Russian gas pipeline divides the West and ‘punishes’ Ukraine

Germany wants cheap Russian gas via Nord Stream 2, while Ukraine fears economic ruin.

North Stream 2 pipes reuters
Nord Stream 2 construction is at the heart of Europe's energy politics [Axel Schmidt/Reuters]

Kiev, Ukraine – A geopolitical wedge that deepens tensions between the United States and Germany. A means to make Europe more dependable on Russia’s energy supplies. A tool designed to turn a nation into the Kremlin’s vassal.

This is not a description of any Russian plot to meddle in elections, back its far-right loyalists or sow discord in Europe. This is how US President Donald Trump‘s administration and leaders in Ukraine view Nord Stream 2, the world’s longest offshore pipeline, which is being built under the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea to circumvent Ukraine and transport up to 55 billion cubic metres of Russian natural gas to Germany.

US Vice President Mike Pence said in April that Germany would become “literally a captive of Russia” once the $11bn, 1,200km project is completed, doubling Russian gas supplies to Germany by 2020.

Meanwhile, Washington threatened to sanction each and every company involved in the project, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Kremlin uses energy “as a lever of pressure on Europe”.  Following other disagreements, Pompeo cancelled a visit to Germany that had been scheduled for Tuesday.

Stronger sanctions against Russia because of its aggression is indeed our big hope

by Volodymir Zelensky, president of Ukraine

This is where Washington’s stance fully aligns with that of Kiev. Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymir Zelensky, has urged the West to thwart the pipeline’s completion and step up sanctions against Russia.

“Stronger sanctions against Russia because of its aggression [against Ukraine] is indeed our big hope,” Zelensky said on May 21 after meeting European Union energy officials in Kiev. “We will be grateful for the EU’s solidarity in the matter of countering the completion of Nord Stream 2.”

His predecessor struck a more ominous tone.

“North Stream 2 is the Kremlin’s Trojan horse against European energy and, ultimately, geopolitical security,” said Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s former president, in August 2018.

Ukraine’s neighbours – mainly Poland and the Baltic states – are the main EU opponents of the pipeline. In a joint letter published last year, they said Nord Stream 2 “should be seen in the broader context of today’s Russian information and cyber-hostilities and military aggression”.

But their economies and political clout are minuscule in comparison with Germany’s, and Berlin disregards their complaints.

Mission impossible?

On Tuesday, Zelensky arrived in Brussels to rub shoulders with officials from the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to discuss Ukraine’s struggling economy, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the separatist conflict in southeastern Ukraine – and the pipeline.

The former comedian – who has zero government experience and who trounced Poroshenko in the April 21 election – is testing the waters of European realpolitik. And with Germany, Austria and the Netherlands backing Nord Stream 2, Zelensky’s bid to halt the pipeline’s construction is likely to become his first major foreign-policy failure.

“The project has been fully approved,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told broadcasting company Deutsche Welle in mid-May. “Geostrategically, Europe can’t sever ties with Russia.”

Merkel said Ukraine “must remain a transit country”. But she did not explain how Berlin could possibly twist Russia’s arm if Moscow raises prices for Ukrainian customers or pulls the plug on supplies to Ukraine altogether.

No Western pressure “will force Russia to pump gas via Ukraine on its conditions”, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Pankin said in February.

The project has been fully approved. Geostrategically, Europe can't sever ties with Russia.

by Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany

Kremlin critics say Nord Stream 2 and its already-completed twin, Nord Stream 1, make little economic sense.

“Russia uses its energy [supplies] as a tool to pressure Ukraine,” Gennady Gudkov, a former Russian lawmaker and opposition leader, told Al Jazeera. “The pipeline is not economically necessary. It is a political show of ambitions, a way to punish Ukraine.”

As for Washington’s backing of Ukraine, some experts claim the US is simply trying to protect its producers of liquefied natural gas, who want a bigger share of the European market. But Washington’s pressure is not likely to bring an end to the project. Germany needs an uninterrupted supply of Russian gas as it phases out nuclear energy, Berlin says.

“Europe’s interest in getting gas cheaper than the US is offering [it] is obvious, and I think there is a high probability that Nord Stream 2 will be launched,” Kiev-based analyst Mikhail Pogrebinsky told Al Jazeera.

Since the Communist era, most Soviet gas exports to Europe went via Ukraine, onward to Poland and what was then Czechoslovakia. Ukraine’s cash-strapped economy currently benefits by about $2bn – three percent of its gross domestic product – from transit fees. This is the equivalent of the country’s entire defence budget.

Moreover, Russian gas remains Ukraine’s only alternative to aging, decades-old nuclear reactors used for power generation and for infrastructure and industries such as steelmaking and chemical production.

Since 2005, Russia and Ukraine have waged “gas wars” sparked by disagreements over transit fees, gas prices for Ukraine’s market and Moscow’s allegations that Kiev siphons off gas intended for Europe.

These disputes have more than once caused supply crunches, and 18 European nations experienced a two-week drop in gas supplies in the dead of winter in 2009 after the Russian gas company Gazprom shut down Ukrainian transit.

Ukraine went through popular uprisings in 2004 and 2014, and both times, pro-Western, vehemently anti-Russian leaders came to power – only to get mired in squabbling and corruption and lose public support within a matter of years.

The newly-elected Zelensky partially built his populist, anti-establishment campaign on promises to reduce gas prices for increasingly impoverished Ukrainians.

But the geopolitical climate could make it tough for him to deliver on those pledges. 

“The people in power have changed so often in recent years, [and] were not able to negotiate deals,” with Russia, Kiev-based energy expert Dmitry Marunich told Al Jazeera. “Why would Gazprom transport gas via a nation that is openly not loyal to Russia?”

Source: Al Jazeera