Nord Stream 2 Saga Ended in Win for Putin, German Business. Did Trump Defend EU’s Interest Better than Germany?
Without much fanfare earlier this month, Gazprom, the state-owned Russian energy giant and a powerful geopolitical actor for the Kremlin, announced quietly the completion of the embattled Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline.
This long uncertain end of the great Nord Stream 2 construction and geopolitical saga, however, is just the beginning of another much grander saga about the wide-ranging consequences in European and international politics of the fact that the highly controversial pipeline – from the perspective of the West, at least – has become a reality.
Now that the last pipes have been welded and laid on the bottom of the Baltic Sea, several observations are in order.
First, certain conditionalities aside, the Nord Stream 2 project is more or less another instance of Germany putting the interests of just a part of its business sector over its wider interests in favor of a more coherent EU, not to mention the situation of certain potential future member states, notably Ukraine.
Second, the completion of Nord Stream 2 against the backdrop of the West – Russia relations in the past few years is also to the detriment of a grander morality-based standing for Germany which is has been claiming – for example, in cases such as the poisoning and subsequent jailing of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, as I argued in April 2021 in a piece entitled, “Germany Can’t Have Its (Navalny) Integrity and Build Its (Nord Stream 2) Pipeline Too”. And, yet, now with its completion, here is Berlin trying more than ever to have its cake and eat it, too.
Third, one shouldn’t be distracted by Gazprom’s low-key announcement as the completion of the 10-billion-euro Nord Stream 2 pipeline is a gigantic geopolitical victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin – besides being also a win for some segments of German energy as well as manufacturing business.
Fourth, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline appears to have been completed only because the left-wing administration of US President Joe Biden allowed it by waiving earlier this year the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on the Swiss-based company laying the pipes.
Fifth, situation in the past couple of years around the US involvement in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline politics invites a question with a very disturbing answer: namely, if on this particular critical issue, it has been the case, perplexingly so, that Donald Trump has actually defended the interests of the European Union better than Germany has.
The new Nord Stream 2 pipeline will double the capacity to transit Russian natural gas directly to Germany via the Baltic Sea, after the first Nord Stream pipe (Nord Stream 1) was completed in 2010.
It will now provide Moscow with a lot more direct access to the German and Western and Central European markets, guaranteeing a bigger and steadier stream of revenues for Russia’s state coffers.
The “steadier” part is due to Gazprom now finally being able to largely bypass Russia’s regional geopolitical foe, the pro-Western Ukraine. Nord Stream 2 is robbing Ukraine of two things: the ability to use as a major bargaining chip the irreplaceability of the Soviet Era natural gas pipelines to Europe passing through its territory – as it did in the winter of 2009, and of several billion euro in transit fees.
(Although, frankly, the latter might be more of a blessing than a curse. It is well-known that the curse is usually “easy money” for a state coming from oil, gas, or other mineral wealth. It’s much to be stimulated to educate yourself as a nation, innovate and diversify your economy, while also having an alert civil city demanding representation for taxation, instead of growing rich, fat and apathetic on petrodollars or other energy entitlements and handouts.)
In any case, though, the case could be made that the completion of Nord Stream 2 is at least a double blow to a tortured Ukraine already grappling with Moscow’s encroachments against its territory in Crimea and Donbass since 2014. If one is to ask if that is in the best interest of both Germany and the entire European Union, the answer is that it isn’t usually the case.
Then there comes the issue of Gazrpom, respectively, the Kremlin having been able for a long time to gain the upper hand in natural gas dealings with the different countries all over Central and Eastern Europe. Many of those are former communist era satellites occupied by the Soviet Union in World War II, and are viewed by Moscow primarily with disdain. Using its oftentimes monopoly or near-monopoly position thanks to the pipeline infrastructure from the Soviet Bloc period, Gazprom has oftentimes been able to extract for itself substantially higher prices for its natural gas supplies than otherwise would have been the case.
With many of the countries that used to be ruled by Soviet Union puppet regimes becoming full-fledged Western democracies and market economies in the last 30 years – and members of the European Union, the only tangible and real progress in dealing with Russia’s natural gas supplies favoring the interests of the EU nations and the people of these countries and the European Union has been achieved thanks to the European Commission, the executive of the EU, and the common market competition rules that it has started to managed to enforce with respect to Gazprom.
Few if any of the dozens of countries of Central and Eastern Europe would have been able to achieve anything even remotely like that in their one-on-one gas talks with Moscow – and it isn’t as though Germany as a major power has ever exactly stepped up for them. It has, of course, done that by virtue of being the generally biggest pillar of the European Union and its constant developing institutions such as the European Commission.
Despite that backdrop, though, the government in Berlin keeps falling in the trap of thinking that it can manage all on its own newer brands of an ostpolitik towards Russia – as opposed to a truly unified common EU foreign policy in that regard.
It’s a long-standing temptation since at least 18th century Prussia and Catherine the Great and the times when Russia’s ruling was largely consisting of French-speaking German nobles.
The lesson based on the historical patterns in that regard would point to a setup in which Germany’s eastern policy would better be channeled thought the European Union’s common foreign policy – in spite of all the temptations – as that is likely to help avoid the one-on-one relationship mistakes from time the of Willy Brandt, going back to World War II, World War I, and even the supposedly uncompromisingly successful handling of German-Russian relations by Otto von Bismarck.
Germany’s Russian temptations are huge, and exhibit a constant pattern as far as potential economic gain is concerned. It is the same in the case with Nord Stream 2 where it is a big profit win for certain segments of the German energy business plus also by extension for German manufacturing.
The problem with that is that the tempting economic prospects tend to be followed by certain political complications and consequences, with Germany historically having ended up in some cases as Gerhard Schroeder, the by now infamous former Social-Democrat chancellor of Germany. One possible characterization of that situation is the famous quote by Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny who has described Schoeder as “Putin’s lap dog.” Except in the historical cases in which an equivalent has happened with Germany, it hasn’t been on such “nice” terms.
A lot of that has also been true of the dozens of other Central and Eastern European countries in their energy dealings with Moscow – which is why the stepping up of the European Commission, the epitome of the EU, as it has started to enforce common market competition rules with respect to Gazprom has been such as game changer.
It is basically the same approach that the Commission used in 2003 to force the administration of George W. Bush to rescind its duties on imported steel by slapping EU duties on Florida-made orange juice – and regardless of it’s the temptations put forth by its business lobbies, and regardless of how big and “first among equals” Germany might be within the EU, its best bet is always to stick with the common EU approach.
Sure, that might be unpalatable in many cases to the German voters, to certain business sectors, etc. But that’s high politics and bigger picture matters more. In other words, German business or the German economy wouldn’t have been destroyed or gone poor if Nord Stream 2 hadn’t happened. On the other hand, though, they would be in a much worse situation if the realization of Nord Stream, hypothetically speaking, somehow brings about some tremendous shift in geopolitical tectonics affecting all of Central and Eastern Europe, and/or threatening the entire EU.
Going back to one of the points above, in all fairness, it appears clear that Nord Stream 2 was completed solely thanks to the fact that the US administration of President Joe Biden decided to let it happen by waiving back in May 2021 of the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration.
“If the Putin regime is allowed to finish this pipeline, it will be because the Biden Administration chose to let it happen,” Michael McCaul, the top-ranking Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of Representatives said at the time, as cited by BBC News, while Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described it as “a gift to Putin.”
It is indeed quite remarkable that Donald Trump, who was supposed to have been installed in the White House by the Kremlin and was whole-heartedly hated by the ruling neoliberalist establishments all throughout Western Europe, slapped massive sanctions on Nord Stream 2, while Biden allowed it to happen despite actual bipartisan opposition to Nord Stream 2 in the US Congress, even from many Democrats.
The waiving of the sanctions that allowed Nord Stream 2 to be completed resulted from pressure on both the “German front” and the “Russian front”, and it is curious and, again, in marked difference from Trump that the Biden administration yielded in virtually no time.
First, allowing Nord Stream 2 was as a favor and gesture to the German government, itself pressured heavily by the powerful German energy business lobby.
The gesture was part of the whole “America is back” rhetoric of the Biden administration. Germany and the other NATO and EU allies of the United State have quickly learned more about how that works (i.e. that it’s utterly meaningless) just weeks later in the disastrous pullout from Afghanistan in which America’s European allies were completely ignored by Joe Biden and his administration.
Second, allowing Nord Stream 2 to happen seems to have been a major concession by the Biden administration to Russian leader Vladimir Putin after in February and March there was a massive build-up of Russian troops near Ukraine’s borders. The waiving of the sanctions in May also came ahead of the Biden-Putin summit meeting in June.
In July, after a meeting in Washington of Joe Biden and Angela Merkel, the Foreign Policy magazine, which claimed the waiving of the Nord Stream 2 sanctions done to preserve US companies from similar politically-based sanctions by countries such China – a rather weak argument, described the Biden administration’s decision as “big news of the worst kind in Central and Eastern Europe.”
Isn’t it ironic and paradoxical that as US President Donald Trump cracked down heavily on Nord Stream 2, a major energy but also geopolitical project boosting Moscow’s influence and revenues at a time when Russia is at odds with the West, the European Union included, while Germany and its long-time now outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel have been promoting the same project?
Whatever selfish American interests Trump might have been serving with the Nord Stream 2 sanctions – just keeping America’s influence in Europe at the expense of Russia’s, trying to open up an European market for US liquefied natural gas to the detriment of Russia’s natural gas pipeline sales, etc, etc, it appears that, in the bigger picture of European geopolitics, against the backdrop of the tensions with Russia, Trump’s actions were accidentally serving the European Union’s interests better than Germany and Merkel were in that particular case.
Merkel and other German officials keep arguing that they “can handle” Moscow, that they won’t let the Kremlin weaponize the new setup with the now completed Nord Stream 2 against Ukraine or other Central and Eastern European nations, including those who are EU member states. They keep saying that as though it isn’t clear how their “handling” of Moscow that way has worked out in recent years.
For a while, while Trump was president, Western liberal mainstream media – and the German leadership entertained the idea that the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel in particular, and not the president of the American Republic, now deserves the title of “Leader of the Free World.”
The entire saga around the Nord Stream 2 pipeline with the corresponding background in Western – Russian relations suggests that was erroneous – as, precisely because of the bigger picture, Trump might have inadvertently defended the EU’s interests better than Germany and Merkel in that particular case.
Merkel is now stepping down after 16 years at the helm of Germany, and it is yet to be seen whether the construction of Nord Stream 2 might turn out to be a damnation of her European political heritage. Hopefully, it won’t.
But many in the Berlin leadership keep tending to promise or to believe that they can successfully keep Moscow to “behave” within the Western-led international order just by virtue of their direct one-on-one conversations. That hasn’t been working out all too well not just in the past decade but also in the past 150 years or so.
Germany’s best bet, regardless of how significant it is as a power, is the same as the best bet of any other EU member states, no matter how small: stick with the EU and common EU positions and policies even if you have to sacrifice quite a bit. Because, first of all, at the end of the day, the European Union and the Europeanness attached to it is a matter of principle, plus, second, its just being there provides benefits to all its member states that always vastly outweigh any other potential benefits that might seem tempting but carry huge risks.
Photo: The above photo available on Wikipedia is credited to the press service of the Kremlin and shows then US President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel together in France in November 2018 during the marking of the centennial of World War I Armistice Day.