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Guns on the Land, Gas Under the Sea

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Under Pressure
How did a gas pipeline from Russia to Germany become central to the fate of Ukraine? Anatol Lieven on the intense game of diplomacy going on with Moscow, Berlin, Washington, and Kiev.
Thousands of Russian troops remain massed at the Ukrainian border, where Moscow started moving them in November, prompting fears of an imminent invasion. Whether that now happens may depend on one thing: Nord Stream 2, an $11-billion natural-gas pipeline from Russia to Germany that runs under the Baltic Sea. German energy corporations worked with Russia’s Gazprom for almost 10 years to build the 1,200-kilometer (745-mile) pipeline, but Germany’s energy regulator suspended the approval process in November. As United States National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said last month, “If Vladimir Putin wants to see gas flow through that pipeline, he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine.” Why is Nord Stream 2 so important?
Anatol Lieven, the senior research fellow on Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, is the author of Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry and two other books on Russia. As Lieven sees it, Nord Stream 2 is critical to Moscow not only for the significant income it would bring but also because Russia needs the European gas market for geopolitical reasons. Still, Lieven says, Putin is making a careful calculation that Germany needs the pipeline just as much as Russia does. Germany is Europe’s biggest economy and fourth-largest in the world, and it doesn’t have better choices than Nord Stream’s natural gas to power the country. Putin doesn’t ultimately want to invade Ukraine, Lieven says; he wants to use a serious display of Russian military strength to get the West to limit its ties to Kyiv—and to make sure Nord Stream 2 goes through.
Michael Bluhm: What’s going on with this pipeline—and what’s it have to do with the standoff on the Russia-Ukraine border?
Anatol Lieven: At the moment, nothing is going on with Nord Stream 2, because the Germans have suspended certification—officially, on technical grounds, but this is really a way of holding pressure on Russia over Ukraine.
This is why Ted Cruz’s initiative in the United States Senate to reinstate sanctions is so stupid, because the German threat not to certify Nord Stream is one of our biggest sources of leverage with Russia. If the U.S. made clear that Nord Stream won’t happen regardless of whatever Russia does, that’s yet another incentive to Russia to do whatever it likes.
The Ukrainians, before their 2014 revolution, were getting very heavily subsidized Russian gas—subsidized at more than $5 billion. But the Ukrainians still fell behind on their payments. This was linked to geopolitics; if Ukraine had submitted to Russian influence and distanced itself from the West, then Russia would have ignored the nonpayment. Russia reduced its gas supplies to Ukraine. Then the Ukrainians took gas intended for Western Europe from the pipeline. They effectively stole Western Europe’s gas.
So the Russians, along with Germans, came up with the idea for a reliable pipeline that wouldn’t be disrupted by geopolitics. Russia has never reduced gas to Europe for geopolitical purposes.
There’s a very good reason for that: Russia depends very heavily on the money. But there’s another motive for the Russians to secure gas supplies to Europe—and it’s another major incentive against Russian military action in Ukraine—which is that if Russia loses its gas market in Europe, then the alternative market is in China. And that would reinforce something the Russians really fear—Russia becoming simply a raw-materials dependency of China. If Russia has no alternative to China, then it becomes a gas buyer’s market, and that’s not to Russia’s advantage.
Germany also has a strong motive for making Nord Stream 2 work. After Fukushima, the Germans are abolishing all their nuclear-power plants. They’re trying to introduce alternative energy, but there are major problems with that. Which leaves them with a choice between coal, which is the worst fuel for climate change, or gas. In this way, the Germans have deliberately closed off their options.
There’s also a familiar problem. The Germans and West Europeans are, in principle, very committed to action against climate change. Rhetorically, they’re also very opposed to Russian influence. There was a great headline in the Financial Times a few years back along the lines of “Opinion Poll Shows European Public Fears Russian Influence, Refuses to Pay Higher Prices for Energy.”
So, there’s the agenda of siding with America against Russia and defending new democracies like Ukraine; and then there’s the bill for energy every month.
More from Anatol Lieven at The Signal:
Many of the sanctions Biden lifted were going to be against German companies building and supplying Nord Stream. He made the determination that these would cause great anger in Germany, because the Germans have sunk billions of dollars into Nord Stream. As it turned out, this was a wise move, because the new German government—and certainly its foreign minister from the Green Party—is much more anti-Russian than the previous government. That doesn’t mean they’re going to go to war with Russia—or that America or NATO is. But if you have a German government that’s willing to put pressure on Russia—and is, to some extent, willing to go along with resistance to China—then annoying the Germans by imposing sanctions on their companies makes no diplomatic sense at all.”
Germany needs the gas. If you’re going to move quickly to abolish nuclear energy, then your options are narrow. Alternative energy is growing, but it has problems: the reliability of the supply when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining—and storage. Governments very much fear voters who suddenly see their electricity bill double or otherwise get angry with them. Look at Kazakhstan and the yellow-vest protests in France. There are solid economic and political motives for Germany’s behavior here.”
If Russia invades Ukraine, it will give tremendous impetus to the Europeans to start building the infrastructure for doing without Russian gas. It would take time and be very expensive, but it would be possible. The Russians are thinking they may have to give up oil as a result of climate change. But they calculate that gas is so central to the energy infrastructure of the developed world that it’s going to be a safe bet for generations to come. They know they’re reasonably safe in the short term, but they also know they’re endangered in the long term if they truly infuriate and frighten the Europeans.”
This Week
How are laws targeting “critical race theory” in schools affecting U.S. education? Jeffrey Sachs on the emerging culture of censorship and self-censorship in the American classroom.
What really happened on January 6? Seth Masket on how Donald Trump’s claims about the 2020 election continue to endanger U.S. democracy.
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