The German Chancellor said that the fate of the most important Russian gas pipeline “Nord Stream 2” will be decided not by Germany, but by the European Union as a whole. This is how she sees the response to the situation with Aleksey Navalny. It may seem that this is a terrible omen for the gas pipeline, which has already seen billions of euros invested into it for construction. But what did Angela Merkel really mean?
The fate of Nord Stream 2 was again in question. No sooner had the project’s supporters celebrated the removal of the Danish obstacle (Copenhagen, after much delay, gave permission for the pipe to be laid through its territorial waters) than Germany, which until recently was an advocate for construction and one of the main beneficiaries of construction, began to seemingly make obstacles.
Berlin, dissatisfied with the position of Moscow in the case of Aleksey Navalny, intends to put the question of a possible curtailment of the project to a pan-European discussion. Why does Angela Merkel want to close “Nord Stream 2” – and does she in general want to?
Germany has long called for putting an end to “Nord Stream 2”, which in the understanding of a number of western activists “increases Europe’s dependence on Russian energy carriers”. They did not even require Angela Merkel to deliver a funeral speech over it. “The easiest option for Germany would be to simply withdraw its support for Nord Stream 2, allowing American and European critics to kill it,” the BBC writes. And now, against the background of the Navalny case, the aggressiveness of the project’s opponents has increased by an order of magnitude.
Until recently, it seemed that they were banging their heads against the wall of German pragmatism. Germany’s position on Nord Stream 2 was really reinforced concrete: German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that she was dissatisfied with the lack of cooperation with Moscow in the case of the “poisoning of Aleksey Navalny”, but was not going to abandon Nord Stream 2 because of this. After all, as German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas correctly notes, “those who call for the cancellation of the project should understand the consequences of such a step”.
Firstly, Berlin needs Nord Stream 2 from an economic point of view. “Germany has a very weak position in terms of energy. They are closing a lot of power plants – nuclear, coal,” says Donald Trump. Germany and the EU do not have reliable suppliers of cheap gas that are an alternative to Russia. In addition to getting cheap blue fuel (much needed for the export-oriented economy of Germany), Germany will earn good money on the transit of Russian gas, becoming a hub country.
“If the project is stopped, the German consumer will pay for it,” said Klaus Ernst, a member of the Bundestag from the Die Linke party. In addition, Berlin is also thinking about the security of Europe under its patronage – the internal political situation in Ukraine is deteriorating, and no one can guarantee that the militants not controlled by Kiev will not decide to stop the gas export of the “aggressor country” to Europe. Well, or threaten to stop if the EU does not issue another loan to Kiev.
Finally, the issue of reputation is also important. Angela Merkel was not just a supporter of Nord Stream 2, but also a lawyer. She defended the project against those who advocated abandoning infrastructure projects with “Putin’s Russia” – human rights activists, urban lunatics, agents of influence of the US. If now, because of the Navalny case, Merkel changes her position on the “stream”, then she will be criticised for political short-sightedness.
Moreover, by both opponents of Nord Stream 2 (for catching on too late) and supporters of the project, who are dissatisfied with the fact that Angela Merkel has called into question Germany’s energy security because of some political matter. Not to mention the fact that it caused serious damage to German business (Uniper and Wintershall invested almost a billion euros each in Nord Stream 2). And since Frau Chancellor leaves her post at the end of 2021, it is important for her who she will remain in history.
“It all depends on the Russians”
However, Angela Merkel’s pragmatism seemed to be beginning to bend under the pressure of numerous critics and human rights activists calling for “punishing Putin for another poisoning of an opponent”. In their opinion, Germany is the leader of the European Union and (against the background of Donald Trump’s actual refusal to “protect freedom around the world”) a potential leader of the entire liberal community, so it has no right to stay away from the Navalny case. Therefore, Angela Merkel announced the possibility of imposing sanctions against Nord Stream 2 ,and, according to media reports, intends to initiate a pan-European response to the case of Aleksey Navalny. And gather all the EU countries together to decide how to respond to Russia’s behaviour – and part of this reaction may be the suspension of Nord Stream 2.
This suspension will be a serious blow to Moscow. After all, this is not just about an important infrastructure project – there are much bigger things at stake. “The curtailment of Nord Stream 2 will send a clear signal with long-term consequences: German business will leave the Russian market even faster, and Vladimir Putin’s attempts to modernise Russia with the economic assistance of EU countries will finally turn to dust,” writes Deutsche Welle correspondent Miodrag Soric. At the same time, as they make it clear in Berlin, the blow can be avoided. “Our further actions depend on the behaviour of the Russians,” explains German Health Minister Jens Spahn.
“I hope the Russians won’t force us to change our position on Nord Stream 2,” says Heiko Maas, alluding to the fact that the Kremlin is expected to fulfil European demands concerning the Navalny case, and that they are waiting for prompt implementation, and “not by the end of the year or even within a few months”. These demands are very simple and not burdensome – not taking the blame, but just admitting the fact of poisoning, as well as starting an investigation.
Why shouldn’t they be implemented?
One of the reasons is as old as the Russian-west conflict. Moscow does not want to create a dangerous precedent for itself. The Kremlin, in fact, is being forced to admit a politically motivated accusation – after all, the Bundeswehr, whose laboratory declared “the indisputable fact of Navalny’s poisoning”, refused to provide the Russian authorities with any material evidence, citing “the secrecy of the methods and procedures used”.
If Russia now accepts this position on faith under the threat of sanctions, then the inspired western partners will threaten the same sanctions and issue other ultimatums: non-interference in the affairs of Belarus, withdrawal from Syria, etc. And this is not to mention the organisation and information support of other provocations that should be expected before the difficult political transit in Russia in 2024. If the blackmailer issues an ultimatum, the only way to escape from it is to refuse to fulfil any, even the most insignificant demands.
In addition, it makes no sense for Russia to make concessions to Berlin, because the position of Angela Merkel has never changed. Germany, as before, is not going to close Nord Stream 2 – it just behaves more elegantly and cunningly. Yes, it is partly bluffing for the sake of forcing Moscow to make concessions – but at the same time it may be an elegant attempt by Frau Chancellor to pass between the European trickles. By putting the issue up for European discussion, Angela Merkel is calling out those who support punishing Russia, confirming her political leadership – and at the same time putting a tricky block on accepting any tough sanctions.
The fact is that decisions at such meetings should be made by consensus. And if Angela Merkel had raised the question of approving the construction of Nord Stream 2, she would not have received a green light – after all, a number of EU countries (Poland, the Baltic states) are categorically opposed to the implementation of this infrastructure project. However, Frau Merkel (apparently) will ask about something else – should Russia’s punishment for the Navalny case be extended to Nord Stream 2? And here one should not expect any consensus on the completion of the project – the positions of the European countries are too different.
Recall that the pan-European decision concerning the Skripal case was only the collective expulsion of a certain number of Russian diplomats.
And this is despite the fact that back then the grounds for sanctions were much more serious than now. Firstly, there were at least some grounds for blaming Russia for what happened – there was a recording of “Petrov and Boshirov” arriving in Salisbury, as well as information provided to the media that these people work for the Russian special services. Secondly, it was about the use of weapons of mass destruction on the territory of the European Union, which can be interpreted as an attack by the Russian Federation on European citizens. Whilst here we are talking at best about poisoning – without any evidence of Russian guilt. And Moscow can only be accused of unwillingness to take Europe’s word for it. The most important infrastructure projects are not stopped for this by respected countries.
Angela Merkel’s proposal has another advantage for Russia – it protects (at least for a while) Nord Stream 2 from threats from other EU states. There is a risk that some less conscious countries (for example, Denmark) may take their own sanctions against the project. For example, revoke permission to lay a pipe through their waters. Bringing the issue to a pan-European discussion puts unilateral sanctions on pause.
And since Navalny is not dead, but is on the mend, time will cool the hot European heads, and the idea of blocking Nord Stream 2 will go off the agenda. At least for a while.
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