Headteacher Natalia Pałczyńska was in a state of shock after the heating and hot water at her primary school went off without warning on Wednesday. “We were completely taken back,” she said. Unless the gas starts flowing again soon, she said, “we’ll have no choice but to close our doors until it does”.
The school, in Mieśisku, a village in western Poland, was in one of about 10 administrative districts in which homes, health centres, kindergartens and local businesses – as well as thousands of residents – lost heating after Moscow halted gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria at 8am on Wednesday. The affected area was relatively small, and unusual in that it was solely dependent on Russia for gas. But it was seen as an indication as to what could happen on a wider scale if Moscow turned off supplies to countries far more dependent than Poland which, while it gets 40% of its gas needs from Russia, only uses gas for 9% of its energy requirements.
Mateusz Morawiecki, the prime minister, complained of a “direct attack”, accusing Russia of “putting a pistol to our heads”, but said Poland would “manage so that the Polish people will not feel any change”, and urging Poles in a televised address: “please don’t be afraid”.
But in Mieśisku at least, the fear was palpable. The phones of the mayor’s office were ringing constantly as residents called in to say they had been, as one local woman told Polish TV, “shut down by Putin”.
The Kremlin said it had halted supplies because of Warsaw and Sofia’s failure to respond to its demand to pay for gas in roubles. The two EU members, who are among the most vocal supporters of swift withdrawal from Russian gas, said they would not give in to blackmail and that the provocative step was one they could handle.
But it has pushed Europe to the brink of an energy crisis, prompting a 20% increase in the already rising wholesale gas price. There is anxiety that Russia could do the same elsewhere, such as to Gazprom’s most important customer in Europe, Germany – which takes 55% of its gas from Russia and has paid it €5bn for gas and oil since the start of the Ukraine conflict – or to others, such as Italy, Finland, Croatia or Latvia, which are also heavily reliant on Moscow.
Industry in Poland is putting on a brave face. “We are quite well prepared for this,” said Tomasz Zieliński, president of the board of the Polish Chamber of Chemical Industry, which represents about 13,000 businesses and more than 320,000 jobs. In his office in downtown Warsaw, he cited the fact that Poland’s gas storage facilities were 76% full, compared with an EU average of only 30% (33% in Germany). The government had spent years working with businesses to reduce their dependency on Russia, he said.
In 2015 a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal was opened in the north-west port city of Świnoujście, close to the German border, capable of covering a quarter of Poland’s gas needs. It is being extended to increase intake by about 10%. Shots of its yellow, snaking pipes have frequently provided the backdrop for recent TV reports and government interviews in which attempts are made to reassure Poles. It has become something of a symbol of the nation’s hope in bezpieczeństwo energetyczne(energy security), the new buzz phrase.
This autumn, the much-hailed Baltic pipeline, viewed as a response to the German-Russian Nord Steam 2 project, is scheduled to go into operation. Running from Norway through Denmark to Poland, it will be able to carry about 10 billion cubic meters of gas every year, about half of the national requirements. Another pipeline nearing completion will connect Poland to the LNG terminal in the Lithuanian port city of Klaipeda, and existing pipelines connect Poland with Germany and the Czech Republic.
“Poland was not surprised by what’s happened, it was something that was always expected,” said Joanna Maćkowiak-Pandera, head of Forum Energii, an NGO spanning business, administration and science, which focuses on energy transition. She hoped it might speed up Poland’s slow decarbonisation efforts not least, she said, because “it’s now clear to most people that sales of fossil fuels have literally fueled Russian aggression”.
The image being projected by business and politics may be one of stoicism, and it has helped to unify a polarized country, but “the atmosphere is extremely nervous”, she said.
Interview requests to 12 manufacturers highly reliant on gas, from glass to cardboard producers, were rejected, with one admitting the “issue is right now too delicate” to talk about.
The government has downplayed Poland’s dependence on Russian coal, said Maćkowiak-Pandera, which supplements inadequate domestic supplies and is used to heat a large percentage of Polish homes. “Only recently have people become aware that it’s Russian coal that gives us our dirty air and there is a lot of pressure to stop this,” she said. “In a way, this is more significant for us than the gas issue.”
She asked whether the national drive for derusyfikacja (de-Russification) would push the issue of decarbonizacja (decarbonisation) down the agenda, further increasing the demand for coal, or – as she hoped – help to wean Poland off it. Support for phasing out Russian coal is high – 94% of citizens in a recent poll said they were ready to pay more in order to switch from Russian supplies. “But no one says how much they would be prepared to pay,” she said. Household coal prices have already risen by 300% in the past year. “So, as a consequence, we expect to see a lot of energy poverty this coming winter.”
There is speculation that the frenzied effort to meet the rising demand for coal may have caused two deadly explosions last week at mines in Silesia, southern Poland, killing 18 miners, while seven others are still missing.
Bernard Swolzyna, a power engineer with the progressive thinktank Instrat, said that while he could not but be shocked by the events that have driven it, “a dramatic shifting of the window of discourse is taking place in Poland right now”. The idea of “diverting from fossil fuels from Russia was until recently a fringe idea, and now it’s viewed as a baseline scenario”, he said.
Poland has spent years telling its neighbors Europe must move away from Russian supplies. The word niepodleglosc (independence) has a deeply emotional meaning linked to Poland’s past under the yoke of foreign powers, most recently the Soviet Union. Nowadays it is often used in relation to the energy debate.
History means that trust towards Russia was low from the outset, but everyday experience did not help. Over the past 18 years, Russian gas stopped flowing at least seven times, sometimes for a few days, once for half a year. “We were keen to be independent, for which we were sometimes accused of being Russophobe, particularly by German politicians. But this idea never flew in the financial markets, because the low price was the driving force,” Maćkowiak-Pandera said.
Pawel Rozynski, an economic commentator in the conservative daily, Rzeczpospolita, said Russia was “like Pablo Escoabar”. “Gas was like our drug and turned out to be very addictive because it was cheap, efficient and more ecological than other sources of energy. Poland has been forced to get sober very fast … but we have lost a lot of time defending coal because we thought it protected our sovereignty … and one of the side-effects will be much higher energy costs.”
For Wojciech Mróz, the cut is most important from a moral and ethical point of view. The 24-year-old student of spatial economics, who runs his own payment start-up, Pagaspot, has been at the forefront of efforts through a Catholic youth organization to help some of the three million Ukrainian refugees who, border police report, have arrived in Poland since the start of the war. About 20,000-25,000 people still arrive each day, and the numbers are not expected to stop any time soon.
“It’s a good thing this has happened now as it saves our government from having to take this step themselves. And even if it won’t end the war, if we had kept taking the gas, it would not have stood well next to Poland’s huge national effort to help Ukrainian refugees and to save lives,” he said.
Maks De Doliwa Zieliński, 23, an economics student from Kraków, whose recent plans to take up a job with a German chemicals company in eastern Ukraine were scuppered by the war, said the situation was causing friction at home. “My father, a businessman, said we and Europe made a mistake by trusting Russia at all. We never should have.” His German mother of him, he said, thinks otherwise, arguing that Germany had nursed the naive hope of helping Russia move to a democracy through its close trade ties, (the Wandel durch Handel – or “change through trade” policy).
“Poland was screaming at the Germans for a long time about the need to diversify, saying Russia was too unpredictable. But as we can see now, business has driven politics into a dark corner.”