The Reality of Energy Vulnerability for NATO

May 30, 2022

As repercussions of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continue to grow, we recognize that these tensions are, ironically, dangerously intertwined with energy security and complicated by climate change.


A renewed sense of global urgency has taken hold as a result of current tensions that were originally latent from their original manifestation in 2014 with the occupation of various Ukrainian territories by perceived separatist groups, then subsequently confirmed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February of this year. In parallel, society continues progressing forward regarding energy and technologies, at times in detriment to our environment. As such, it is unquestionable that, although the current geopolitical situation may resemble that of many decades ago, the NATO alliance certainly faces new issues. 


One problem that will only aggravate over time is that of climate change, identified now as one of the “defining challenges of our times” by NATO in its newly minted Climate Change and Security Action Plan. To this end, although the current invasion is one of the defining moments of the past few years, climate change will likely be one of the next – ultimately leading to famine, refugee crises, and energy disputes that amplify the frictions between nations and exasperate current conflicts present in Europe. To simply frame the problem now faced from climate change, consider the UN Refugee Agency report that indicates that extreme weather events alone linked to climate change have already displaced up to 20 million people worldwide to date. 

Globally speaking, three protocols have already been enacted and widely ratified through the United Nations, including the Montreal Protocol in 1987, the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, and the most recent Paris Agreement of 2016. These documents promote and promise mitigation of certain contributors of damage to the planet – an overall goal of all nations – and consequently the establishment of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015. 

Specifically, this 2015 document is an outline of goals for all UN member states to work towards, within the purview of a more sustainable world. Understanding that NATO countries make up the bulk of the United Nations’ leadership, this indicates that NATO, as an enterprise, also recognizes its vulnerability to climate change. As such, the Alliance underlines that “Climate Change puts our resilience and civil preparedness to the test, affects our planning and the resilience of our military installations and critical infrastructure, and may create harsher conditions for our operations.” Moving forward, it underlines the importance of encouraging resilience and sustainability within its military structure, seeking methods and equipment that are eco-friendly and renewable in nature. 


Today, amidst all of the factors contributing to or stemming from climate change, one specific topic lies at the crux of this issue – energy security – the scope of which is deeply embedded in the issues surrounding NATO-Russia tensions resulting from the February invasion.
As open conflict rages in Eastern Europe and climate change continues to compound in the background, the energy crisis upon us gains importance concerning NATO’s own energy capabilities and member nations’ reliance on current energy sources.

Accordingly, as the alliance is clear in its approach to the overall issue of climate change – underlining goals for the enterprise, specific tasks for its command structure, and mechanisms to be developed to monitor overall progress – this paper will subsequently analyze the specific issues of the underlying energy security crisis. This, both within the scope of climate change and the crisis’s effects on the currently ongoing situation in Eastern Europe. An outline of the state of energy security will be presented, with subsequent strategies moving forward within the sphere of collective security that NATO can adopt in moving towards energy sustainability and consequential maintained deterrence of potential adversaries.  


To illustrate the recent energy security picture within the alliance’s area of responsibility, it is critical to frame the pre-invasion state of energy reliance for the European Union (EU), the organization that constitutes the majority makeup of NATO alliance of nations. In 2019, research indicated that only 39% of the European Union’s energy was produced within the borders of the EU, while the remaining 61% was produced and imported from other nations (primarily within the vicinity of the EU, including Russia, Norway, Algeria, Libya, and Azerbaijan). 

The energy products produced and imported to the EU are split into six different categories: solid fossil fuels, petroleum, natural gas, nuclear energy and renewable energy. The most consumed energy source is petroleum, making up 40.8% of the total products within the EU, with natural gas being the second most used, at 20.8%. Electricity rounds out the major energy consumption sources, being the third most consumed at 20.7%, however, 39% of the electricity produced is generated from burning fossil fuels and natural gas. 

The “modern” world still mostly relies upon fossil fuels and natural gas for everyday workings. Although this is definitely not a “modern” energy solution, it is unfortunately understood as a daily facet of life. The peril for the EU, and consequently NATO, however, has been fiercely highlighted by the current conflict. A heavy reliance on fossil fuels and natural gas, particularly that of which isn’t primarily made within the EU, has put a strain on the abilities of integrating more renewable sources of energy within the EU and, with it, NATO as well. As such, only 10.1% of all consumed energy sources within the EU are renewable. Moreover, only 15.5% of energy sources overall within the EU are renewable from the get-go. 

By allowing 61% of their energy to be supplied by others, specifically in terms of fossil fuels and natural gas, nations must assume the consequences of the supplier entity’s refusal to deliver this energy source, effectively turning off the many Trans-European pipelines. In fact, one only needs turn their history page to the 1973 OPEC-induced energy crisis to truly understand the realities of such a potential turn of events. In addition, the Russian Federation’s consistent threat to curb supplies have been indicative of supplier nations potentially using their resource provision as political leverage. 

It can be argued that Europe is steadily navigating towards energy issues within the scope of climate change. Moreover, this means the NATO alliance may soon face an energy crisis of potential disastrous proportions, mostly based on its reliance on outside sources’ resources. To this effect, ongoing tensions with Russia are, ironically and dangerously, intertwined with climate change and thus energy security. 


Research indicates that, in 2022, the average European household pays 1850€ for gas and electricity costs. In 2020, those costs were only 1200€, a worrisome 54% increase in only two years. Coupled with recent inflation across the globe as a result of many factors including the February invasion, it is expected that cost of living will continue to increase in the near-term, generally on an unsustainable trend for everyday consumers. 

Within the coming crisis framework, and of particular interest to the alliance, one state can be identified as the root cause of the seemingly exorbitant gas prices. Russia, a major manufacturer and supplier of natural gas within Eurasia and the world, is metaphorically fuelling the fire of this energy crisis, simultaneous to its supposed “special military operation” in Ukraine.  

Noticeably one of the largest energy exporters to the EU, Russia gains leverage of power in both economic and political terms. The means of distributing natural gas across the continent is through vast lengths of pipelines that originate in Russia – providing important control to an increasingly adversarial entity. 

These natural gas pipelines, such as the Druzhba or Nord Stream, are utilized and monitored by both the EU and Russia, however, Russia has sole control over the amount that passes through these lines. Recently, gas shipments to the EU through these pipelines have been significantly decreased, hence the reason for the large increases in energy costs.

Russia originally claimed that it was mainly due to seasonal challenges and changed demand, including shifted focus towards Asia. However, this is much more than an economic interest for Russia – it constitutes a hegemonic grasp on Europe. During the initial fallout of the invasion in February, many NATO nations sought to close ranks regarding trade with Russia, which further destabilized an already teetering series of agreements for energy provisions from the Russian Federation. 

To this effect, during final editing of this article specifically, Russia announced in May 2022 that it was halting its gas ­supply to Finland as a result of their application to NATO. 

The Kremlin undoubtedly recognizes the reliance Europe has on its natural gas, and this consequently places Russia in a position to exploit said reliance in favour of its own political agenda, particularly deterrence of the alliance that ultimately must operate on consensus.


Throughout the winter of 2022, more than 100,000 Russian troops positioned themselves upon the Ukrainian border – a worrying prospect, given the growing similarities to the incursions of 2014. Ukraine, a non-NATO member but partner state, has been seeking ascension to full member status for more than a decade. Reportedly, this intent aggravated Russian President Putin, leading to the invasion in February of 2022.

Overall, this incursion finds itself less than a decade removed from Russia’s 2014 annexation of the territory of Crimea, and has heavy implications on both the security and economic pictures in Europe. 

Since 2014, Ukrainian sovereignty has remained a priority for NATO’s military cooperation, seeing an enhanced partnership including deepened military relationships, specifically in the land domain, such as through the Operational Capabilities Concept program as well as through various reciprocal staff talks that have occurred at both the strategic and operational levels within NATO countries and Ukraine itself.  

Condemnation of Russian actions has been generally consistent by most NATO member nations – in parallel with the enhanced cooperation activities that have taken place. Conversely, Russia has strongly criticized NATO for implications in Ukrainian affairs, outlining the supposed Ukrainian place within the Russian “sphere of influence”, thus deploying on this pre-emptive “special military operation” as a result. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has warned, on multiple occasions, that the Kremlin has the “right to choose ways to ensure its legitimate security interests” if further NATO support and intervention continues on behalf of Ukraine. This position ultimately led to the invasion, where Russia is seeking to “demilitarize” Ukraine and restore its own version of stability to the region. One can thus readily make the link between the previous NATO involvement in Ukraine and potential Russian leveraging of natural gas pipelines, including the potential ability to cripple Europe’s energy security with the metaphorical turn of a valve.

Looking to the physical framework, construction of the Nord Stream 2, a proposed pipeline stretching across the Baltic Sea, from Russia to Germany, was planned to be done in parallel to the original Nord Stream pipeline. According to Gazprom, the Russian state-sponsored company overseeing the project, the second pipeline was designed to “ensure a highly reliable supply of Russian gas to Europe” and that the pipeline was meant to ultimately become “important when Europe sees a decline in domestic gas production and an increasing demand for imported gas”. Accordingly, this only highlights the issue Europe will face moving forward considering the halting of the project in the wake of the invasion. 

Nevertheless, from these stated intentions can be elicited the likely truth that creating an energy-reliant Europe is inherently in the interests of the Kremlin’s objectives. Since the invasion of Ukraine, however, Europe has turned away from the proposed pipeline – but arguably at great cost as worldwide fuel prices have skyrocketed, leaving NATO nations scrambling to find alternative sources of fuel in wake of imposed sanctions on Russia. 

Ironically, regardless of the original stated altruistic objectives for the pipelines, the discourse between Russia and Europe on one hand regarding conflict and the other regarding energy provision, or even the future consequences both for Europe and Russia of the economic isolation of the latter, one nation remains unquestionably mired in the ordeal of energy security – Ukraine.

The invasion has undoubtedly created disturbances in gas flows, partly playing into the destabilization of the Russian economy itself that was so reliant on gas exports. Conversely, the Kremlin seems apathetic to the overall provision of Europe with its natural gas in a sense, creating an image of indifference to imposed sanctions. However, what it really seeks, likely, remains a stable economy and overall deterrence capability of the EU and NATO. Consequently, what Ukraine fears, and what may be a reality for the Alliance, is that assets reserved for transit through the Nord Stream pipeline may ultimately be mitigated by the newer project in the future should it be resumed, thus negating a key deterrence of further ­massive military actions without NATO intervention of some sort. 

In short, although Nord Stream 2 and other pipeline projects with Europe are currently on hold with the invasion of Ukraine at hand, this conflict will not likely deter all future agreements pending the resolution of the crisis. 

The reality is that Europe is not yet ready to adjust its use of energy sources towards other methods, despite it being forced in some respects to do so in the wake of February 2022. 

This being said, Russia may have ultimately outplayed itself, forcing Europe to seek alternatives to its provision of energy, despite whatever growing pains certainly lie ahead for Europe. Now with tensions at their highest, and with the actual invasion of Ukraine having taken place on the metaphorical doorstep to NATO’s own territory, Europe must ponder if this could signal the realization for a more self-reliant Europe in terms of energy and consequently a more effective NATO in deterring Russian aggression. 


Specifically speaking to the Alliance, how can NATO prepare itself for these energy security ramifications whilst also dealing with current issue of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict?

With the state of energy security now defined, the question therefore arises – what can NATO do about it? Specifically, how can we, as advocates and operators within the intertwined domains of energy security and military forces, address the situation towards fostering energy security and cooperative security simultaneously? From a general and relatively immediate perspective, a reasoned response can be presented in three-fold: 
– via implication of energy security into our training structures;
– through participation in critical energy and infrastructure-based exercises; and 
– through enhanced military cooperation with partners already affected by the consequences of the heightened energy situation. 

1. Energy Security Training Integration
As the Alliance operates on a concept of deterrence and cooperative security, much of our ability to oversee operations depends on our training basis, thus fostering capabilities through massively structured exercises relevant to the current operating picture in the security sphere today. As such, with incorporation of potential scenarios based on energy security as well as other climate change-based consequences, we can enable our operational understanding of potential future problems from a realistic standpoint. 

For example, inclusion of energy security injects and scenarios into upcoming capstone exercises, such as Steadfast Jupiter and Steadfast Leda, not only enhance our understanding in the research for their scripting within the Master Inject List, but further deepen our proposed reactions in developing courses of action for these posed problems, including their secondary and tertiary effects. Thus, through deriving these injects, implementing them as part of our training, and allowing entities both from the NATO Command Structure and NATO Force Structure to develop their reaction plans throughout battle rhythm events, we ultimately foster the capability from tactical to strategic levels in terms of dealing with these events.  

As the Officer Directing NATO Exercise Steadfast Jupiter 2022, Polish Major General Malinowski outlines: “we are faced with ambitious exercise design, and we want training audiences to achieve as many training objectives as possible. This is best done by setting clear expectations, agreeing to the levels of ambition, and committing to the scripting process.” It is thus only natural to include such current issues as energy security as part of these training objectives, understanding the nature of the reality they impose. Moreover, with the invasion now having taken place and the situation becoming the new reality for the energy security posture, it only naturally incurs to begin training to face the residual consequences collectively within the Alliance moving forward. 

2. Expansion of Energy Security Specific Training and Awareness
Within the framework of training integration, pan-NATO exercises specifically geared towards energy security & cooperation already exist. Colloquially termed the CORE exercises, Exercise Coherent Resilience has been the flagship tabletop exercises (TTX) of the Energy Security Centre of Excellence (ENSECCOE) in Vilnius, Lithuania for the past few years. As described by the ENSECCOE, “the focus of these exercises is on the resilience of energy infrastructure and energy supply in a range of regions and countries”.  Accordingly, previous iterations have included studies on the Baltic states, the state of Georgia, the Caucasus region, and Ukraine. 

The CORE series of exercises are ultimately meant to strengthen relations between NATO and EU entities regarding energy security and resilience.

Additionally, the TTX is foreseen as an opportunity to enhance co-operation specifically relevant to the studied areas, including development of a common understanding of the possible threats that stem from energy security. In short, the exercise allows for specific identification of weaknesses in existing energy security procedures, thus spurring further planning and research into these areas in anticipation of future NATO crisis situations. 

As such, benefits would exist for all NATO entities as well as partner organizations to seek participation in such, allowing for further fostered understanding of the energy security situation, and potential impacts any such crisis regarding energy might have on NATO’s capability for collective defence moving forward. 

3. Enhance Military Cooperation Regarding Energy Security
Stemming from the CORE exercises mentioned above, recognition of Ukraine’s pivotal role in the energy security domain is apparent, as two separate iterations of the CORE exercises have revolved around Ukraine, specifically in 2017 and 2020. The most recent iteration, Exercise Coherent Resilience 2020, was held in Odessa in October 2020 using algorithms of critical situations concerning energy security in the Black Sea region. Overall, more than 200 experts took part in the exercise, including representatives from more than 20 agencies from the host nation, and various Alliance entities such as the ENSECCOE, the Cyber Security COE, the Maritime Security COE, and the NATO delegation in Ukraine. 

Understanding that, at this time, the Black Sea region and the Baltic States are the most vulnerable to energy security issues concerning NATO’s sphere of collective defence, it becomes of primordial importance that enhanced military cooperation take place with these partners. 

Fortunately, this is already taking place through various events such as staff talks with partner states such as Ukraine and Georgia, as well as the surge of deployed troops to the eastern flank as a result of the Russian Federation’s invasion in February 2022.Through addressing these critical issues together, entities within the NATO Command Structure gain experience from partner nations that have already faced such crises. This information osmosis can even transpire through already-established partnerships such as the Partnership for Peace initiative as well as the Operational Capabilities and Concepts Evaluation and Feedback program that sees evaluation of partner nation units take place.

Moving forward, further outreach to these partners and refinement of operational capabilities through the leveraging of such organizations and nations will only bolster NATO’s partnerships abroad. This includes staff talks with various partner nations, continuing support through programs such as the OCC, and ongoing information exchanges and TTXs with entities such as the Energy Security Centre of Excellence. Moreover NATO has been clear in its intent to expand the partnership basis with other countries, including nations such as Columbia and Qatar, the latter evidently being a potential stakeholder in the future of energy security for the Alliance and the EU moving forward. 


In the 2020 Heritage Foundation report entitled NATO in the 21st Century: Preparing for the Challenges of Today and Tomorrow, it was Coffey and Kochis who underlined that “since its inception, NATO has done more than any other multilateral organization to promote democracy, peace, and security in Europe and the broader transatlantic community with benefits that have rippled through the broader global community.” Accordingly, it is unquestionable that NATO has time and again recognized the nature of the issues before the Alliance, oriented itself into a position to address them, and acted in ways that have benefited humanity towards the goal of cooperative security. 

Emerging from the challenges of the recent pandemic period, society is once again faced with issues centered on regional tensions and local security dominance. Coupled with the grand scale rising issues of climate change and energy security, the Alliance has a chance to continue fostering progress. Moreover, as Coffey and Kochis emphasize, “ensuring that NATO can face the challenges of the 21st century while safeguarding and vitalizing collective defence – the heart of the Alliance – is the charge of the upcoming reflection period.”

With NATO and its partners consistently threatened with adversarial aggression and climate change moving forward, it must seek to establish itself as a leader in energy security and renewable energy promotion. Only through these means can it demonstrate true commitment to its Climate and Security Action Plan, foster the encouragement of ridding itself of reliance on Russian natural gas, and ultimately achieve a position of sustainable energy security in an increasingly complex world adversely affected by climate change. 

As the 2022 Madrid Summit nears, with presentations of both the Energy Security and Climate Security progress reports to occur, the Alliance will have a chance to ponder where this invasion places it in terms of a stakeholder in the security sphere moving forward. Accordingly, through the drafting of a new Strategic Concept, and through potentially seizing the opportunities listed above, NATO will continue to play a major role in collective defence and cooperative security –it now has the chance to play a leading role within the scope of climate change and energy security as well.   

Canadian Army Captain Alexander Landry is Allied Land Command’s Environmental Protection Officer and a staff officer within the NATO Engineering Division.

Liam Patrick is currently a student of Political Sciences at the University of Manitoba.