As Mark Twain once remarked, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure rhymes.” In 1716, the King of Prussia – then Frederick William I – presented the ornate Baroque masterpiece, the Amber Room, to Tsar Peter the Great as a gesture of friendship between Prussia and Russia, honoring a Prussian-Russian alliance against Sweden. The lavish gift, a study in Baroque excesses, was shipped to Russia in 18 large boxes and installed in the Winter House in St. Petersburg.
Today Germany is presenting Russia with an even more generous gift. Despite Russia’s many transgressions, violations of international norms, invasion of Ukraine, and the poisoning and arrest of Alexei Navalny, Germany decided to demonstrate its goodwill toward Russia by permitting it to complete the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
The Trump administration, urged by Congress, signed laws in 2019 and 2020 that halted the pipeline’s construction. However, it is essential to recall that the Trump administration was ready to push the ante even further by threatening to impose tariffs on German exports to the United States, including luxury automobiles such as BMWs and Mercedes. It was a language Germans understood and work on the pipeline ceased. Barely a month after the new administration moved into the White House, Russia, with Germany’s consent and sensing President Joe Biden’s more lenient attitude, resumed work on the last hundred kilometers of the pipeline.
The Biden administration’s initial reaction was a firm stand against the pipeline.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that he is “determined to do whatever we can to prevent the pipeline’s completion.” However, on February 20 the department’s position shifted. Its spokesman Ned Price indicated President Biden’s administration is “reluctant to impose sanctions if the displeasure is ignored.” During a briefing he reiterated that “we’ve been clear for some time that Nord Stream 2 is a bad deal and that companies risk sanctions if they are involved. But as we said, we don’t preview any potential sanctions.”
Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba’s and Polish Foreign Affairs Minister Zbigniew Rau’s reactions were swift. Nord Stream 2 would deprive Ukraine of transit fees from existing pipelines that transverse its territory. They called it a “dangerous, divisive project.” Dangerous because, as Debra Cagan, a member of the Friends of Ukraine Network National Security Task Force, wrote on February 22, “[the U.S.] giving Europe a Pass on Nord Stream 2 is yet another Putin victory. There is only one victor of this arrangement designed to sanitize Nord Stream 2: Vladimir Putin.”
It is incomprehensible that the United States, the world’s leading military and economic power, would have so little sway with an ally like Germany on one of the most critical issues of our times. A partner that, by the way, has not been contributing its share to NATO and, adding insult to injury, has taken an unprecedented step of imposing German taxes on U.S. military personnel stationed in the country. Little wonder President Trump decided to transfer U.S. troops to Poland, closer to Ukraine, where they are vastly more effective.
It is ironic also that, while President Biden cancels the Keystone pipeline and compromises an alliance with Canada, our closest ally and trading partner, on the grounds of meeting global CO2 reduction goals, the president gives a pass to a mutual enemy, Russia, to continue building its gas transit pipeline, which will ultimately be used to blackmail Germany and Europe.
The United States was also the world’s leading energy producer. The past decade’s fracking revolution delivered record oil and gas production and gave the U.S. energy independence and the ability to speak from a position of strength. President Biden, with a few strokes of the pen, jeopardized that position. He closed the Keystone pipeline and introduced regulations to restrict fracking and constrain the oil and gas industry. Such moves play directly into Russian hands, making the West hostages to Russian oil and gas.
In a recent Der Spiegel editorial titled “The Russian Pipeline Is Germany’s Greatest Foreign Policy Embarrassment,” Mathieu von Rohr argued that “Germany’s uncompromising stand has not only split the EU but threatens to sour relations with the U.S. The Baltic states share Poland’s fear of Russian power and are instinctively opposed.”
Since its inception, the pipeline has been opposed by many in Europe who share America’s concerns about dependency on Russian energy. Some see it as a ploy to allow Russia to stop sending gas via Ukraine to escalate the conflict there; others even called it the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact II.
In response, Chancellor Angela Merkel floated the disingenuous idea that if Russia would bypass the Ukrainian pipeline network, she would cut Russian gas from coming through Nord Stream 2, a proposal that is utter nonsense. Where else will Germany get its gas? Recently German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Armin Laschet, likely successor to Ms. Merkel, tried to justify Nord Stream 2 on the grounds that Russia suffered greatly during WWII as a consequence of the German invasion and atrocities committed against Russians. The justification infuriated Ukrainian Ambassador to Berlin Andriy Melnik, who called it “an unacceptable distortion of history and direct disregard of the exorbitant sacrifices of the Ukrainian people.”
For decades, the Ukrainian transit system has handled the bulk of Russian gas deliveries to Europe. In reality, there is no need for a new pipeline. It was built mainly at the behest of Mr. Putin to punish Ukraine, and the Germans sheepishly acquiesced. Nord Stream 2 will strengthen Russia’s grip on the European energy market and put an end to any geopolitical leverage Ukraine may still have in its struggle with Russia.
In short, when Nord Stream 2 goes “on stream,” the winner will be Putin’s Russia, and the losers will be Europe, the United States and, above all, Ukraine. Even more frightening will be Mr. Putin’s ability to intimidate and blackmail the Europeans for decades to come.
How it has come to this imbroglio is hard to fathom. Even more baffling has been the blind belief by many American-Ukrainians that Joseph Biden would be the best thing for Ukraine since the fall of the Soviet Union. (See Orest Deychakiwsky’s hagiography of Mr. Biden “Hope for the new year” in the January 10 issue of The Ukrainian Weekly.) Mr. Deychakiwsky wrote, “I have complete confidence that the Biden administration and Congress will support Ukraine. . . . You can rest assured that a Biden administration will maintain and expand, as necessary, sanctions against Russia.” Today it is clear that such an optimistic assessment was unwarranted and misguided. Mr. Biden’s sweet words of support were only that: words. In the final analysis what matters are results. Mr. Trump delivered, and Mr. Biden did not.
In the end, to get out of the conundrum it’s likely that some sort of a face-saving diplomatic compromise will be cobbled together. No matter how that compromise turns out, one thing is sure: it will be detrimental and harmful to Ukraine.