And quiet flows the gas

Here is a thought. Residential natural gas consumption in the EU is about 9% of total energy use. This is about equal to the share of energy that Russian gas imports to the EU represent. Of this residential gas, 85% is burned for space heating (the rest, hot water or cooking). But of far greater value to the Russian economy is oil. About 70% of oil in the EU ends up as petrol used in road transport (Russia supplies 30% of the total EU oil).

Despite the rhetoric, the EU’s leaders clearly don’t have the stomach to cut oil & gas demand in the short term. Vladimir Putin knows them well. Our media likes to portray Putin as some sort of raving, unhinged, war-mongering tyrant. And he is all of that, of course, but this view is too simplistic and cartoonish. Why is he is bent on restoring the Russian empire? Do we really pose a threat to Russia? Is that the claim of a paranoid madman?

It seems to me that he looks at us – the West – in contempt. He was brought up this way, and history has only vindicated his views. Partly, this is because we are shameless hypocrites. When it suits our strategic interests, we carry out regime change on patently false grounds (weapons of mass destruction). We arm brutal middle eastern regimes. We’ve always tolerated human rights abuses, provided they were committed by “our bastards”. But there is more to it than that.

Putin thinks liberalism is decadence, and that as a result, we are in terminal decline. Russia is rebuilding its empire into an authoritarian state. China is authoritarian, assertive and ascendant. We, on the other hand, are specifying what pronouns people should use when addressing us. We don’t believe our own election results. We refuse to talk to people who vote differently from us, or who refuse to take a vaccine. We greedily imbibe absurd conspiracies. We despise our own societies, describing them (and the majority of their citizens) as incorrigibly racist.

It is easy to see why Putin has reached the conclusion he has.

He knew our European leaders would not dare ask their citizens us to make sacrifices for the Ukraine – not soldiers of course – but he knew they would not even ask us to turn off the central heating or cut back on petrol. He sees our system as weak. Our leaders are weak – their unwillingness to impose sacrifices on citizens is proof of this. In his mind, political legitimacy comes from strength, not the other way around. Populations require strong leadership for their own good. Like children, we are incapable of ruling ourselves. This is the essence of the authoritarian ideology.

However, this ideology has a blind spot. It has never occurred to Putin that citizens can decide things for themselves. For him, the colour revolutions and Maidan demonstrations must have been secretly orchestrated by western powers. This isn’t just cynicism (although he is a cynic). It’s a world view that sees ordinary people as sheep, and history as being forged by great men (and they are usually men, in this view).

So, my thought was this: There are two potential blind spots in Putin’s Ukrainian gambit. The first is the obvious one: that Ukraine is more than its leadership, and ordinary people are actually willing to fight to avoid living under the authoritarian, mafia-like oligarchical politico-economic system that Russia has sadly fallen into (with American complicity). The other – less obvious – blind spot is that western citizens might impose hardship on themselves, to defend their way of life. What if we rugged up and turned off the central heating? Spent our evenings in pubs, as we did generations ago when heating individual houses was unthinkably extravagant? If we walked instead of drove cars to the shops, or took public transport. Could Europeans cut petrol consumption by the share of their Russian imports (about half)?

Not forever, but now, at least.

What would it say to Ukrainians? More than lighting our buildings blue and yellow. And what would it say to Russians? That people can decide to be better than their leaders. And what would it say to Putin? That the reports of death of the West have been greatly exaggerated.