Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
A massive pipeline between Russia and Germany called Nord Stream 2 is ready to start pumping gas.
The Trump administration vehemently opposed it, but Biden waived sanctions.
There are fears that the pipeline could destabilize Europe. Critics say Biden should’ve done more to stop it.
One year ago, the US was trying hard to kill an $11 billion project to build a gas pipeline that would run from Russia to Germany, even though it was almost complete.
Then-President Donald Trump had loudly opposed Nord Stream 2, fearing it would give Russia greater economic and political leverage over Europe. He imposed sanctions on the project in December 2019 and, a year later, Congress approved another series of harsh sanctions on the company building the pipeline and on Matthias Warnig, its CEO and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
President Joe Biden seemed just as keen to stop the project when he inherited those sanctions in January, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken promising in March to keep looking for ways to stop it.
But only a few months later, Biden dismayed Nord Stream 2’s numerous opponents when he waived the harshest sanctions and introduced some watered-down measures in their place. In July, the US reached a compromise deal with Germany, meaning the project could go ahead without further sanctions being imposed.
Construction of the pipeline was completed in September, and Russia this week started filling it with gas, meaning it is ready to operate pending clearance from German regulators.
Biden’s gift to Putin
Pipes for the construction of the Nord Stream 2 seen on the Baltic Sea island of Rügen on January 25, 2021. Stefan Sauer/picture alliance via Getty Images
Biden offered two principal reasons in May for waiving the sanctions: German Chancellor Angela Merkel was Nord Stream 2’s loudest champion, and he wanted to repair the US relationship with Europe after four years of Trump; and because the pipeline was pretty much built anyway.
“It’s almost completely finished,” he told reporters. “To go ahead and impose sanctions now, I think is counter-productive in terms of our European relations.”
But plenty of Nord Stream 2’s opponents, both in Washington and in Europe, fervently disagreed with Biden’s suggestion that he couldn’t have stopped the pipeline, saying he handed Putin a massive gift by standing aside.
Sen. Ted Cruz, who led the bipartisan effort to introduce the Nord Stream 2 sanctions last year, said in September: “It is not rocket science that a 90 percent complete pipeline is zero percent complete,” noting that pipeline construction stopped for nearly a year following the 2019 US sanctions.
Gustav Gressel, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Insider that Biden could have tried harder to stop Nord Stream 2 – particularly by deterring western insurance companies from insuring the pipeline – but decided it wasn’t worth the political price.
Germany is Europe’s largest economy, and Biden wants it onside in the trade tussle with China that could help define his legacy.
“Sanctions would still have dealt damage, but the problem is that the political price for this for the Biden administration was much too high,” Gressler said.
“In their calculation, it was something that could have been done but the damage would have been too big.”
The risk to Europe
The logo of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline seen at the Chelyabinsk pipe rolling plant in Chelyabinsk, Russia, on February 26, 2020. Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
The question that arises from Biden’s decision to waive sanctions on Nord Stream 2 is whether allowing Putin to exert greater influence over Europe will prove a wise move.
Soaring gas prices this year have already highlighted Europe’s dependence on Russia for natural gas supplies – something Nord Stream 2 operations would likely exacerbate. Russia has previously cut off gas supplies to countries like Ukraine amid disputes.
Another problem for Biden is that the compromise he reached with Germany on Nord Stream 2 was almost entirely on Berlin’s terms, in framing the project as an economic issue rather than a security issue, Gressler said.
Biden’s Democratic colleagues have long opposed the project not principally because it hands Russia an economic advantage over its European neighbors, but because it could cause the US significant foreign-policy problems in future.
Chief among those problems are fears that Nord Stream 2 could liberate Russia to invade Ukraine – a US and EU ally – where Putin annexed Crimea in 2014.
Russia currently imports gas through Ukraine, meaning it won’t want to destabilize the country’s infrastructure. But Nord Stream 2 runs under the Baltic Sea and bypasses the country entirely, meaning Russia may no longer feel bound by the same caution.
“If the Russians do not depend on Ukraine as a transit country, they are free to destabilize it by other means,” Gressler said. “All these other means would more or less end up on Washington’s desk.”
Read the original article on Business Insider