaining reserves.
Issuing new licences might be beneficial in terms of supporting the sector, but we must be realistic that new gas projects would not start producing gas for years, if not decades – certainly not in time to bring bills down. Neither would they solve the problem of price volatility.
The Government needs to find a way to protect British families, households and businesses from Putin’s games. Thankfully, it is already on the right track with its net zero policy.
Net zero is our route to ending the UK’s contribution to climate change, but also crucially, reducing our dependence on natural gas for electricity and heating has the added benefit of weakening our opponents’ position. Cheap, homegrown renewables and new nuclear energy can provide much of the long-term solution, especially once we develop storage capacity to overcome intermittency.
The Government has been forced to advise UK personnel to leave Ukraine and officials are warning against the weaponisation of energy to dissuade a European response to its bullying of a sovereign nation. Thanks to the massive advances in new energy technology, we can shield ourselves against Russia’s aggressive use of gas. We must double down on clean energy.