The Ukraine crisis, with its obvious energy dimensions, has also raised the question as to NATO’s role in energy security. According to the pundits, that role is either dangerously big or dangerously small. The past weeks have offered instructive examples of both views. On 21 August the German TV magazine “Monitor” broadcast a report that linked the Ukraine crisis to an alleged NATO strategy of gaining unrestrained access to energy resources along Russia’s periphery. Referring to “NATO’s strategy”, but quoting only non-NATO documents, the authors tried desperately to demonstrate that NATO was following a sinister geopolitical design. Yet the story remained unconvincing: in NATO’s enlargement and partnership policies energy considerations have never been a major driver.
The opposite view, namely that NATO was not doing enough in energy security, was advanced by the “Financial Times”. In a blog published on 24 August, Nick Butler warned that NATO was not taking the issue seriously enough. Yet in attempting to devise a broader energy security agenda for NATO, Butler struggled. For NATO to suggest “remedial actions” to its member states on energy diversification and gas storage goes way beyond the organization’s remit. And when he argued that the EU could not produce a “blunt” energy risk assessment because many member states were too much tied to Russian business, one wondered why NATO would be able to succeed in this endeavor, given that most member states are the same as the EU’s. In short, Butler’s suggested energy agenda would overtax NATO.
The confusion about NATO’s role in energy security is in part due to the genesis of this subject. Energy security entered NATO’s agenda only after the Russian-Ukrainian gas dispute of 2006, and only after considerable debate among Allies. As NATO is not an energy institution, and as no one wants to militarize that subject, it took several years until a coherent agenda and corresponding narrative emerged. But emerged it has. Indeed, the one “bland paragraph” (Butler) in NATO’s recent Wales Summit Declaration captures quite well the three main strands of the Alliance’s work in energy security.
Maintaining Strategic Awareness
The US shale gas and oil “revolution” and growing volumes of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) shipped worldwide are a boon for the energy security of some NATO Allies. However, the increasing share of energy supplies shipped by sea raises new maritime security concerns. Falling oil and gas prices, in turn, could affect many non-NATO energy suppliers, including Russia. Maintaining strategic awareness of energy developments and their security implications is therefore part and parcel of NATO’s energy security agenda. This includes political consultations, intelligence-sharing, and in-house analyses of how energy developments could impact on NATO’s policies and operations. It also includes discussions with NATO’s partner nations, some of which are energy producers or transit countries.
Contributing to the protection of critical energy infrastructure
As protecting energy infrastructure is primarily a national responsibility, NATO’s role is mostly indirect: it centres on facilitating the sharing of best practices on the protection of critical energy infrastructure, among experts from Allied as well as from partner countries. These discussions benefit from NATO’s longstanding expertise in crisis and consequence management, civil emergency planning, and its links to the private sector. Another contribution by NATO is its ability to ensure the security of critical sea lanes, as in the case of its counter-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden.
Enhancing energy efficiency in the military
Several NATO member nations are examining ways to reduce their dependence on traditional fuels and shrink their logistics and environmental footprint. NATO seeks to bring scattered national efforts together, with a view to sharing knowledge on promising technologies (e.g. smart grids in deployable camps, fuel cells) and agreeing common standards to enhance Allied interoperability. To ensure that energy efficiency is fully understood and applied throughout NATO’s militaries, it needs to be reflected in NATO’s training and education efforts. The NATO Energy Security Centre of Excellence in Lithuania is playing a leading role in this regard.
The years ahead are likely to see a greater effort in training and education, a more frequent incorporation of energy considerations in NATO’s exercise scenarios, and the emergence of energy efficiency standards in certain types of military equipment. Admittedly, not headline-grabbing stuff, but such steps achieve what matters most: to ensure that NATO keeps an eye on energy developments and their security implications. In a globalized world, NATO cannot afford a blind spot.
Dr. Michael Rühle is Head of the Energy Security Section of NATO’s Emerging Security Challenges Division. The article reflects his personal views only.