Sources say that President Joe Biden was determined to deliver a key message to nearly a dozen Western leaders via private video conference on Thursday, to discuss the conflict in Ukraine. He wanted to convey a key message: To stay united in punishing Russia even though the Kremlin attempts to weaponize energy and break Western resolve.
This was the second such request to Europe to keep the sanctions on Russia last week, given skyrocketing energy prices due to Russia’s invasion and the possibility of a harsh winter after the Kremlin cut off gas flow to Europe via a key pipeline. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, in an opinion published in the Financial Times Wednesday, urged citizens not to lose heart and to continue supporting Ukraine despite “a difficult six months.”
This intensifying messaging campaign reflects a growing fear in Washington and Brussels about Moscow’s weaponization of oil and gas, its two largest exports and the backbone its economy. It could cause fissures in an otherwise united European front against Russia’s war on Ukraine.
According to US intelligence officials, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has made it a priority to sow division and weaken western resolve. This is especially important as Russia continues to struggle against Western-backed and better-equipped Ukrainian forces. Saturday saw major gains by Ukrainian forces in Kharkiv’s northeastern region, where they retook the cities of Izium, Kupyansk, and other key locations.
“Putin’s wager is that he will be tougher than both the Ukrainians and Europeans and Americans, that he could wear down the Ukrainians, and strangle their economy [and that] Europeans, facing what’s going be a hard winter with high energy prices are going to lose resolve,” CIA Director William Burns stated on Thursday.
Europe, including the UK, is already feeling the consequences. Energy bills are on the rise, and leaders warn that there could be blackouts in winter, depending on how low the temperatures drop. Ursula von der Leyen (president of the European Commission) stated that the electricity market was no longer functioning because Putin is trying to control it.
The EU energy ministers are also arguing over a plan to limit the price of Russian natural gas. Hungary, Austria, and Slovakia are concerned about a cap on Russian gas prices because Putin could retaliate by cutting off all Russian gas flow to their countries.
In a speech delivered last week at Eastern Economic Forum, Putin seemed to threaten the same.
He stated that he would not supply any product if it was against our interests. We will not supply any gas, oil, coke, or heating oil. “We would have only one option: Like in the Russian fairy tale, we’d let the wolf’s tail freeze.”
Officials at the White House insist they have not seen any visible changes in the united front, and have to some extent viewed Putin’s actions both as predictable and helping to strengthen the resolve of European allies. One senior US official stated that Russia’s actions had actually increased unity among Europeans. “Russia is sending a message to all Europeans that they are not reliable. The animosity towards Russia only seems to be growing.”
However, officials from the US say that the risk is real. As electricity prices rise and winter draws near, the European public could be against the West’s strategy of economically isolating Russia.
One source familiar with Western intelligence said that Russia wants Europeans to be nervous. Energy is their greatest tool to turn the European public against the war.
Two sources familiar with US and Western government views stated that the direct impact on the United States is negligible. This is despite the fact that the US doesn’t rely on Russian energy imports at all and is a major exporter of liquified gas. This fact allowed Biden in March to promise that the US would send 15 billion cubic meters more LNG to the EU by the year’s end. The combination of market forces and administration facilitation as well as the absence of destination restrictions have allowed US producers to meet Biden’s pledge twice.
Officials from the United States closely watched a protest in Prague against rising energy prices and kept an eye out for signs of instability in Europe.
John Kirby, White House National Security Council spokesperson, stated that “we’re obviously monitoring this closely.” “We still see strong resolve, unity and leadership at the top here in the face of Putin’s weaponization of energy. The President is committed to maintaining that unity, that resolve, and that strength.”