The Ukrainian crisis seems to have taken a turn, with Russia declaring that it has withdrawn troops from the border, but an elephant remains in the room. Called Nord Stream 2, it is an undersea gas pipeline linking Russia to Germany, but is seen by some as a geopolitical weapon.
Ukraine is angry with the pipeline because it bypasses the country and thus denies it transit fees for Russian gas exports. He also raised fears that Russia could cut gas supplies to Ukraine without endangering its own gas exports to Europe. This could give Russia complete dominance over Europe’s gas supply, as well as leverage and influence over those countries. It has also reawakened old fears in some countries about Russia and Germany coming together against the rest of Europe.
Some members of the European Union are concerned about the security of the Russian presence in their waters, forced to guard the 1,222km pipeline that runs under the Baltic Sea past Finland, Sweden and Poland before entering Germany.
The United States believes the pipeline could give Russia too much leverage and influence over Europe, increase the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine and hamper its own efforts to contain Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
The United States opposed the project from the start, but Germany under Chancellor Angela Merkel went ahead with it, and despite tension in Moscow-Berlin relations over the Alexei Navalny affair – Merkel blamed the Kremlin for the attack on the Russian opposition. leader – the $11 billion pipeline was completed in September 2021, although it is awaiting German certification to become operational.
Even before the current crisis over Ukraine, the United States had imposed sanctions on it, although in May 2021 the Biden administration waived two crucial sanctions that would have torpedoed it entirely, in an attempt to give diplomacy a chance.
In July 2021, President Joe Biden and Merkel sat down to chat, agreeing in broad terms that Russia would not be allowed to use the pipeline as a weapon against Ukraine. But Merkel also said the two sides had “come to different assessments as to what this project entails.”
The two leaders were seen as having prevented a breakdown in the transatlantic alliance that US sanctions against Germany and other pipeline supporters in Europe – including France, Austria and the Netherlands – would have could cause. But some also saw it as a capitulation of the United States.
In recent weeks, Biden and other US officials have claimed that if Russia invades Ukraine, Nord Stream 2 would be among the first casualties.
“If Russia invades, that means tanks or troops crossing the Ukrainian border again, then there will be – there will be no more Nord Stream 2,” Biden said at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. “We’ll end it…I promise you we can.”
According to some analysts, the United States sees the rapprochement of Russia and Germany in an economic partnership as a precursor to a disruption of its role as guarantor of security in Europe, and Nord Stream 2 as a threat to a arrangement that has existed since the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War.
Scholz steps in
Scholz, who undertook the visit to the United States in response to criticism at home and abroad that he was “missing” during the Ukraine crisis even as French President Emmanuel Macron took the lead with his shuttle diplomacy between Kiev and Moscow, reassured that Germany was not about to break with its NATO allies.
“We are with one voice and doing things together and we have said very clearly that if there is a military aggression against Ukraine, it will lead to serious consequences on which we have agreed,” he said. Sholz said. But it was noticed that he did not utter the word Nord Stream during his visit.
Like Macron, Scholz also held talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and traveled to nearby Moscow for talks with Putin. Even as it reiterated its various positions and demands, Russia announced on the same day that it had “partially” withdrawn its troops from the Ukrainian border. It’s unclear if the Russian troop withdrawal had anything to do with Scholz, but it helped salvage some of his image as Europe’s leader.
US, EU and gas
The United States’ insistent opposition to Nord Stream 2 across three administrations – Obama, Trump and now Biden – has reignited discussion of an old question asked whenever the United States enters an arena of conflict – “is it that it’s all about oil”, or in this case, gas?
The EU imports less than 5% of its gas from the United States (the four main suppliers are Russia at 41%, Norway at 16%, Algeria at 7.6% and Qatar at 5.2%, according to 2019 figures). But as a net exporter of LNG since the middle of the last decade, the United States wants to expand its markets and penetrate the continent. According to one estimate, 23% of US gas exports are currently destined for the EU, and in 2021 they will peak at 21 billion cubic meters (bcm). Among the buyers are France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal and many smaller countries. US exports are seen by some as essential to the diversification of Europe’s energy supplies and its energy security. In January, in an atmosphere of war, Europe imported more gas from the United States than from Russia.
Nord Stream Capacity
Nord Stream 2 is an extension of Nord Stream, which became operational in 2011. Like the first gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2 comprises two gas pipelines with an identical combined transport capacity of 55 bcm of gas per year. Russia reportedly exported 168 billion m3 to Europe through this pipeline and other pipelines passing through Ukraine in 2020. Germany was the biggest buyer with 56 billion m3, Italy bought 20 billion m3 and the Netherlands 11 billion m3.
The Russian economy depends mainly on oil and gas exports, and Europe is its biggest buyer. This is why Nord Stream 2 can cut in both directions. Perhaps that’s why Scholz was moved enough to say it was his “cursed duty” to prevent the war.
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