There are few indisputable facts, especially in the game of politics. For Europeans however, increased Russian influence and fragile energy security is unequivocally worrying. Kyiv is right not to buy into the merits of Biden and Merkel’s pipeline deal and it is naïve to think that Russia will not weaponise its pipelines to exert European control.
The Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which runs under the Baltic Sea from Russia’s Arctic reserves to Germany, is nearing competition, and as such, political tensions are increasing. Russia is concerned with securing demand for exports as part of its national security, and because of a transition to greener practices, Germany needs more Russian gas than ever before.
Yet this policy priority is in direct opposition to Europe’s aim to reduce energy dependence on Russia by way of diversifying imports. In parallel with the pre-existing Nord Stream pipeline, Nord Stream 2 will have the capacity to transfer 55bn cubic metres of gas to Europe annually, and whilst Russia does not account for a large proportion of EU energy consumption overall, energy use is concentrated in a few countries.
Germany sees the relationship as symmetric: Russia relies on Europe for stable demand and exports, whilst Europe relies on Russia for stable supply and imports. Whilst this energy interdependency has generally created stability in the past, this is not the case on a country-by-country basis in Europe, hence the disparity between Germany and Ukraine’s positions. Additionally, Ukraine is set to lose an estimated £2.2bn a year in gas transit fees, according to the BBC.
The crux of the issue however is Central and Eastern European security. In 2006, 2009 and 2014, politically and commercially motivated gas supply disruptions between Russia and Ukraine left millions without energy, affecting industry, hospitals, and schools. Considering energy disruptions in tandem with the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Kyiv’s fears of increasingly bullish behaviour by Russian after the completion of Nord Stream 2 are wholly understandable.
Whilst it is difficult to quantitively assess the likelihood of this happening again, efforts to stop history repeating itself can be made. Nevertheless, Biden has just waived any concrete possibility of halting Russian plans now that the pipeline is 98 per cent complete.
In May, the Biden administration renounced sanctions on a company building the pipeline in line with the supposed US national interest, despite strong opposition from Republican legislators. Two months later, he has fully u-turned on years of US opposition to the pipeline, paving the way for economic hardship in Ukraine and exacerbating concerns about energy security. For a President who claims to oppose the Nord Steam 2 pipeline, and a Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said that they were “determined to do whatever we can to prevent [its] completion”, the Biden administration’s credibility is increasingly questionable.
Clearly, Biden is wary of creating a transatlantic rift with Germany, especially at a time in which he is attempting to reach out to his European counterparts. Yet regardless of how popular attempts of constructive collaboration are in today’s world, this cannot come at the cost of empowering the Kremlin. It is time for Biden to learn from the lessons of Obama that projecting US weakness to the world is a recipe for disaster.
The deal includes stipulations for national action that Germany could take should Russia attempt to weaponise its pipelines, in addition to the possibility that Germany could press for EU protections. Nevertheless, it is questionable as to whether Ukraine and other Central and Eastern European states can rely on Merkel to renege on her commercial deal with Russia if necessary.
The agreement also lays out the US-Germany Climate and Energy Partnership, which delineates their joint commitment to “deepen our collaboration on the policies and sustainable technologies needed to accelerate the global net-zero future”. It is implicit in this agreement that the hastening of a transition to green energy will limit the extent of reliance on Russian gas. The absence of a concrete timeline for these goals, however, means little confidence can be had in the security provided by the deal.
There is always a limit to interstate collaboration, and competition and conflict will eventually surface. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline is a crucial geopolitical tool for Russia and Biden’s acceptance of this deal with Germany will only serve to deepen European energy dependence, weaken United States’s political leverage, and render Ukraine increasingly vulnerable to the malign influence of Russia.