For a few days now, everyone has been talking about an abbreviation: Swift. The international payment system Swift is used by banks to transfer money to each other. And Germany uses Swift to settle its bills for Russian gas.That's why Russia's exclusion from the payment system is considered the sharpest sanctions sword. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has so far shied away from using it. Nevertheless, the course of the Russian attack on Ukraine shows that it would be right to bar Russia from the alliance.
Now Scholz is not the only head of government in the EU who has reservations about using the toughest of sanctions against Moscow. Not only in Germany, but also in countries like Austria and Italy, people are all too aware of their dependence on Russian oil and gas supplies.
Russian President Vladimir Putin would presumably react to a Swift exclusion by halting supplies of raw materials. Cold apartments and even higher energy prices - many heads of government in the EU want to spare their populations such impositions.In addition, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has pointed out another unpleasant consequence of a Swift exclusion. Even remittances to Russia intended for humanitarian purposes would no longer reach their destination without Swift.
These are all serious considerations. But at the heart of the matter is to stop Putin immediately and dry up the financial sources of his war. Oil and gas revenues are the most important basis for Putin to get his war machine going in eastern Ukraine and Belarus in the first place.
Putin is unlikely to be deterred in his course by the sanctions adopted at the EU level so far. This applies, for example, to the rather symbolic countermeasure of freezing the Kremlin leader's possible assets in the EU.
The EU has launched two sanctions packages since Putin recognized the rebel regions of Luhansk and Donetsk at the beginning of the week. However, they are only likely to have an effect in the medium term. A Swift exclusion would have a completely different effect: It would have an immediate impact on the Russian state's revenues.
In view of the debate about Swift, Chancellor Scholz has stated that even tougher sanctions should be kept in the quiver for further escalation. But such a wait-and-see approach only plays into the hands of Putin, whose strategy appears to be aimed at a military decapitation of Ukraine by seizing its capital, Kiev.
What are Scholz, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer and Italy's head of government Mario Draghi waiting for? For the flimsy offers of peace talks with Ukraine from the Kremlin?
In this situation, the federal government has a short-term and a long-term scenario. The short-term scenario concerns the next few weeks and this relatively mild winter. According to statements by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Europe is on the safe side with regard to gas storage facilities, even if the Gazprom Group were to halt its deliveries with immediate effect.This should reduce the risk of a Russian Swift exclusion for Germany and other EU states.
Social compensation for high energy prices
The long-term scenario applies to the coming and subsequent winters. Because Germany has failed to seriously initiate diversification in energy supply in recent years, dependence on Russia's gas is likely to continue for several years.The alternative supply of liquefied gas, which, along with the expansion of renewables, is seen as the means of choice by Economics Minister Robert Habeck, will be expensive for consumers. This effect will have to be cushioned by compensation payments for the most vulnerable.
The risks of a Russian Swift exclusion should therefore not be underestimated. However, the long-term risks for Putin are even greater. He is dependent on Europe as a sales market for oil and gas for the next few years. Whether China, for all its hunger for energy, can replace this sales market is questionable. Putin, too, would therefore have every reason to think twice about a complete disruption in energy policy.