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By Paul Krugman
Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. Since then, Russia has launched four great offensives. Three were military; the fourth was economic. And while you don’t hear much about that last offensive, its failure offers some very important lessons.
Everyone knows about the first military offensive: the attempted blitzkrieg that was supposed to seize Kyiv and other major Ukrainian cities in a matter of days. Many observers — especially, but not only, Western right-wingers who fetishized the perceived prowess of Russia’s un-woke military — expected this blitzkrieg to succeed. Instead, it turned into an epic defeat: Stalled by a dogged Ukrainian defense, the Russians eventually retreated after suffering huge losses.
The second offensive was more limited in scope: a spring attack on eastern Ukraine. Here again, many observers expected a decisive Russian victory, perhaps the encirclement of much of Ukraine’s army. And the Russians did make some advances thanks to overwhelming artillery superiority. But this offensive stalled once Ukraine acquired Western precision weapons, especially the now famous HIMARS, which wreaked havoc on Russian rear areas. And Ukraine was eventually able to launch counterattacks that regained significant ground, notably retaking Kherson.
The third Russian offensive, a winter attack in the Donbas region, is still underway, and it’s possible that Ukraine may choose to pull out of the embattled city of Bakhmut, a place of little strategic importance that has nonetheless become the scene of incredibly bloody fighting. But most observers I read view the enterprise as a whole as yet another strategic failure.
In some ways, though, Russia’s most important defeat has come not on the battlefield but on the economic front. I said that Russia has launched four great offensives; the fourth was the attempt to blackmail European democracies into dropping their support for Ukraine by cutting off their supplies of natural gas.
There were reasons to be concerned about this attempt to weaponize energy supplies. While the Russian invasion of Ukraine initially disrupted markets for several commodities — Russia is a major oil producer, and both Russia and Ukraine were major agricultural exporters before the war — natural gas seemed like an especially serious pressure point. Why? Because it isn’t really traded on a global market. The cheapest way to ship gas is via pipelines, and it wasn’t obvious how Europe would replace Russian gas if the supply were cut off.
So many people, myself included, worried about the effects of a de facto Russian gas embargo. Would it cause a European recession? Would hard times in Europe undermine willingness to keep aiding Ukraine?
Well, the big story — a story that hasn’t received much play in the news media, because it’s hard to report on things that didn’t happen — is that Europe has weathered the loss of Russian supplies remarkably well. Euro area unemployment hasn’t gone up at all; inflation did surge, but European governments have managed, through a combination of price controls and financial aid, to limit (but not eliminate) the amount of personal hardship created by high gas prices.
And Europe has managed to keep functioning despite the cutoff of most Russian gas. Partly this reflects a turn to other sources of gas, including liquefied natural gas shipped from the United States; partly it reflects conservation efforts that have reduced demand. Some of it reflects a temporary return to coal-fired electricity generation; much of it reflects the fact that Europe already gets a large share of its energy from renewables.
And yes, it was an unusually warm winter, which also helped. But the bottom line, as a report from the European Council on Foreign Relations puts it, is that “Moscow failed in its effort to blackmail E.U. member states through withholding gas.” Indeed, Europe has stepped up its military aid to Ukraine, notably by sending main battle tanks that may help the coming Ukrainian counteroffensive.
So what can we learn from the failure of Russia’s energy offensive?
First, Russia looks more than ever like a Potemkin superpower, with little behind its impressive facade. Its much vaunted military is far less effective than advertised; now its role as an energy supplier is proving much harder to weaponize than many imagined.
Second, democracies are showing, as they have many times in the past, that they are much tougher, much harder to intimidate, than they look.
Finally, modern economies are far more flexible, far more able to cope with change, than some vested interests would have us believe.
For as long as I can remember, fossil-fuel lobbyists and their political supporters have insisted that any attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would be disastrous for jobs and economic growth. But what we’re seeing now is Europe making an energy transition under the worst possible circumstances — sudden, unexpected and drastic — and handling it pretty well. This suggests that a gradual, planned green energy transition would be far easier than pessimists imagine.
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