Moscow’s ambitions are never ‘purely commercial.’
Western Europe’s liberal powers like to lecture the poorer countries to their east on “European values” and “European solidarity.” But when it comes to the Continent’s strategic defense, especially against Russian aggression, the nations of Central and Eastern Europe often find themselves standing alone while the West happily cuts deals with Moscow. A case in point is the debate over the Russian-backed Nord Stream II natural-gas pipeline.
Nord Stream II is a joint project of Gazprom, the Vladimir Putin-linked Russian energy giant, France’s Engie, Austria’s OMV, Royal Dutch Shell, and Germany’s Uniper and Wintershall. Running on the Baltic seabed, it would allow Russia to pump 55 billion cubic meters of gas directly into Germany, bypassing land routes over Poland and Ukraine. Moscow insists the project is “purely commercial,” as Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said earlier this month.
But Russia’s ambitions are never purely commercial. Putin never misses the geopolitical angle.
For Moscow, Nord Stream II kills two birds with one stone. The pipeline helps the Kremlin to expand its energy dominance over Europe. It also isolates Ukraine, Poland, and other Russian-endangered states on the Continent’s eastern periphery. As Polish Secretary of State Anna Maria Anders told me in an interview recently, “once more Poland finds itself between Germany and Russia. It’s a fear shared by Eastern Europe since 1939—that we would be cut off.”
Ukraine would be especially hard-hit. Currently, nearly half of the gas Gazprom pumps into Europe passes through Ukrainian pipelines, with the transit fees contributing 3 percent of Ukraine’s gross domestic product. In addition to the economic benefits, the arrangement gives Kiev a small measure of strategic leverage over Moscow. Without the Ukrainian pipeline system, Russia loses out on a significant share of its current energy income. Once Nord Stream II goes online, “Ukraine would be completely cut off,” says Anders. “Ukraine is already suffering a lot from the Soviets, and we don’t want it to be any worse.”
Yet “Germany is all for this,” she adds. That would be the same Germany whom bien pensants on both sides of the Atlantic hail as the defender of “liberal world order” and whose chancellor, Angela Merkel, they have dubbed the new leader of the Free World. The project has also secured permits from Finland and Sweden. Denmark is still holding out. The Danes last year enacted legislation to block the project should national-security concerns arise. Whether Copenhagen will act on those concerns is another question.
Sandra Oudkirk, the U.S. State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for energy diplomacy, told the Atlantic Council on Monday that there are remain legal mechanisms within the European Union for blocking the pipeline, meaning Washington isn’t prepared—yet—to apply sanctions against the companies involved. “I think people ask for U.S. sanctions because they think Nord Stream II is a done deal,” Oudkirk said. “It’s not. There are still levers available to the EU.”
The pipeline’s proponents frame American opposition to Nord Stream II as another slice of President Trump’s heavy-handed, “America First” trade agenda. The U.S., they argue, is determined to scuttle Nord Stream II because Trump wants to see American firms to sell liquified natural gas to Europe. But that ignores the fact that the Obama administration was equally wary of Nord Stream II.
Then again, why shouldn’t Europeans prefer to buy energy from their ally over imperial Russia? As Anders, the Polish secretary of state, told me, “We have now a new terminal in northern Poland, closer to Germany, that has a capability of transforming liquid gas into gas. If the Nord Stream II line were installed, it would provide competition to [American] LNG, making it less profitable.” As it is, less than one percent of Europe’s liquid natural gas comes from America. Pushing that share upward, and blocking Nord Stream II, would be a win for the U.S. economy—and for European security.