Commentary: Next frontier of Russian meddling: energy intimidation

By: Doug Lute

This commentary originally appeared in The Hill, August 28, 2018.

Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections is now largely beyond debate. But this focus is too limited in scale and too narrow in scope. This is more than just a challenge to American elections. Russia has interfered repeatedly with democracies in Europe, including a number of our NATO allies. Putin has used cyberattacks, misinformation campaigns and support for rightist parties. He even attempted an overthrow of the government in Montenegro as they approached a national decision to join NATO.  

Another key vulnerability for many in Europe is their dependence on Russian energy, particularly natural gas. While Putin has yet to play this card beyond Ukraine, energy intimidation must be a national security concern among many of our NATO allies. In July, NATO leaders met in Brussels and reaffirmed the role that energy security plays in the common security of the alliance.

 

The European Union, which includes most of our NATO allies, gets about 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia. While Germany has been critiqued for importing about a third of its gas from Russia, allies in Lithuania and Estonia are 100 percent dependent on Russian gas. Concerns increase as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline would increase Russian imports to Europe. If Russia decided to manipulate these energy streams, or even intimidate by threatening to do so, it could cripple the European allies.

NATO is alert to this vulnerability, reaffirming during the recent summit that “it is essential to ensure that the members of the Alliance are not vulnerable to political or coercive manipulation of energy, which constitutes a potential threat.”

Given the dependence of our European allies on Russian energy, it is in U.S. national security interest to reduce Russian potential for influence by diversifying gas sources to Europe. U.S. liquid natural gas (LNG) production has nearly doubled since 2010 and exports of LNG quadrupled in 2017, with exports to Europe accounting for the third-largest share. This is a big step in the right direction as Europe seeks to diversify its energy sources. 

While the U.S. itself remains a massive consumer of LNG, production is expected to grow 59 percent between 2017 and 2050, increasing further the capability of the U.S. to export LNG to our allies. This is, of course, dependent upon adequate infrastructure for exporting and importing LNG, but the U.S. has opened two export terminals since 2016, with four more on the way. On the European continent there are now 28 LNG import terminals, with 22 more terminals planned or under consideration. 

The first tankers carrying U.S. LNG docked at Polish and Lithuanian terminals last year, and we can expect this to increase. This is a classic case where U.S. security interests and economic interests are mutually supportive.  

While expanding American LNG exports to Europe will help, other vulnerabilities remain for energy security. For example, cyberattacks can wreak havoc on energy infrastructure and some critics claim that American LNG companies face particular vulnerabilities. Cyber experts agree that any activity reliant on the internet can be at risk and must be protected. All forms of energy infrastructure face this challenge. As Professor Chris Bronk, an expert in computer and information systems at the University of Houston, recently told Reuters: “coal plants, train deliveries and transmission systems are just as susceptible to hackers as gas pipelines… [and] the stakes involved in a successful nuclear cyber attack are enormous.” 

The U.S. LNG industry takes responsible steps on cyber security. In line with new guidance from the Department of Homeland Security, the LNG industry orients its cybersecurity to the national standards and implements cybersecurity programs based on established best practices, including following the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Cybersecurity Framework, and sharing information through the Oil and Natural Gas Information Sharing and Analysis Center (ONG-ISAC). While there is no perfect cybersecurity, such steps reduce the risk as we expand LNG production.

Energy security is national security. This means reducing the dependence of our European allies on Russian energy.  It is in the national interest of the U.S. to stand with our allies to do all that we can to help diversify their energy sources, and increased U.S. LNG export capacity provides the means to do so.

Douglas Lute was the U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2013 to 2017. He is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University, and president of Cambridge Global Advisors, a consulting firm with a special focus on national security, and experience at the global, national, state and local levels.