During press conference in July, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen spoke of the need for the EU to “diversify away from Russia and towards more reliable and trustworthy partners”. She cited “Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine” as a reason to move away from Russian gas. She was joined by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to announce an agreement allowing Azerbaijan to double its gas supply to the EU. The irony that Aliyev’s authoritarian regime was implicated in war crimes and corruption was apparently lost on von der Leyen.
European energy security
The past year has posed several dilemmas for European energy security. The EU is heavily dependent on Russian gas. Last year, 39.7% of the EU population imported gas came from Russia. However, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has threatened the reliability of this source of energy.
EU members fear Moscow will cut gas supply in retaliation punishments levied on the Russian economy and Western military support for Ukraine. Indeed, this summer Russia cut gas from 170 cubic meters per day to 20, supplied via the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline. Over the past year, Moscow has reduced its total gas exports to Europe by about 88%.
End of September, Blast disrupted the operation of the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 gas pipelines and further heightened fears that the flow of natural gas from Russia would not reach Europe. The EU did not directly accuse Russia, but suspect sabotage.
Gas is at the heart of EU energy security. Households in EU Member States use gas as primary source of energy at about 32.1%. Gas also accounts for 21.5% of primary consumption in the EU energy consumption. Most gas is imported. Only 20% of EU gas demand is met by domestic production, which itself has halved over the past 10 years.
Azerbaijan gas deal
Securing alternative energy providers in Moscow is a strategic imperative for Brussels. Azerbaijan, with its vast natural gas reserves in the Caspian Sea, is – on paper – an ideal partner.
The gas agreement between the EU and Azerbaijan should increase natural gas delivery to Europe from 8 billion cubic meters per year to 20 billion. By 2023, exports are expected to reach 12 billion cubic meters. The bloc also plans to invest 60 million euros of EU funds in Azerbaijan until 2024 with the prospect of additional investments via the economic and investment plan, which could facilitate 2 billion euros of investments.
Hypocrisy and human rights
However, the EU’s decision to conclude an agreement with Azerbaijan is deeply hypocritical. In March this year, the European Parliament voted in favor of a resolution condemning the Azerbaijani government for deliberately “erasing and denying” Armenian cultural heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh. According to the resolution: “The erasure of Armenian cultural heritage is part of a broader framework of a systematic state policy of Armenophobia, historical revisionism and hatred towards Armenians promoted by the Azerbaijani authorities, including dehumanization, the glorification of violence and the claims against the Republic of Armenia”.
The EU’s decision to strike an energy deal with the same government it had accused months earlier of human rights abuses is a damning indicator that its proposed morality is only skin deep. This double standard is particularly troubling at a time when the bloc projects itself as a paragon of liberalism and democracy in juxtaposition with Russian aggression and authoritarianism. The EU has rightly decried Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and condemned humanitarian abuses, but those sentiments fall flat when Brussels will act on its convictions only when politically expedient.
Russia has regularly accused the West of hypocrisy to distract from its own nefarious conduct. Every failure of the EU to act in accordance with the moral and ethical principles it has set itself acts as ammunition that Putin can use to win the information war.
Since the signing of the gas deal, the EU’s response to Azerbaijan’s humanitarian abuses has been lukewarm, despite continued NGO alarm. Last month, Human Rights Watch verified the authenticity of a video showing the extrajudicial execution of seven Armenian prisoners of war by Azerbaijani soldiers. Torture, rape, mutilation and murder of a woman in the Armenian Armed Forces by Azerbaijani troops also surfaced after a video was posted online. The EU stressed the need for a investigation of alleged war crimes. However, an EU spokesperson also admitted that the bloc had no investigative powers in the Caucasus and that Azerbaijan was encouraged to investigate on its own.
Peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia remains elusive, meaning Brussels must be careful to avoid inadvertently funding war crimes. However, when asked if the EU would implement measures to ensure that EU money is not spent on conflict or human rights abuses, an EU official commented that such mechanisms do not exist
In international relations, ethical feelings rarely triumph over the cold necessities of realpolitik. However, the Azerbaijani gas deal is also a bad long-term strategic decision.
Authoritarian regimes tend to use energy exports as a tool for leverage in foreign policy. For example, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, several Arab states instituted an oil embargo to deter international support for Israel, leading to the oil crisis of 1973. Today, Putin is taking advantage of Russia’s position as a as an energy supplier to discourage foreign support for Ukraine. In the future, Aliyev may decide to take advantage of Azerbaijan’s energy supply for similar purposes. In fact, Azerbaijan is accused of having deliberately shut off the gas supply in parts of Nagorno-Karabakh in March this year. By choosing to import gas from Azerbaijan, the EU has chosen to postpone its problem of energy dependence rather than seek a comprehensive long-term solution.
In its relations with the EU, the Aliyev regime has already proven to be an unscrupulous partner. In 2018, 13 members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) were expelled from the organization for accept bribes and gifts from Azerbaijan. The draft report on organized crime and corruption revealed that between 2012 and 2014 Azerbaijan had laundered $2.9 billion pay EU politicians. Bribes have been used to allay concerns about Azerbaijan’s human rights record. For example, a senior EU official at PACE received a €500,000 bribe to disrupt a 2013 report on political prisoners in Azerbaijan.
There is also the question of whether turning to Azeri gas would satisfy the basic requirement of being a real alternative to importing from Russia. In February this year, Lukoil increased its share in the Azerbaijani Shah-Deniz gas project for about $1.45 billion, increasing its stake from 10% to 19.99%. Lukoil is Russia’s second largest company, behind energy giant Gazprom. Lukoil’s share in Azerbaijan’s main source of natural gas is now second only to BP. The EU would therefore not be able to completely bypass Russia’s involvement in gas imports from Azerbaijan.
Azeri Gas Alternatives
The gas deal is just one part of a larger puzzle that will need to be put together for the EU to wean itself off Russian energy. Although the jump to 20 billion cubic meters of gas per year is significant, this delivery from Azerbaijan would not be enough to replace Russia entirely. Russian gas exports to individual EU members far exceed the projected amount Azerbaijan will export to the bloc as a whole. Last year, Russia exported 56.2 billion cubic meters to Germany and 29.2 billion to Italy alone.
Given that Azerbaijani gas can only partially replace Russian energy alongside other substitutes, this begs the question: can’t Azerbaijani gas itself be replaced by a better option?
The EU is seeking to increase its cooperation with gas exporters such as Norway, the United States, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, Qatar, Algeria and Egypt. Some of these providers are sensible long-term alternatives to Russia and Azerbaijan, while others pose similar issues.
The EU should also consider alternatives to gas, overall. Renewable energies such as wind, solar and hydropower, as well as nuclear power present the best long-term solutions. They have the added benefit of being better for the environment. The main drawback is the implementation time. In the short to medium term, the EU is likely to continue to seek alternative gas suppliers and possibly increase coal consumptionwhich fell out of favor due to environmental concerns.
A perfect energy solution does not exist. The EU will have to make compromises, be they security, moral, environmental or economic. However, if the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results; then the EU-Azerbaijan gas deal is nonsense. The EU energy crisis is a lesson in the dangers of energy dependence on authoritarian regimes. Brussels should not fail to heed this lesson.