I arrived back in the United States last evening after a 7-hour flight back across the Atlantic. Originally, I planned to depart either today or Monday but after disembarking and seeing the questionable weather for Southeastern England I decided to depart on Saturday. It turns out to have been a smart move. Today ice, snow, freezing fog and frigid temperatures have descended upon Great Britain. Western Europe will also be affected as this first snap of Arctic weather will arrive on the continent by Monday, bringing on Europe’s first test of its energy supplies this winter. So far, warmer temperatures have kept energy usage manageable. Now, with the weather changing and troubles with French nuclear plants having caused a brief power outage in Paris last week, many Europeans are becoming uneasy about what the winter may hold.
The European Union continues to claim natural gas storage amounts exceed 90% as national governments urge citizens, companies and local authorities to conserve energy usage as much as possible. This week’s coming frigid temperatures will reveal how well-prepared Europe really is. French grid operator RTE has stated there are no power cuts planned for Monday or Tuesday. Whether or not this remains true will depend on the weather. A drop in electrical use across France last week, as well as increased output at French nuclear power plants starting tomorrow, are expected to satisfy demand in France.
France is not the only nation uneasy about what the coming cold snap might bring. Belgian newspaper De Tijd reported on Friday that a leaked government report has revealed Belgium’s natural gas supply could be at risk in the event of extended cold temperatures and subsequent increased demand. The Swedish government is urging Swedes to conserve energy to reduce the possibility of power cuts. On my Atlantic transit and time in England on Saturday I heard many Britons voice concerns about potential blackouts looming as the cold weather looms. All things considered, Europeans are right to be worried.
With winter fast approaching, attention is shifting to Europe and its energy crisis. The primary question on the minds of geopolitical analysts, economists and politicians is: Can Europe avoid an energy disaster this coming winter? The continent has done everything possible to prepare for the coming season. According to the EU, natural gas storage stood at 93% among EU member-states as of 17 October. Whether this statistic is fact or hopeful thinking remains to be seen. Consumption has to remain moderate for Europe to make it through the winter season in good condition. But despite consumption reduction demands and measures, the most critical factor in natural gas and overall energy consumption and demand in Europe will be weather conditions. If the winter is a cold one, energy supplies will be hit hard and fast. A good number of European industries are already taking steps to contend with energy shortages.
Adding to the dilemma perhaps, is the attention Russia is paying to the Ukrainian power grid. Recently, cruise missile and suicide-drone strikes have been launched against Ukrainian energy facilities resulting in major blackouts across large parts of the country. If these conditions continue and worsen into the winter months, Ukraine could be in need of material and financial assistance to repair its energy facilities at a time when Europeans are dealing with their own energy shortages. As it stands right now, despite many European governments remaining enthusiastic about providing Ukraine with whatever it asks for, many EU citizens are growing weary of the sacrifices that people in Hamburg and Copenhagen are forced to make for people in Lviv and Kiev.
A scenario where Europeans are asked to conserve their own energy demands in order to benefit Ukraine could result in a wedge being driven between Europe and Kiev. Time will tell.
Last week’s border clashes between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have ended and a fragile ceasefire is in place. Both nations have agreed to withdraw considerable amounts of military hardware and troops from the disputed area of the Tajik-Kyrgyz border. The fighting that took place along the border between 14-16 September included tanks, aircraft, and artillery. Over 100 deaths were reported during the strife.
On Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for there to be “no further escalation” between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. He also reached out to the leaders of both countries and urged them to take steps to resolve the border dispute through peaceful means. Although being members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have a history of tensions accented by the occasional border clash.
“We continue our efforts to resolve the Kyrgyz-Tajik border issues in a purely peaceful way,” Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov told his citizens in an address Monday. Tajik government officials spoke along similar lines, calling negotiations the key to resolving Tajik-Kyrgyz issues.
European government continue to make plans and preparations for an anticipated energy crunch this coming winter. Germany is moving promptly to secure LNG contracts with a number of Persian Gulf states as the flow of gas from Russia is running at severely reduced levels. Meanwhile, Spain and France are revising their respective contingency plans in the hope of avoiding power cuts.
French energy corporation EDF’s efforts to repair and reactivate a number of nuclear reactors is meeting delays. Corrosion has had more of an affect on the reactors and plants than originally thought. If the reactors cannot be brought back online by winter, EDF has warned it might be forced to take ‘exceptional measures’ once the weather turns.
Spain is looking at the possibility of requiring energy-intensive companies to cease operations during consumption peaks. Meanwhile, Finland’s national grid operator Fingrid is warning that Finns should be prepared for power outages come winter.
The United States is sounding the alarm over the latest buildup of Russian troops and equipment near the Ukrainian border. Washington has warned several NATO allies that the activity now underway could be preparations for Russian military action against Ukraine. While tensions flaring between Russia and the West over energy supplies and migrants, the growing concern is that Moscow might sense an opportunity developing to act against Ukraine as US and NATO attention is focused on the crisis at the Polish-Belarus border. Or, to adopt a more cynical position, Moscow is manufacturing that crisis for its own selfish purposes.
The West has been monitoring activity along the border for some time, but with the emergence of the migrant crisis, the level of Russian troop and equipment movement has risen. Earlier this month, CIA Director Bill Burns visited Moscow and spoke by phone to Vladimir Putin on the matter. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also spoke with the Russian leader about Belarus and Ukraine earlier today.
With the migrant crisis, energy issues and now the Russian buildup cropping up within such a short period of time, this blog will be returning to the Update format. I will post news and analysis about the developing situations in Eastern Europe and Ukraine daily through the end of the weekend. Next week, barring any major incidents, the blog will return to its regular format.