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What could make Russia turn its energy sector into a weapon?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How much power can Russia wield using its natural gas? Russia supplies gas to Western European countries, including Germany. The gas goes to some of the same nations now confronting Russia over Ukraine. NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam asked how concerned NATO leaders need to be.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Through many turbulent times over the years between Western Europe and the Soviet Union, one thing remained constant.

KRISTINE BERZINA: Even at the worst times of the Cold War and in high tensions, Russia continued to deliver gas.

NORTHAM: Kristine Berzina is head of geopolitics at the German Marshall Fund. She says Russia and Europe have an unspoken compact when it comes to natural gas.

BERZINA: Many argue that the gas dimension, the gas relationship, is not political. It is a commercial relationship that is important to both sides, and many don't believe that anything could fracture that.

NORTHAM: But that certainly is being tested during the current crisis over Ukraine. The flow of natural gas could be collateral damage if the U.S. further sanctions Russia.

David Goldwyn with the energy advisory firm Goldwyn Global Strategies says Russia's already been constraining gas supply to Europeans to prevent them from keeping their storage tanks full in the event of a crisis.

DAVID GOLDWYN: And in the typical Russian fashion, they did it in a way that they couldn't be accused of breaching any of their commercial relations, but still managed to give a strong reminder to Germany, in particular, and the rest of Europe just how dependent they were on Russian gas. They're no fools.

NORTHAM: Russia supplies about one-third of Europe's natural gas to run factories and heat homes during the winter. Europe's economy could get walloped if Putin turns off the tap. If Putin were to do it, now would be the time. Russia's sitting on $630 billion in reserves, and gas and oil prices are high. But Russia is also dependent on the European market, where it sells nearly three-quarters of its gas. Henning Gloystein, director of energy at the Eurasia Group, says there could be long-term implications for cutting Europe off.

HENNING GLOYSTEIN: There would be an immediate, concerted effort by the European Union to permanently reduce gas reliance on Russia, which obviously won't solve the problem this winter. But over the next two years, that would have pretty strong consequences.

NORTHAM: Gloystein says the opening of Nord Stream 2, the multibillion-dollar pipeline from Russia to Germany, could be canceled immediately, as well. And he says it's not like Russia can just redirect and sell that gas to energy-hungry countries like China.

GLOYSTEIN: The pipeline from Russia to China isn't big enough. So that would take many years to fully redirect - maybe even decades. And, of course, China will look at this as well, and say, well, you know, what if our political relationship with Russia breaks down and they stop sending us their gas?

NORTHAM: In the meantime, at sea, there's an armada carrying liquefied natural gas heading to Europe from Asia, North Africa and elsewhere. And there are just a couple cold winter months left this year where homes need to be heated. After that, Putin loses a lot of leverage if he wants to weaponize natural gas during the crisis over Ukraine.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEST PESSIMIST'S "FUTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.