OPINION: How many massacres will it take before Germany turns off Russian gas?

Ever-worsening brutalities are unfolding in Ukraine day by day, but Germany remains set on blocking a Russian gas embargo. If it doesn't change course, it could find itself complicit in an ugly repeat of history, writes Brian Melican.

A Ukrainian soldier passes a burnt-out tank in the district of Bucha
A Ukrainian soldier passes a burnt-out tank in the district of Bucha, near Kyiv. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/SOPA Images via ZUMA Press Wire | Matthew Hatcher

Many of those murdered during Germany’s singular historic crime, the Holocaust, were deported from what is today Ukraine; many others never even made it that far, summarily shot like the tens of thousands at Babyn Jar near Kyiv in 1941.

Now, eighty years on, civilians have once again been executed in the Kyiv suburbs and there may have been attacks with chemical weapons further east. While Germany is not the perpetrator this time, it is complicit.

The problem is gas.

For despite all the tough talk and sanctions, Germany is still, like several other European nations, transferring eight-figure sums to Moscow in return for gas deliveries on a daily basis. We are doing this because half of the gas in our network is piped in straight from Russia and, as we have conspicuously, criminally neglected to build the infrastructure we would need to replace it, we seemingly have no choice but to keep financing a Kremlin regime bent on harrowing its neighbour.

I write “seemingly” because there are several different points of view here. In discussions about how quickly we can wean ourselves off the Russian supply, there are those who say that we could manage this by the end of the current year – albeit with some hardship. Others, meanwhile, posit a worst-case scenario in which, if Russian gas is cut off (either by a European embargo or, indeed, by Putin himself in a pre-emptive move), the German economy grinds to a standstill almost overnight.

READ ALSO: ANALYSIS: How quickly can Germany wean itself off Russian gas?

Crying wolf? 

One of the more pessimistic assessments comes from chemicals giant BASF. The company requires gas not just for energy, but also as a raw material for its products, and calculates that a 50 percent cut in the gas supply would force it to close its Ludgwigshafen works entirely, jeopardising 40,000 jobs. What is more, the firm claims, its wide range of chemicals products are essential in all manner of other industrial applications, meaning its closure would have knock-on effects throughout the German, European, and indeed global economy.

BASF corporate communications have been very successful in making sure that anyone who reads a paper now knows this line of argument, and BASF boss Martin Brudermüller recently upped the ante, warning in an interview with FAZ that boycotting Russian gas would mean “destroying the German economy”. To that I say: bullshit. Firstly, the only economy getting ‘destroyed’ here is the Ukrainian one; ours is facing difficulties, not missiles. Brudermüller and others sounding the alarm would do well to remember that and moderate their tone.

Secondly, German industrials have been crying wolf about energy prices for as long as I’ve been living in Germany – and long before. Quoted last week in DIE ZEIT, Berlin Energy Studies Professor Christian von Hirschhausen traces this tendency back to the 1800s. And if it’s not the price of gas or electricity, it’s government regulation, environmental concerns, consumers’ unwillingness to pay higher prices… Something is always, apparently, about to force Germany’s biggest and most successful companies to fire everyone and shut up shop unless the government gives them a helping hand. For a sector whose constituents spend half of every annual report telling their shareholders just how innovative and efficient they are, German industry seems to have a problem with actually applying some of its much-vaunted knack for innovation to the issue of energy efficiency.

Mass lay-offs? 

A classic case of this tendency – and where it leads – is Volkswagen during the Winterkorn years, when the corporation greenwashed itself with campaigns like “Blue Diesel” for public consumption while lobbying Berlin to water down planned EU emissions regulations. Whereas French carmakers and, to be fair, BMW in Munich knuckled down and actually made their vehicles more efficient, in the 2010s, Wolfsburg executives expended their corporate energy warning German ministers that any legal requirements to reduce fleet C02 emissions to below 95g per passenger kilometre would result in mass redundancies. Then, when Merkel secured them the far higher transitional figure of 130g, they set their oh-so innovative minds to writing cheat software to work round it.

In my view, German industry can no longer have it both ways: either its companies are, as they keep claiming, the world’s most innovative, highest-quality producers of crucial components and premium products with unparalleled abilities to adapt to market conditions or they are, as they also claim, wholly dependent on the German government shielding them from any disturbances whatsoever.

The BASF plant in Ludwigshafen.

The BASF plant in Ludwigshafen. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Uwe Anspach

Would turning off Russian gas within the next couple of weeks cause a severe recession in Germany and other European countries? Possibly. Would BASF have to close its works? Maybe. Would they fire everyone? Almost certainly not. Germany has a generous, tried-and-tested short hours scheme; the gas supply issues would be temporary – months, a year tops – and the company would need its staff ready for when the supply comes back on-stream. Moreover, they might have found by then that there actually are several ways of appreciably reducing the amount of gas they use, with longer-term benefits for us all. Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention: Aus der Not kann man eine Tugend machen.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Germany is in a muddle over Russia – and it only has itself to blame

Chemical giant’s dark past  

This isn’t being gung-ho, either: Germany’s top energy researcher, Professor Claudia Kemfert, is of the opinion that the time has come for us to “go cold turkey” on fossil fuels. Either way, this corporate blackmail has to stop, because regardless of what actually would happen if Russian gas is cut off, BASF’s wailing is particularly distasteful. Indeed, in a country like ours, which has made so much of trying to atone for its past, we should all be ashamed that it is going unchallenged.

How so? BASF was the main company in the I. G. Farben chemicals conglomerate which, during the Nazi years, used slave labour at Auschwitz on an unparalleled scale and was instrumental in developing the Zyklon B gas used there. Following the liquidation of I. G. Farben, BASF continued as one of the stand-alone successor concerns – and so to this day carries the legacy of this particularly amoral, maybe even downright evil company, and the responsibility which goes with that. 

At this juncture, this responsibility – both for BASF as a company and for Germany as a country – could not be clearer. While the gradual, gentle approach to weaning ourselves off of Russian gas imports might have seemed just about tenable in the early days of the war, the fact that Russia hasn’t simply invaded a neighbouring country, but has already resorted to purposefully slaughtering innocent civilians, calls for a reassessment.

Time for action

Yes, Germany’s dependency on Russian gas is an abject national failure several decades in the making and so cannot be fixed overnight. But, to be blunt, we – as a country, as an economy, and as the voters who spent 15 years re-electing Merkel and her from-Russia-with-love Grand Coalitions – have made our bed and must now lie in it. We need to stop importing Putin’s gas now. Not tomorrow, not next week, and not at the end of the year once we have jerry-rigged some LNG terminals at Wilhelmshaven. If German industry does grind to a halt and we cannot heat our homes properly for a while, so be it. 

Bucha Kyiv

Destroyed vehicles lie on the road outside Bucha, near Kyiv. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/SOPA Images via ZUMA Press Wire | Mykhaylo Palinchak

How many more massacres have to be uncovered before we take our historical responsibility seriously when history actually comes calling? How many Buchas does it take before we feel ready to embargo Russian gas: two, three, four? And are we really going to wait to find out whether Putin’s army has used chemical weapons on innocent Ukrainians before we act?

READ ALSO: OPINION: Germany has been forced to learn the lessons from its post-war pacifism

Member comments

  1. Yes well. Some of us didnt vote for Merkel – you know immigrants with no voting rights. This isnt Germanys war and yet we are meant to suffer for it? Also, if the German economy goes down the tubes, the country wont be able to help Ukraine at all as we will have our own crisis to deal with. And, of course, it will have huge ramfications for the rest of the EU. You might think Germans deserve to suffer but what about people residing in other EU countries? Sanctions are only effective if they only hurt the country being sanctioned. Putin will just sell his gas to other countries. Its unlikely to hurt Russia very much at all.

  2. I get the feeling from this article that the author has never had the wolves knocking on his door. If he had, im sure he would be singing from a completely different song sheet.
    I know there are people who have turned their heating off because they can not afford it as it is. Try telling them they can’t heat their homes properly for a while. They’ve been in the cold since January.
    Cutting gas and fuel cold turkey would have worked in the 16th century where everything was locally sourced. But now we have everything coming from all over the world. We will grind to a halt. In turn grinding everyone around us to a halt aswell. Score one for globalism.

    If you really want to help Ukraine get the global banks to forgive the debt. Ukraine were making interest payments to the European investment bank (amongst others). As the bombs were falling.

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


What the Nord Stream pipeline leaks mean for people in Germany

Security experts are increasingly convinced that leaks in the Nord Stream pipelines are the result of sabotage. Could there be further attempts to damage infrastructure - and what would the consequences be for people in Germany?

What the Nord Stream pipeline leaks mean for people in Germany

What’s going on?

Earlier this week, Swedish and Danish authorities reported three unexplained leaks in the two Nord Stream gas pipelines running between Russia and Germany. It came after a dramatic drop-off in pressure had been registered in both Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 on Monday night, reducing the capacity of the pipelines to zero.

On Tuesday, the Danish military published videos showing huge circles of gas bubbling to surface of the Baltic Sea – in some cases, stretching up to a kilometre in diameter. 

Nord Stream pipeline leaks

A video released by the Danish authorities shows gas bubbling up in the Baltic Sea. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Danish Defence Command | –

Then, on Thursday morning, the Swedish coast guard reported yet another pipeline leak, suggesting that the damage to the pipelines may be greater than previously imagined. 

“There are two leaks on Swedish territory and two on Danish territory,” a Swedish coast guard official told the AFP news agency on Thursday.

The leaks are located near the Danish island of Bornholm in the Swedish and Danish economic zones but in international waters.

What’s behind the leaks?

The discovery of the damage has caused widespread concern in the European Union that critical infrastructure is being targeted by hostile actors.

Though investigations are still ongoing, Danish authorities have reported explosions in the affected areas shortly before the leaks were discovered. 

Both EU authorities and the NATO defence alliance are assuming that the leaks – and explosions – are the result of deliberate sabotage.

“As far as I can tell, it is a very intelligent attack that could not have been perpetrated by a normal group of people,” EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said on Wednesday evenings, adding that there was a high risk that a state could be responsible. “We have suspicions, of course. But it is too early to judge that conclusively.”

READ ALSO: Who is behind the Nord Stream Baltic pipeline attack?

Military experts have been slightly less reserved in apportioning blame for the destruction, with several looking to Russia as the most likely perpetrator of the attacks. 

“Leaks in gas pipelines are extremely rare,” Norwegian naval officer and military expert Tor Ivar Strömmen told AFP. Both the Nord Stream pipelines are both new and highly robust, he said. 

“I see only one possible actor, and that is Russia,” Strömmen added.

Meanwhile, Michael Giss, a naval commander in the German Bundeswehr (army), pointed to the fact that Russia’s sham referendums in occupied eastern regions of Ukraine and the likely attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines occurred on the same day.

“We also know that there are drones in the Russian navy – or even small submarines – that could be used for such purposes,” Giss told Tagesschau. “I also don’t want to exclude the possibility that certain measures may have been taken in advance during the construction of the pipeline to trigger such an event.”

The motivation could be to unsettle an already nervous Europe and drive gas prices even higher, experts believe. 

Has this affected gas deliveries to Germany?

So far, gas deliveries haven’t been impacted by the damage to the pipeline – though the leaks have rendered both of the pipelines inoperable. 

The gas supply hasn’t been affected because neither of the Nord Stream pipelines are currently in service. At the start of September, Russia cut all gas deliveries to Germany via the Nord Stream pipeline in what is widely seen as retaliation for western sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine.

In the case of the recently completed Nord Stream 2, the pipeline has never been in operation: Germany took the decision not to receive gas through the pipeline just days after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Nevertheless, both pipelines contained gas at the time of the leaks: Nord Stream 1 is likely to have had residual gas from previous deliveries while Nord Stream 2 was likely filled after completion for testing purposes or as a way to place political pressure on Germany to put the pipeline in operation. 

READ ALSO: Germany says must brace for ‘unimaginable’ after gas leaks

Nord Stream 2 pipeline parts

Unused parts for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

Has this impacted energy prices?

Prices for natural gas have risen significantly in the European energy markets this week. On Tuesday, shortly after the first leaks were discovered, gas prices shot up from €167 per megawatt hour to €182 per megawatt hour.

By Wednesday, TTF futures contracts for Dutch natural gas – which represent trends in the EU market as a whole – had gone up to €212 per megawatt hour for deliveries in October and to €234 per megawatt hour for deliveries in January. This marks an increase of 14 percent and 11 percent respectively.

However, gas prices still aren’t anywhere near their previous peak in August, when TTF contracts soared to €346 per megawatt hour. Experts also believe that the latest hikes aren’t likely to last.

That’s partly because most European countries have succeeded in filling up their gas reserves in preparation for winter.

In Germany, which has the largest gas storage capacity in Europe, the gas storage facilities were around 91.5 percent full on September 27th. The government hopes to fill the facilities to at least 95 percent of capacity by November 1st. 

To relieve citizens and businesses, the government is also working to introduce a gas price cap in the coming weeks. That would likely see households pay a capped rate for a certain amount of energy per year, with anything above that subject to market rates. 

This would shield people from the worst of the price rises, even if Russia carries through on its latest threat to shut off gas deliveries via the Ukraine. 

German politicians are debating how this would be paid for. 

READ ALSO: German regional leaders call for energy price cap

Could there be more attacks in future?

The fact that a potential attack on critical infrastructure was able to slip under the radar is a major concern. It has raised fears that other parts of critical infrastructure, including electricity cables, other gas pipelines and internet cables could be subject to future sabotage attempts, which would have a huge impact on people’s lives. 

One particularly worrying target is the some 1000km of underwater cables that deliver electricity from Finland to Germany via the Baltic Sea, experts believe.

According to NATO security expert David van Weel, critical infrastructure like this has become a major target for cybercriminals and hostile states. Analysts have been warning for years that China and Russia are conducting spy operations to assess the undersea infrastructure of NATO countries.

Beyond gas, supplies of drinking water and electricity, internet connectivity could also be under threat. 

Electricity cables deliver power to a factory in Hamburg.

Electricity cables deliver power to a factory in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Bockwoldt

There are currently around 400 undersea cables with a length of around 1.3 million kilometres that connect countries across the globe. If these were sabotaged, the consequences for communication and the economy could be disastrous.

After the Nord Stream pipeline leaks, NATO forces – including the German Bundeswehr – are increasing their presence around this vital infrastructure with additional patrols.

The EU is also working on implementing measures to protect the drinking water, electricity and other vital infrastructure in its member states.

The initiative was started in summer and is set to be accelerated in light of the pipeline leaks.