U.S. Senator Richard Lugar urged NATO to update its charter. "We are used to thinking in terms of conventional warfare between nations, but energy could become the weapon of choice for those who possess it," he said.
Lugar warned the opening session of the NATO meeting that "it may seem to be a less lethal weapon than military force, but a natural-gas shutdown to a European country in the middle of winter could cause death and economic loss on the scale of a military attack."
The senator used Russia's brief cutoff of gas to Ukraine in January as an example of the dangers that could lurk ahead.
"The Ukrainian economy and military could have been crippled without a shot being fired, and the dangers and losses to several NATO member nations would have mounted significantly," Lugar said.
The day before pressure was reduced in the pipeline that supplied Ukraine (and Europe) with natural gas, NTV, which is controlled by the state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom, aired long news segments showing Gazprom technicians preparing for the cutoff. The scenes, which were aired globally, resembled a wartime propaganda operation.
Such a tactic could have been Russia's way of showing that it was not prepared to help subsidize a pro-Western, pro-NATO, Ukrainian government and would limit its energy subsidies only to pro-Russian leaders in the former Soviet republics.
U.S. Senator Richard Lugar in Riga (epa)
It could also have been a warning to the West to stop its support for "colored revolutions," as seen in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004.
Lugar's words at the NATO summit did not go unnoticed in Moscow. Mikhail Margelov, the chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, told Interfax, "The participants in the summit took great interest in the current problems of energy security, which would seem like a warning of the pressure NATO intends to exert on relations [with Russia] with regard to energy resources."
Energy cutoffs have been used as a geopolitical tactic before. For instance, in July 1941, the United States declared a de facto oil boycott on imperial Japan by freezing all of its financial assets in the United States, which were then being used to pay for oil purchases.
Three days later, Japan launched an invasion to grab Royal Shell Petroleum's southern Indonesian oil fields.
The United States at that time supplied Japan with 80 percent of its oil and, had the oil boycott been proclaimed years earlier, critics have said that the devastating war in the Pacific might have been avoided.
A more recent example is the OPEC oil embargo of the United States in 1973, which, in the words of Henry Kissinger, the architect of U.S. foreign policy at the time,"altered irrevocably the world as it had grown up in the postwar period."
Israel's expected victory over Egypt and Syria during the 1973 Yom Kippur War angered the Arab states. When the United States announced a $2.2 billion emergency aid package to Israel in October 1973, Saudi Arabia responded by announcing it would cut off all shipments of oil to the United States. The other Arab oil producers followed suit.
Daniel Yergin, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the petroleum industry, "The Prize," quoted Kissinger as saying the decision to use oil as a weapon was "political blackmail."
No Act Of War
Despite the economic damage and disruptions caused by the embargo, the United States never officially regarded it as an act of war by OPEC.
It was, however, the beginning of a new era for world oil. Yergin points out that most Western leaders knew "precious little" about international economics and quotes Kissinger telling aides" "Don't talk to me about barrels of oil. They might as well be bottles of Coca Cola."
Most world leaders would know the difference these days and are painfully aware of the importance energy plays in international politics.
But the question remains as to what exactly an organization like NATO can do. Had Ukraine been a member of NATO at the time of the brief Russian gas embargo, would the alliance have been able to protect it from economic damage?
And could NATO hold sway over Russia to prevent such an embargo and how would it replace Ukraine's needs for Russian and Turkmen gas with that from another supplier?
Political strategists will likely be busy trying to find the answers to those questions.