Even Lukashenko’s piracy can’t derail Nord Stream 2 – and Putin knows it
Germany will pay a heavy geopolitical price for its addiction to Russian gas, but it doesn’t seem to care
Jeremy Warner 26 May 2021
When geopolitics and commerce collide, it’s the commerce that normally wins, particularly when it comes to Germany. No more so than with Nord Stream 2, a soon to be completed €10bn offshore natural gas pipeline beneath the Baltic Sea connecting Russia and Germany.
Vehemently opposed by successive US administrations, who see it as extraordinarily dangerous for Germany to be putting itself in hock to Russia for its energy needs, Nord Stream 2 has been a flashpoint for Western relations with Russia ever since it was first conceived.
Yet it has steamrollered ahead with apparently unstoppable momentum; environmental, geopolitical and security concerns have all been cast aside in Germany’s thirst for energy to power the country’s industrial heartlands.
The pipeline has become so much of a done deal – it is now only months away from completion – that even the US had seemed to abandon its opposition; last week the Biden administration sent a letter to Congress withdrawing sanctions against the operating company and its CEO, Matthias Warnig.
That was then. Thanks to Alexander Lukashenko’s hijacking of Ryanair flight 4978, the project has come roaring back into the limelight. The link between the two is admittedly a tenuous one; the pipeline, which follows the same path as an existing connector, is nowhere near Belarus, and nor do the commercial arrangements behind it have anything to do with Lukashenko.
But that hasn’t stopped many Western politicians seeking to punish Lukashenko’s assumed puppet masters in the Kremlin with renewed calls for the project to be cancelled by way of retribution.https://cf-particle-html.eip.telegraph.co.uk/378dd4bd-288a-47fd-aca2-0f127495673d.html?i=0&ref=www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2021/05/26/even-lukashenkos-piracy-cant-derail-nord-stream-2-putin-knows/&channel=business&id=378dd4bd-288a-47fd-aca2-0f127495673d&isapp=false&isregistered=true&issubscribed=true&truncated=false<=false
On some level, they are right to make the connection. Ineffectually sanctioning Belarus, as EU leaders have determined to do, or indeed banning flights from using its airspace, will have no effect at all; Belarus is already a pariah state. Lukashenko’s act of piracy is yet another example of the gross impunity and total disregard for international law with which Putin and his vassals act, knowing that the European Union, and indeed the US and Britain, are in no position to do anything about it.
It’s push, push, push against an enfeebled EU unable to get its act together on almost anything, let alone how to deal with the rogue dictators of Eastern Europe.
As things stand, there is little if any chance of Nord Stream 2 being cancelled, and Putin knows it. Whether he agreed the hijacking is anyone’s guess, which is as Putin likes it; as it happens Putin and Lukashenko are known to dislike each other and are by no means natural bedfellows. But he wouldn’t have allowed the Belarusian president to go anywhere near that flight if he thought it endangered the €10bn pipeline.
As it is, he’s already essentially home and dry. Germany wants his gas, and Putin needs Germany’s money. With just another 70km of pipe still to be laid, the project is expected to be complete by July. There is still a vague possibility that it could yet be scuppered by the emergence of Annalena Baerbock as a candidate for Chancellor in Germany’s autumn federal election. The Green Party leader is riding high in the polls, and on both environmental and human rights grounds, she is vehemently opposed to Nord Stream 2. Given the chance, she would happily decommission it.
But having closed down nuclear, as instructed ironically by the Greens, and with little in the way of offshore wind to come to the rescue, Germany’s needs are great, and Putin is only too happy to satisfy them.
For what it is worth, the EU insists it does not need Russia’s gas, having taken steps to diversify supply from multiple sources. It therefore cannot be held to ransom. And it is perfectly true that Germany has managed perfectly well up until now without the second Nord Stream pipeline. Europe’s goal of so-called “strategic autonomy” dictates that it shouldn’t be beholden to any outside power, be it Russia, China or the United States; it aims pragmatically to slide between all three in its own interests.
Nor should you believe, incidentally, that US opposition to Nord Stream was entirely about altruistically saving Germany from its own folly. America continues to see its own shale gas reserves as a more than viable alternative to the Russian bear hug. Again, it is as much about commerce as geopolitics.
But Germany has always had a bit of a soft spot for Russia’s brooding presence, a bizarre affection which goes well beyond the abiding historical connection of East Germany’s decades long membership of the Soviet bloc. Other than perhaps Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, Germany is closer to Russia than any other member of the EU. They even have a word for it – Russlandversteher, suggesting a greater empathy for and understanding of Russia’s position in the world than almost anyone else.
Putin speaks fluent German, and Angela Merkel, as a stalwart of former East Germany, is similarly fluent in Russian. There is moreover a lot of trade between the two; many of Germany’s leading companies have major investments in Russia. Most of us would think making yourself dependent on Russian gas as tantamount to supping with the devil – worse, in some respects, than reliance on Huawei for 5G mobile phone networks – but for many Germans it is not such a big thing.
Quite why Biden came to back off from traditional US opposition to the project is still not entirely clear. Perhaps it was just acceptance of the inevitable. There may also have been an element of bloody mindedness in it, of wanting to erase any trace of his predecessor’s policy stance, regardless of its merits.
Biden, moreover, is determined to put US relations with the EU on a better footing after the bust ups with Trump, and believes that by so doing, he can reinvigorate German support for Nato. For their part, the Russians saw the removal of sanctions as an olive branch, an attempt to normalise relations.
The Belarus hijacking has been a rude awakening – a salutary reminder of the sort of regimes the Germans are bedding down with, regimes that care not a fig for the rules-based international order that Germany claims to champion.
Perfidious Albion finds itself widely condemned within the EU as an untrustworthy partner for threatening to renege on the wholly unworkable Irish Protocol, yet Germany thinks nothing of breaking bread with a murderous thug whose staunch ally thinks it perfectly acceptable to use deception and force to invade supposedly neutral skies so as to arrest and seemingly beat up political opponents.
In this case, as in many others, the commerce wins, trumping not just geopolitical, human rights, energy and security fears, but also Germany’s wholly delusional net zero by 2050 commitments. Once nuclear is fully off the menu, and Russian gas is added, there is not a snowball’s chance in Hades of actually meeting them.