Ukraine Crisis and Energy Risk 
  • Russia's intervention in the Crimean Peninsula poses few risks to Europe's energy supplies, but escalation or Western sanctions could change that assessment.
  • If the crisis expanded to mainland Ukraine, the integrity of that country's pipelines and the natural gas they carry to EU members would be the most immediate energy concern.

Although Ukraine's energy assets don't appear to be a major focus of Russia's occupation of the Crimean peninsula, any escalation of the crisis could have serious energy consequences, regionally and globally. The initial reaction of energy markets has been cautious, with Monday's jump of around 2% for Brent crude and nearly 10% for European gas futures largely erased in Tuesday's trading. While some of Russia's oil exports to Europe transit through Ukraine, the latter's natural gas pipelines are the bigger worry, especially in light of Russia's past use of the "gas weapon."

It's always dicey commenting on an unfolding event of this magnitude, which various observers have nominated as the most serious geopolitical crisis in post-Cold War Europe. I've spent the last few days following developments, listening to conference calls, and speaking with a Russia expert of my acquaintance. Dismissing the current events as out of tune with the 21st century ignores the complex history of a region that has seen multiple episodes of great-power conflict, just as trying to impose a Western mindset on President Putin's intentions is likely to come up short.

His latest reported comments suggest that he may have achieved his initial goals, at least insofar as giving him, rather than the new government in Kiev, control over Russia's access to the strategic Black Sea naval installations. Any broader goals are unclear at this point, and as a military expert highlighted in a media call hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations, the current confrontation in Crimea runs the risk of "unintended escalation." Wars have started this way.

So what's at stake, in energy terms? An infographic from Business Insider puts the gas situation in perspective. Russia's share of Europe's gas supply has fallen to 22% as EU members diversified their sources of supply in the aftermath of past interruptions in Russian gas deliveries. Still, roughly two-thirds of Russian gas sent to the EU passes through Ukraine's territory, and the pipelines that transit Belarus and the Baltic Sea lack sufficient capacity to reroute the entire volume should Ukraine's pipelines be disrupted.

Whether that occurred as an intentional reaction by Russia to steps that the US and EU are considering in response to its intervention in Crimea, or as a result of armed conflict in mainland Ukraine, natural gas prices in Europe would spike, even with ample gas in storage after a relatively warm winter. That would adversely affect EU economies still recovering from recession and the EU's financial crisis.

European natural gas prices are already much higher than those in the US, and any further increase would ratchet up the pressure on the EU's manufacturing sector. Nor is there nearly as much LNG available globally to make up any shortfall as there will be in just a few years, once US exports gear up and several large Australian LNG projects come onstream. Ironically, Ukraine is building its own LNG import facility to diversity its supplies--luckily not sited in Crimea.

The threat to oil deliveries seems less acute, short of an embargo that would hurt Russia as much as its customers. In 2012 Russia exported around 6 million barrels per day of oil and condensate to European refineries by various routes, including the southern leg of the Druzhba pipeline that crosses Ukraine on its way to the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. While a disruption of this flow could force refiners in those countries to scramble for alternative supplies, Russian oil would probably still find its way to world markets via other routes, including to the Baltic ports. Ensuing world oil price increases would likelier reflect an overall risk premium than a more localized physical shortfall.

Even if the situation doesn't progress beyond its current state, longer-term energy impacts could still follow. These include a recognition of heightened political risk for investments in Russia and its "near abroad" neighbors, along with the results of any financial sanctions that might be imposed.

If Mr. Putin is satisfied to engineer greater Crimean autonomy or independence from a more EU-oriented government in Kiev, and if the EU/US response is limited to financial measures to prop up that government, then the consequences--similar to those for Russia's ongoing occupation of part of Georgia--could be minimal. The EU can't go any farther than Germany will support, and thanks to the Nordstream gas pipeline led by its former Chancellor, Germany has less at stake in Ukraine than some of its neighbors. It has already distanced itself from suggestions of evicting Russia from the G8 group of nations. In that context, the US administration seems unlikely to sustain a harder line than Brussels.

Photo Credit: Ukraine and Energy Risk/shutterstock