X Close

Putin has enabled Ukrainian nationhood We are entering a new era of energy nationalism

Putin visits the oil port of Kozmino (Konstantin Zavrazhin/Getty Images)

Putin visits the oil port of Kozmino (Konstantin Zavrazhin/Getty Images)


November 9, 2023   6 mins

In the early hours of 24 February 2022, Russian troops entered Ukraine. Later that day, the Russian navy captured Snake Island in Ukraine’s Black Sea waters. When the news broke, oil and European gas prices soared. The war that began, and continues to this day, has remade the continent of Europe, forcing European leaders to face the meaning of Ukraine’s national independence and accept Russia as a geopolitical antagonist rather than a critical energy supplier.

This realignment was most profound in the country that sits at modern Europe’s heart. In the event of the invasion, the stakes for Germany involved not only one unopened pipeline — the already-controversial Nord Stream 2 — but its 50-year commitment to rapprochement with Moscow. Within 72 hours, Chancellor Olaf Scholz promised to send German weapons to Ukraine, establish a €100 billion fund to increase military expenditure, and end energy dependency on Russia by opening the country to sea-borne gas. Since Putin had, Scholz told the German parliament, “demolish[ed] the European security order that had prevailed for almost half a century since the Helsinki Final Act” in 1975, everything had changed. “We are,” Scholz said, “living through a watershed era [eine Zeitenwende] 
 mean[ing] that the world afterwards will no longer be the same as the world before.”

In part the German chancellor was right. But Scholz’s version of why European history fractured in February 2022 also distorts reality. Self-evidently, the European security order before Russia’s war was nothing like the one that prevailed in the mid-Seventies: six new European states stood in the former western Soviet Union. Having no prior history of peacetime independence, Ukraine’s emergence in 1991 as Europe’s largest territorial state had constituted an extraordinary change.

But the new Ukrainian nation-state was always geopolitically precarious. Since at least 2009, Putin had openly denied the legitimacy of its existence. In the treaties Ukraine signed with Moscow during the Nineties, it ceded Russian military rights in Crimea. Then, in 2014, it lost the Crimean peninsula and entered a war against Russian-backed separatist rebels in the south-east of the country. If Russia’s invasion severed the present from the past, the shock was the scale of suffering Putin was willing to inflict to destroy Ukraine’s viability as an independent state, amplified by the chasm between the size of his initial ambition to seize power in Kyiv and a military mobilisation entirely inadequate to the task.

The unintended consequence for Europe is now clear: the emergence of a largely unified nation-state-in-arms with a pressing claim for EU membership that will prove hard to realise without concurrent Nato entry. Regardless of Ukraine’s prospects for entering either association with any alacrity, Ukraine’s resilience against Russia has rendered Ukrainian nationhood a crucial geopolitical fact. In a 1984 essay, the Czech novelist Milan Kundera wrote that the Ukrainian nation, “one of the great European nations
 is slowly disappearing. And this enormous, almost unbelievable event is occurring without the world realising it”. Ukraine’s independence seven years afterwards only partly introduced western Europeans to Ukrainian history. But, by trying to eliminate Ukrainian nationhood, Putin has instead ensured that it has become a permanent feature of Europe with which the EU must grapple.

The post-Cold War EU relied on a measure of German-Russian reconciliation to allow for German reunification even as the eastern European states had only just successfully asserted their nationhood against the Soviet version of the imperial Russian empire. Thereafter, the Holocaust, as an end point for German nationalism and the catastrophic culmination of decades of ethnic division in eastern Europe, became pivotal to the imaginative construction of the idea of European unity. By contrast, in 2022, a state subject to the simultaneous experience of the Holocaust and Soviet mid-20th century terror became an official candidate for EU membership by fighting a defensive war for its territorial national sovereignty.

In doing so, it claimed the right to nation-build, including by suppressing minority languages in the public sphere. No aspect of this experience sits easily with the notion of the post-Maastricht EU as a post-national and peace-oriented construction. An EU that admits Ukraine as a war-formed nation-state would necessarily become a different kind of entity, one that could not be rhetorically legitimated without a new narrative about its historical purpose partially grounded in Russia’s existence as a geopolitical opponent. In Berlin and Paris, an EU with such a relationship to Europe’s resource-rich, continental-size neighbour would indeed belong to a Zeitenwende.

The existential question of Europe’s energy supply triggered by Russia’s war also raises profound questions around nationhood across the rest of Europe. As they opposed Russia in ways that jeopardised their immediate energy security, European governments resuscitated the narrative of energy sacrifice once deployed by Jimmy Carter: reduce your energy usage for the greater good. In spring 2022, the Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, asked: “Do we want to have peace or do you want to have the air conditioning on?”

But the ghost of Carter’s political failure lingered. Palpably fearing a democratic rebellion on energy, European politicians did not ask citizens to endure too much economic pain in the name of any claim to political community — whether that community be the nation, Europe, or a democratic West. Throwing fiscal caution to the wind, European governments subsidised household fuel bills and some, notably the British and French, still faced a wave of strikes. None appeared to show qualms about European companies buying spot-market LNG already contracted to Pakistan. In Italy, Draghi’s government fell in July 2022 after Five-Star withdrew its support, charging that the former ECB president was prioritising Ukraine over reducing energy prices. Tellingly, when the subsequent general election once again saw the party uncompromised by technocratic and grand coalition politics win the largest number of seats — this time the Brothers of Italy — its leader, Giorgia Meloni, was allowed to become prime minister.

By contrast, reducing energy consumption in the name of lowering carbon emissions remained off-limits. Instead, in making a new case for the energy transition, the war emergency encouraged further the idea that economic transformation could recreate the cross-class interest in national manufacturing production lost from the Seventies. Yet the prospects for realising this ambition were much more propitious across the Atlantic. With the Inflation Reduction Act, passed in August 2022, American climate policy near explicitly became a political bulwark against another 2016-style shock where Trump or a Trump-style candidate again won by appealing to the losers of American deindustrialisation. In contrast to its New Deal predecessor, this federal intervention is explicitly racially inclusive in its conception of nationhood. Indeed, for the Biden administration, it is an act of reparation for the restrictive American nationhood of the past as well as an attempt at restoring the New Deal-originating idea of economic nationhood.

Whether by reshoring manufacturing production it can succeed on its own terms is open to question. But the fact that the United States under Democratic Party rule in 2022 entered the same political space European governments had already sought to occupy in 2019 with their Net Zero 2050 commitments now constrains European ambitions. The American move establishes a competitive geopolitical contest between Western countries around using energy change to rebuild nationhood in which European states and the EU are disadvantaged by higher fossil-fuel energy costs and American financial power. Already the failure of Boris Johnson’s government, which bet its post-Brexit “levelling-up agenda” on investment in low-carbon sectors, testifies to the problem.

With the Inflation Reduction Act, the stakes for Britain in securing a post-Brexit free-trade agreement with the United States are now quite possibly high enough to force a future choice between British companies’ presence in US-centred low-carbon supply chains and the domestic burden of accepting Washington’s trade terms. Even in the United States, reconfiguring energy production towards national self-sufficiency cannot happen quickly enough to be democratically transformative. As a response to Trump’s 2016 insurgency candidacy, this project leaves the border and citizenship issues untouched. In betting on rapidly building a low-carbon America, the Biden administration has also left itself open to the charge that it is subordinating present energy needs to an unrealisable, future-oriented project to the benefit of those corporations that procure the available subsidies.

Here, the fundamental problems that the energy transition presents have not shifted. Of the transformative forces unleashed by Russia’s war, game-changing technological breakthroughs of the kind necessary for a low-carbon energy future, especially on the storage of electricity, was not one. Following hard on the 2021 China gas shock, the energy trade disruption caused by Russia’s war, meanwhile, intensified the separate problem of the energy present. The 2022 crisis demonstrated just how politically hard it is for European politicians to reduce the expectations for consumption formed in a prior geopolitical era, or ask their citizens to engage with the energy poverty of people in many non-Western parts of the world.

If Russia’s war has changed the prior democratic predicaments around energy, it is by spreading energy consciousness, including letting loose the spectre of future energy scarcity in polities premised on energy abundance. Where, in the West, energy consciousness was acute for those exercising power but often weak among citizens, the war means these citizens now better understand their material aspirations and fears as energy demands and anxieties. They do so at a time when Western democracies generally have still not recovered from the blows delivered by the 2008 crash — even without a new round of bank interventions in March 2023 — and when in France violent street protest has become a persistent feature of expressed discontent.

In principle, greater energy consciousness could loosen the technocratic logic behind the original European formulation of realising an energy revolution by 2050. But it is more likely to expose the chasm between the interests everyone shares in facing climate change and the inequalities that will come from electrifying personal transport and that are always generated by high fossil-fuel prices. In this future, energy will not be a subterranean source of political disorder, as in the first two decades of the 21st century, but the principal currency of it.

 

This is an edited extract from the paperback of Disorder, (Oxford University Press) by Helen Thompson.


Helen Thompson is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Cambridge and co-presenter of UnHerd’s These Times.

HelenHet20

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

27 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ted Miller
Ted Miller
6 months ago

I really don’t follow the logic of this article, at all.
Ukraine is losing this war, badly and this has very serious consequences.
So much commentary about Ukraine is based in a delusional refusal to concede the battlefield facts; Ukraine has precisely as much chance of beating/resisting Russia than Mexico could beat the USA.
Ukraine will be lucky to emerge from this conflict with 50% of its pre-invasion territory and, if all Black Sea access is lost, its future is very bleak; a rump and impoverished, failed state.

Alexander Dryburgh
Alexander Dryburgh
6 months ago
Reply to  Ted Miller

Agree. Ukraine was well on its way to be a failed state long before the Russians crossed the border. Its population had fallen from close to 50 million at independence in 1991 to near 40 million by 2020. That was the result of endemic corruption piled on top of ethnic strife arising from a very large Russian speaking minority. Since the outset of the conflict 6-8 million have fled the country many of whom will never return.
Onto this stage steps Volodomyr Zelensky a political and diplomatic novice whose inner circle will come from his entertainment production company. In the late summer of 2021 he finds himself in Joe Biden’s Oval Office. Two months later Ukraine and the U.S sign the U.S./Ukraine Strategic Partnership in Washington. Many observers believe it is a further green light for Ukraine’s NATO membership. Robert Service, the eminent Russian history scholar at Oxford calls it the “biggest blunder in post-Soviet relations with Russia”.
A month later (December 2021), the Russians write the Biden administration requesting that NATO membership for Ukraine be ruled out. In January 2022 Secretary of State Blinken replies “absolutely not”. We all are fully aware of what followed in February of that year. Strangely in March 22 and a month after the invasion Zelensky offers Ukrainian neutrality. Was he not speaking with Blinken in January?
So the Ukrainians are fighting a war that most serious military analysts believe they can’t win and it may go on for years. Meanwhile the corruption goes on unabated. Just weeks ago and in the midst of a war of existential proportions the Defence Minister and a handful of his deputy ministers are fired for corruption.
A total disaster that will leave Ukraine a shattered shell of its former self.

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago

Absolutely bang on target both Ted & Alex. 

We’ll see how much of Ukraine is left for them to enjoy this nationhood in when the conflict ends. That decision won’t be up to them, it won’t be up to the West – it will be up to Russia. They have the munitions, they have the industrial base and they almost certainly have the will. Even if there weren’t strategic and economic considerations involved in taking more land (especially along the Black Sea coast), they’re as susceptible to sunk-cost motivations as anyone else. They also have a rather sceptical view of the West’s honest-brokery now given Hollande & Merkel’s admissions about the Minsk Process and decide that holding land is a better guarantee than promises – written or otherwise. 

Otherwise Professor Thompsons ‘political economy’ seems rather light-weight (although it may be more fully developed elsewhere in her book). Here’s a couple of issues that she really needs to investigate IMHO:

The energy transformation that has taken place since the Russian invasion hasn’t been from Russian gas to renewables, it has been from Russian gas to US LPG (it’s an ill wind and all that). Does she think that may have been a factor in the genesis of this conflict? 

Regarding de-industrialisation, we’ll see how Germany performs now it’s sanctioned itself from Russians cheap gas. 

And there’s the rather large Elephant (Eagle) in the room of how the Ukraine is choosing, or will choose, to express their nationhood. If their marching, street-naming, tatoo-favouring and badge-wearing is anything to go by, that might not be very palettable to us in the West. 

As Thomas Fazi has pointed out elsewhere around here – this really did not need to happen. The peace talks in March of last year offered a viable off-ramp (as Thomas Fazi has pointed out elsewhere here). There were plenty of other off-ramps available prior to this too. 

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Minor points, but LNG not LPG, and very dirty lignite and soft bituminous coal have also been substitutes for Russian piped NG.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

The off-ramp was of course sabotaged when Biden sent Boris as his messenger to Zelensky with the message: ‘Under no circumstances are you to agree to the peace deal, you are going to fight to the last Ukrainian…..and we’re right behind you.’

Kathy Hayman
Kathy Hayman
5 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Glad you are able to articulate this response clearly. I didn’t have the patience to read all the piece from Prof Thompson, but from the gist it seems there were many salient facts overlooked or not deemed important enough to mention. The horrific and unnecessary loss of life and mass refugee crisis of Ukraine should be a massive stain on Zelensky and Nuland, Blinken and Biden for ever more

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago

Just re-read the article and this rather stood out: 

“The post-Cold War EU relied on a measure of German-Russian reconciliation to allow for German reunification even as the eastern European states had only just successfully asserted their nationhood against the Soviet version of the imperial Russian empire. T “

That’s one way of putting it I suppose, but it misses something of the nuance – and by that I mean the well documented promises made by the West not to move NATO ‘one inch’ Westwards. That and the repeated warnings from all sorts of people over thirty years that doing so for Ukraine was the thickest of red-lines for the Russians. What the EU relied upon seems rather inconsequential in this respect, given that it’s NATO members apparently didn’t care about this.  

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Totally agree but I think you meant “not to move NATO one inch Eastward”

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

Oops – you’re quite right – thanks.

Kathy Hayman
Kathy Hayman
5 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

I think you mean ‘one inch eastwards’

Ira Perman
Ira Perman
6 months ago

Eventual negotiations will leave Ukraine sovereign over land west of the Dneiper River, Russia annexing what it already occupies and a wide demilitarized area in between.

D Walsh
D Walsh
6 months ago
Reply to  Ira Perman

You might be right IP

But I think the Russians want to land lock the Ukraine and take Odessa too

I’m not even sure if there will be negotiations, the Russians may just impose their will on the Ukrainians

El Uro
El Uro
6 months ago
Reply to  Ted Miller

In principle I agree with you. It is thanks to you and those who support you here that Britain will turn into a Caliphate in the next 10-15 years. You deserve this future

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
6 months ago

Or, when faced with energy poverty, angry populations will vote out the technocrats and carbon footprint obsessed elites that caused it and vote for anyone who promises to change course. Democratic society can tolerate a great deal of inequality if resources are abundant, Kennedy’s ‘rising tide that lifts all boats’. That same inequality will quickly become unsustainable if the common folk are asked to endure hardships that the elites are able to use their wealth and power to escape. We’ve already witnessed the level of rage that resulted from politicians flouting COVID rules. It could get a lot worse. No surprise the riots are already starting in France. The French do love their revolutions.
Decarbonization is a colossal waste of time. Even if the west does it, the rest of the world won’t, especially China and India. There is no hope of stopping the burning of fossil fuels without a truly dramatic technological breakthrough that simply does not look likely in the near to medium term future. What we should be doing is preparing for climate change and getting ready to adapt as quickly and efficiently as possible to changing weather patterns and conditions.

Last edited 6 months ago by Steve Jolly
El Uro
El Uro
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

What about nuclear power plants?

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
6 months ago
Reply to  El Uro

I enthusiastically support nuclear energy.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
6 months ago

I’m not trying to be a jerk, but I found this essay difficult to read. I really enjoy Helen’s podcast and she is clearly well informed, but she writes like a university professor.

Ian Johnston
Ian Johnston
6 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I agree. OTOH, her New Statesman essays have generally been very easy to read.

Different proof-readers/editors, I guess ?

Wim de Vriend
Wim de Vriend
6 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Yes. Very dense, full of cliches, and it reads like a condensation very poorly done.
That said, I would NOT write off Ukraine’s chances of winning this, or at least coming out of it better than the Russians. Many wars have ups and downs, stagnant periods and surprising breakthroughs.
BUT — if European governments adopt the pessimism of the Chamberlains on this page and quit aiding Ukraine, that country will be done for. If that should happen, Putin will happily return to the pattern set by Hitler and set his sights on other additions to his realm: The three Baltic states, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland …

Last edited 6 months ago by Wim de Vriend
Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
6 months ago

If the level of silliness is multiplied by word count, this may be the all-time champion.

NATO, led by the US and its UK sidekick, took what could and should have been a long term constructive relationship with Russia and, by overtly taking steps to undermine Russia’s defense perimeter and political stability, despite Russia’s numerous protests and warnings, turned Russia into a strategic adversary. And drove it into alignment with China and Iran, for good measure.

The whole green energy thing is a crock, in any case, and despite all the efforts of the ruling oligarchy to grift off it, is beginning to wobble in the face of physical reality.

It is really hard to parse this article in any way that produces useful points that are consistent with reality.

Last edited 6 months ago by Martin Johnson
Francisco Menezes
Francisco Menezes
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin Johnson

Bravo!!

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin Johnson

Was your first sentence a comment on the article or a warning to the reader of your comment?

Ira Perman
Ira Perman
6 months ago

Lost me on this one. Unconvincing.

At any rate Ukraine has lost the war: It will not regain the land that Russia took.

Iris C
Iris C
6 months ago

This war may very well have been avoided if the EU countries had said (as they said later) that they would not agree to Ukraine becoming a member of NATO.
Russia wanted an assurance that this large, economically viable country on its border would remain neutral. The USA refused to give that assurance and the EU hierarchy said nothing, until it was too late.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
6 months ago
Reply to  Iris C

Yes, Ukraine is economically viable in the same way as Nigeria; inherently wealthy except for the rampant corruption.
Regrettably it’s a basket case US colony unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future.

El Uro
El Uro
6 months ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

I don’t really understand the level of intelligence or even the presence of it among people who believe that Ukraine, due to its corruption, should be captured by an absolutely corrupt mafia state like Russia.

Sensible Citizen
Sensible Citizen
3 months ago

Ukraine is a nation of homeless widows and amputees, thanks to the American CIA, the evil Victoria Nuland, and thousands of cheerleading ghouls in the global media. Blackrock and the defense industry will do quite well, standing on a mountain of dead Ukrainian boys. They are all just kidding about Russia by the way. There is money to be made on all that oil and gas and when Russia and Germany kiss and make up, Putin will once again become a theoretical enemy and a critical cog in the EU economy.