“Putin’s triumph”, “the Kremlin’s biggest geopolitical victory” were the world’s media reactions to the outcome of the agreements between the United States and Germany on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 (NS2) gas pipeline.
The Kremlin’s project, which is directly called Russia’s gas needle in Europe and a threat to the national security of Ukraine and Central Europe, will seem to be completed after years of sanctions. And all this happens despite Russia’s aggressive policy towards NATO, interference in U.S. elections, Russian cyberattacks and hacking of German official institutions, murder and poisoning of Kremlin enemies in the EU, not to mention the occupation of Crimea, parts of Georgia, and the war in the East of Ukraine.
However, completion does not mean launch, and this fact is forcing Moscow to resort to additional measures of influence on European consumers. The suspicious accident at the Gazprom plant in Novy Urengoy affected gas transporting through the Yamal-Europe pipeline, and the Russian monopolist began claiming the state of emergency in infrastructure (7 accidents at the “big gas” facilities this year alone), so as if hinting at the need to launch NS2.
All this means that Kyiv also shouldn’t give up and focus on getting real security guarantees if it is not possible to stop the project.
On July 21, the United States and Germany officially announced an agreement to complete the construction of a Russian gas pipeline. This was an expected step. On May 26, U.S. President Joe Biden stated that his administration would not apply new sanctions against Nord Stream 2, as the project is almost complete and the sanctions will damage relations with European allies.
Details of the July agreement were simultaneously promulgated by the German Foreign Ministry and the U.S. Department of State in a document titled “Joint Statement of the United States and Germany on Support for Ukraine, European Energy Security, and our Climate Goals”.
The document states strong support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and its aspirations for the European future and reaffirms the need to take actions against Russian aggression if the Kremlin uses gas as a weapon.
“Should Russia attempt to use energy as a weapon or commit further aggressive acts against Ukraine, Germany will take action at the national level and press for effective measures at the European level, including sanctions, to limit Russian export capabilities to Europe in the energy sector, including gas, and/or in other economically relevant sectors”, – the document reads.
The declaration also stipulates Germany’s commitment to using all available means to influence the extension of the agreement with Russia on gas transit through Ukraine for up to ten years.
In addition, Germany commits to establish and administer a Green Fund for Ukraine “to support Ukraine’s energy transition, energy efficiency, and energy security” and add at least $175 million to the fund as a grant and will work toward extending it. Together, the United States and Germany have pledged to “endeavor to promote and support investment” in the fund of at least $1 billion.
The world’s reaction
Such a lack of concrete steps in case of Moscow’s geopolitical pressure and absence of any security guarantees for Ukraine led to criticism of the document not only from official Kyiv but also from European and American experts and politicians.
In particular, German expert Ralf Fücks, director of the think tank Zentrum Liberale Moderne (an “undesirable foreign organization” in Russia), said in a column for the influential German journal Spiegel.de that the agreement “gives the Kremlin a free hand to increase political and military pressure on Ukraine without a threat to the gas business with the EU”. He also criticized Germany for rejecting the U.S. proposal to include a clause in the document that would cut off gas supplies if the Kremlin dared to take aggressive steps against rebellious neighbors.
The agreement was also negatively perceived among the opposition German politicians: “The pipeline is a bad idea for climatic reasons, but primarily for geostrategic reasons” – such a stance was expressed by the candidate for the German Chancellor from the party “Alliance 90/The Greens” Annalena Baerbock.
The United States
The new stance on NS2 was also received harshly in the United States.
In particular, immediately after Biden’s May statement not to impose new sanctions, a group of Republican congressmen and some Democrats criticized the Department of State arguing that Administration ignored the interests of countries “at the forefront of Central and Eastern Europe, including Ukraine” and consider Berlin’s interests “a higher priority than the interests of the rest of Europe”. They also met with the President of Ukraine and stated that together with their Ukrainian colleagues they would continue to counter Nord Stream 2.
Following the publication of the treaty, 12 Republican senators wrote in a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Janet Ellen that they would oppose nominations for senior Treasury positions until the administration complied with section 228 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The senators urged Ellen to “reverse course on Nord Stream 2” and take steps to ensure “defense of European allies and partners from malign Russian aggression”.
On July 20, Co-Chair of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus Marcy Kaptur stated said that the U.S. Congress should reject any agreements that do not protect Ukraine’s transatlantic security and sovereignty.
Republican Senator Ted Cruz said that because of the situation with Nord Stream 2, he is holding up the appointment of candidates for positions in the U.S. Department of State.
On August 4, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Robert Menendez and the heads of committees of the parliaments of Estonia, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Great Britain, the Czech Republic, and Poland spoke out against the U.S.-German agreements on the pipeline.
In a statement, they pointed out that Nord Stream 2 would give Russia another tool to pressure and blackmail Ukraine, which continues to face Russia’s brutal aggression and military occupation of its territories because of its pro-European choice. “More Ukrainian soldiers give their lives to protect their homeland and entire Europe. The EU and the United States must work together to increase sanctions pressure on the Kremlin to counter aggression in Ukraine”, – the document reads.
Ukraine and Poland
In a joint statement, the Foreign Ministries of Ukraine and Poland also condemned the agreement between Germany and the United States. “This decision has created political, military and energy threat for Ukraine and Central Europe, while increasing Russia’s potential to destabilize the security situation in Europe, perpetuating divisions among NATO and European Union member states”, – the document reads.
The day before, on July 21, Foreign Minister of Ukraine Dmytro Kuleba announced on Twitter that Ukraine was officially initiating consultations with the European Commission and Germany on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Relevant notes have already been sent by the Foreign Ministry to Brussels and Berlin.
“Under Article 274 of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement, Ukraine is officially initiating consultations with the European Commission and Germany on Nord Stream 2, which threatens Ukraine’s security, violates the diversification principle of the EU Energy Union. Notes to Brussels and Berlin already sent”, – Mr. Kuleba said.
A separate statement was made by Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau, who noted that Russia would use the pipeline to blackmail Europe and Ukraine.
“For 18 years, all Polish governments have held that the North Stream is an instrument of Russian sabotage designed to break the unity of the West, the European Union, and NATO”, – Mr. Rau said.
The issue of launching NS2 is also on the list of topics that President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy plans to discuss with his American counterpart Joe Biden during the Ukrainian leader’s visit to the United States.
It is worth noticing that the United States’ sanctions, as well as the actions of various environmental organizations, are one of the reasons why the Kremlin’s geopolitical project is still unfinished. In contrast to the German government, which contributed to this in every way, calling the project purely “economic”.
At the same time, the obvious facts, the requirements of the European Parliament Resolution, and the arguments of official Kyiv regarding the danger of NS2 for the EU energy independence and as a factor deterring the Kremlin from a full-scale invasion of Ukraine were rejected.
It bears reminding that the founder and owner of the controlling stake in Nord Stream 2 is the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom. The project partners are French Engie, Austrian OMV, British-Dutch Royal Dutch Shell, German Uniper and Wintershall.
In 2019, the construction of the pipeline was suspended for about a year due to sanctions imposed by the U.S. Senate, which were part of the draft U.S. defense budget. The sanctions applied to companies involved in the construction of Nord Stream 2.
On December 21, 2019, the day of the signing of the defense budget by the U.S. President, the Swiss company Allseas announced that it suspends the construction of NS2 and withdrew its specialized vessels involved in the project. Later, fearing sanctions, the Swiss insurance company Zurich Insurance Group AG, the Norwegian certification company Det Norske Veritas Holding AG, the Danish consultant Ramboll and the German Bilfinger SE withdrew from the project.
In response, Gazprom said the pipeline was 94% complete and would be finalized by Russian vessels.
In November 2020, The Wall Street Journal published an article in which it expressed the view that if new U.S. sanctions were imposed, the project would be finally halted and it would be a win including for Ukrainians who lobbied Washington to quash the gas pipeline.
On December 5, 2020, the German Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency (BSH) announced that the Fortuna specialized barge, which sails under the Russian flag, will lay pipes for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in German waters in the Baltic Sea.
On December 8, 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted new sanctions on NS2, which provided for the introduction of penalties for promoting the sale, rental, or provision of pipe-laying vessels for the construction of the pipeline, as well as for providing insurance for vessels involved in construction. In particular, Fortuna and its owner, KVT-Rus, as well as the Russian company Rustanker, tankers Maxim Gorky and Sierra, were put under sanctions.
On January 15, 2021, the German Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency allowed the construction of the Russian gas pipeline to be continued. However, the Russian barge Fortuna was in no hurry to return to work. Permission to build the pipeline was challenged by two German environmental organizations, the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union and Deutsche Umwelthilfe.
On January 19, 2021, Gazprom for the first time publicly acknowledged the possibility of not completing the pipeline due to “political pressure”.
However, this pressure was not total. Some European countries and campaigns joined Russia.
Thus, in July 2020, Denmark allowed the construction of a pipeline in its waters for pipelaying vessels with anchors.
Since 2020, the Italian companies Nuova Patavium and Opus S.R.L. have helped Gazprom circumvent the U.S. sanctions and supplied the necessary equipment to re-equip the Russian pipelaying vessel Academic Chersky, which was to replace the Allseas specialized vessels. The re-equipment took place in German ports.
In January 2021, the local government of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania (Germany) urgently established a special fund to bear the risks of the U.S. sanctions against the contractors of Nord Stream 2.
On May 4, it became known that the German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) had filed a lawsuit with the Hamburg Administrative Court over the pipeline construction in the country’s exclusive economic zone. According to German environmental experts, the pipeline causes irreparable damage to the marine environment, moreover, it is laid through five marine reserves.
Construction was suspended, but not for long. On May 17, the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency again allowed the construction of NS2 to be continued.
At the end of May 2021, the Russian vessel Fortuna began laying pipes in German waters.
On July 28, the operator of the Nord Stream 2 project announced the completion of the planned scope of work by the Academic Chersky vessel in the Baltic Sea. The latter announced that the pipeline was 99% complete.
Leading Ukrainian experts currently agree that not all is lost. The project has yet to be launched and Ukraine must take active actions to prevent this from happening. If it is launched, Ukraine must least get real security guarantees, not another Budapest Memorandum, achieve a clear prospect of NATO membership, restore control over the occupied territories, involve international peacekeepers to control the Ukrainian-Russian border, etc.
A change in the political leadership of Germany, where the NS2 opponents, the “greens”, may come to power can also help.
Russia also understands that the risks to launching its geopolitical project still exist, so it has started another game of its own. On August 5, a powerful explosion occurred at Gazprom’s Novy Urengoy plant, virtually halting gas production in Western Siberia. This also affected the pumping of gas through the Yamal-Europe pipeline.
European media have already started speaking about creating an artificial gas shortage and rising prices, and Gazprom has begun to actively declare the emergency condition of old infrastructure, while clearly hinting that without the launch of Nord Stream 2, Europeans may face problems with gas supplies in winter.
It bears recalling that this is not the first time that the Kremlin has used “accidents” to blow up gas pipelines for political pressure. In 2005, during troubled talks, unknown individuals blew up a gas pipeline in Georgia, and when there was a need to exert pressure on Turkmenistan in the interests of Gazprom, a similar “accident” occurred there.
One might hope that these events will not escape attention among the EU countries. Apart from that the launch of the gas pipeline will mean Putin’s victory over the United States, it is unlikely that the new head of the White House will like it. Therefore, it is too early to say unequivocally that Ukraine has already lost. At the same time, it is ungrateful to rely solely on someone, as practice shows, we must make every effort.
The geopolitical game continues.
Author: Oksana Kuzan