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By Invitation | Russia and Ukraine
Moritz Schularick argues that Germany should immediately cut off Russian gas
The economist and academic says the country can survive more easily than some people think

May 11th 2022


When german diplomats in Brussels recently tried to convince their Hungarian counterparts to sign up to the European Commission’s plan for an embargo on Russian oil, they heard arguments that must have sounded familiar. Until recently, Germany also rejected such calls as unrealistic and economically disruptive. “Geht nicht” (“Can’t do”) was the mantra from the chancellor’s office.

But on April 26th Robert Habeck, Germany’s economy minister, declared that the country could stop all Russian oil imports “within a few days”. What happened? The problem turned out to be less intractable than many had assumed. Mr Habeck’s team had secured alternative supplies of crude for two east German refineries that process Russian oil.

Germany has been too cautious on nearly everything about the Russian attack on Ukraine. It was slow to recognise the imminence of the invasion and slow to fall in line during the debate about excluding Russian banks from swift, an international payment network. It was late in supplying weapons to Ukraine when it mattered most, during the initial Russian attack. And it was slow on oil, until Mr Habeck’s u-turn.

A similar shift may follow when Germany confronts a yet more important decision: what to do about Russian gas. Over the past two decades, Russia won over substantial parts of the German political and business elite with the promise of cheap gas as the basis for the competitiveness of German industry. Close ties to and dependence on Vladimir Putin’s Russia were dismissed by alluding to the success of German “Ostpolitik” since the 1970s. Now as then, economic integration would reduce the risk of confrontation and eventually lead to political rapprochement. In the process, dependence on Russian gas imports increased until they were meeting 55% of Germany’s needs in 2021. That share has dropped to less than 40% this year. Gas is now Russia’s second-biggest source of export revenues.

For now, Germany remains staunchly opposed to imposing an immediate gas embargo. Government talk of “mass poverty” raised the spectre of a major economic downturn should the country lose Russian supplies. In a tight corporatist embrace, industry and unions supported the government’s “can’t do” attitude.

But here, too, the wind is changing. It is increasingly clear that the German economy could weather the shock of an immediate cut-off of Russian gas. Even the government’s most pessimistic scenarios are not far worse than the original 3% drop in output that an international team of researchers (of which I was part) estimated in March. These costs are substantial, not unlike those during the covid-19 pandemic, but would be manageable—especially since Germany has ample fiscal space to compensate workers in energy-intensive industries, such as chemicals and glass production, over the winter. Not pushing for a faster cut-off from Russian gas is a political choice, not an economic one. Yet for now, Berlin sticks to its 2024 target of becoming independent from Russia.

Whether such costs are worth it is for elected politicians to decide. But economics has something to say on the potential trade-offs. To start with, doing nothing also carries considerable costs—not least to Ukrainians in bomb shelters. The flow of gas money allows Mr Putin to press ahead with his war. The longer it lasts, the worse the downgrades to European growth.

It is difficult to quantify what contribution a full energy embargo would make to ending the war. The sanctions imposed on Iranian oil and gas exports in the past decade have crippled Iran’s economy. In Russia’s case, the effect on the state budget would be particularly big. About 40% of Russian government revenues are linked to commodity exports. Although Mr Putin could fix a budgetary hole by printing money, the ensuing inflation could weaken his control over the country and limit his ability to grease allies’ palms.

Yet whatever the exact cost of a gas embargo, it would be far greater for Russia than for Germany. As an open economy Germany, unlike Russia, has access to an insurance mechanism to cushion the effects: trade. Take the example of energy-intensive glass production, a sector that features prominently in the German debate (although it accounts for only about 0.1% of gdp). An interruption of gas supplies in the winter would be bad for German producers. But German consumers of glass could still buy products from other countries—just as they can with energy. The German trade balance would deteriorate, but openness to trade gives the country the ability to import energy indirectly at various points in the value chain. Some particularly energy-intensive industries could face more permanent challenges to maintain domestic production without cheap Russian gas. But this fate is in the cards anyway over the next decade, as the green transformation of the German economy picks up speed.

By contrast, Russia’s gas pipelines mainly go west to Europe. Rerouting gas to Asia is impossible in the short run, especially if sanctions also cover the shipping sector and maritime insurance. Russian liquefied natural gas capacity is limited, as is storage. All of this means the gas must keep flowing. Otherwise Russia will have to burn off the excess gas, or seal the fields. Within a short time, Germany, not Russia, would have the upper hand.

The main risk for Germany is not turning off the Russian gas taps prematurely, but to delay doing so. The summer months offer a chance to pivot away from Russian gas. If German industry is not forced to begin the adjustment soon, Mr Putin will be in an even stronger position come winter. It is time to break with the habit of “geht nicht”, and for the country to step up. ■

Moritz Schularick is a professor of economics at Sciences Po in Paris and the University of Bonn.



最近,当德国驻布鲁塞尔的外交官试图说服他们的匈牙利同行签署欧盟委员会对俄罗斯石油禁运的计划时,他们听到的论点一定听起来很熟悉。直到最近,德国也拒绝了这种呼吁,认为它不现实,而且在经济上具有破坏性。"Geht nicht"("做不到")是总理办公室的口头禅。

但在4月26日,德国经济部长Robert Habeck宣布,该国可以 "在几天内 "停止所有俄罗斯石油的进口。发生了什么?事实证明,这个问题没有许多人想象的那么难解决。哈贝克先生的团队已经为两个加工俄罗斯石油的东德炼油厂获得了替代性原油供应。


当德国面临一个更重要的决定时,可能会出现类似的转变:如何处理俄罗斯的天然气。在过去的二十年里,俄罗斯以廉价天然气作为德国工业竞争力的基础的承诺,赢得了德国政治和商业精英的大量支持。与弗拉基米尔-普京的俄罗斯的密切关系和对其的依赖,被暗指自1970年代以来德国 "东方政策 "的成功而否定。现在和当时一样,经济一体化将减少对抗的风险,并最终导致政治上的缓和。在这个过程中,对俄罗斯天然气进口的依赖性增加,直到2021年满足德国55%的需求。今年,这一比例已降至40%以下。天然气现在是俄罗斯的第二大出口收入来源。

目前,德国仍然坚定地反对立即实施天然气禁运。政府关于 "大规模贫困 "的谈话提出了如果该国失去俄罗斯的供应,将出现重大经济衰退的担忧。在企业主义的紧密怀抱中,工业界和工会支持政府的 "不能做 "的态度。






德国的主要风险不是过早地关闭俄罗斯的天然气龙头,而是推迟这样做。夏季提供了一个脱离俄罗斯天然气的机会。如果德国工业界不被迫尽快开始调整,普京先生将在冬季到来时处于更加有利的地位。现在是时候打破 "geht nicht "的习惯了,国家应该站出来了。■

Moritz Schularick是巴黎政治学院和波恩大学的经济学教授。
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