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Russia is using energy as a weapon. Could this spread to the rest of the world?


Since the beginning of war in Ukraine, Russia has used Europe's dependence on Russian oil and natural gas as a weapon. As NPR's Jackie Northam reports, there is concern that this weaponization of energy is spreading to the rest of the world.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Russian President Vladimir Putin was manipulating oil and natural gas exports to Europe long before the first shot was fired in Ukraine, usually restricting supplies in order to get what he wanted. In September, Putin went all out, shutting off the flow of gas through a key pipeline to Europe. Robert McNally is president of the Rapidan Energy Group.

ROBERT MCNALLY: So the real first shot, if you will, the Lexington and Concord of this thing, is when Russia just stopped exporting through Nord Stream 1 to Germany. That's over half of Germany's gas.

NORTHAM: The rest of Europe also depended on Russia for about 40% of its natural gas needs. Stopping those supplies was in retaliation for sanctions against Russia and Europe's support of Ukraine. And it's inflicted a lot of pain, says Andrew Lipow, president of the consulting firm Lipow Oil Associates.

ANDREW LIPOW: Natural gas prices in Europe are nearly eight to 10 times that in the United States. And that has forced the closure of a variety of industries, including fertilizer, aluminum, steel, zinc. And you can see it's causing economic damage, especially in Germany.

NORTHAM: But what happens in Europe doesn't stay in Europe, not when you're talking about oil and gas, commodities used and traded globally. That's sparking concern about the energy war widening, says Olga Khakova with the Global Energy Center at the Atlantic Council.

OLGA KHAKOVA: I would say it's already a global energy conflict because of the consequences of the supply crunch that Putin has intentionally created.

NORTHAM: After Russia cut it off, Europe has scrambled to find new sources of natural gas, setting off bidding wars between countries, says Rachel Ziemba, an energy specialist with the Center for a New American Security.

RACHEL ZIEMBA: Every spare cargo and even non-spare cargo of LNG on the market in the last six months has basically gone to Europe. The other thing, of course, that's worrisome is as all of these more developed economies scramble for gas, poorer countries can't access it, can't pay the price.

NORTHAM: The plight of the developed world has deepened by Europe, the U.S. and allies coming up with their own strategy to limit Russian oil in the market. The EU will ban all oil imports from Russia in early December. Ziemba says the G-7 has also signed on to a U.S.-backed plan to put a price cap on Russian oil to try to limit the revenue the Kremlin is pulling in.

ZIEMBA: So this is an environment where there are tools being used on both sides and that the net result is a lot of disruption and complications.

NORTHAM: Last month, OPEC+ appeared to enter the fray and slashed oil outputs despite pleas from the Biden administration. Lower production levels mean higher revenues for members of the cartel, including Russia. The Biden administration publicly called out OPEC+, saying it was siding with Russia. Saudi Arabia hotly denied that. The Atlantic Council's Khakova again.

KHAKOVA: They're claiming that this is a purely economical decision. But we don't live in times where you can just dissect and live in silos, where you just have energy over here and economics and geopolitics and brutalities, you know, happening and war crimes over here. Everything is so closely tied together, and every action has consequences, right?

NORTHAM: Consequences, not just for Europe and Ukraine but also the developing world as this energy war continues.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.