The final pieces of the controversial 150km long Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline were completed on September 10, further solidifying Russia’s presence in Germany’s business and political sectors while depriving war-torn Ukraine upwards of $3 billion in transit fees. Launched in 2015, Nord Stream 2 is considered to be another Russian effort to destabilize Ukraine’s economy and pit Germany against its eastern European allies in the European Union.
The project, which connects Russia’s natural gas sites to Germany’s growing natural gas market, has been embroiled in geopolitical struggles since launch. Coming shortly after the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine, Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, and subsequent invasion of the eastern Ukrainian province of Donbas, have created an ongoing conflict that has killed upwards of 14,000 people, according to Deutsche Welle. The pipeline was created, in part, to aid in the hybrid warfare being propagated by Russia. According to the Atlantic Council, it “gives Russia a freer hand for military actions in Ukraine and Belarus.” The Ukraine Crisis Media Center, which analyzes foreign policies affecting Ukraine, says that this is typical of Russia, whose economic strategy in eastern Europe has always been about maximizing the profit extracted from Ukraine, “trying to have sanctions lifted, and [getting] rid of the economic burden that the occupied Donbas represents for it.” In the case of Nord Stream 2, the pipeline deliberately skirts around Ukraine, which has historically charged neighboring countries nominal transit fees to transport natural gas through the country. The pipeline conveniently alleviates the economic burden that Ukrainian natural gas fees represent while creating a targeted attack on Ukraine’s economy.
Additionally, the conflict serves to drive a wedge between Germany, eastern EU countries like Poland and Hungary, and Ukraine. These countries have historically disagreed on strategies toward Russia, particularly concerning energy, as most eastern EU countries have stakes in Germany’s natural gas market. Nord Stream 2 concentrates the European natural gas market into German and Russian hands, and according to the Atlantic Council, this was the plan from the beginning. In a 2015 talk between Germany’s Minister of Economy and Energy Sigmar Gabriel and President Vladimir Putin, Gabriel was quoted saying, “This is in our interests…What’s most important as far as legal issues are concerned is that we strive to ensure that all this remains under the competence of the German authorities, if possible. So if we can do this, then opportunities for external meddling will be limited.” This agreement over-saturates the natural gas market with Russian interests and deprives Ukraine of the opportunity to gain enough political stability to apply for the protections that being a member of NATO would provide. And, according to the Brookings Institute, “the Kremlin appears content to continue this simmering conflict as a means to pressure, destabilize and distract Kyiv and to make it harder for the Ukrainian leadership to get on with its goal of rebuilding a successful and prosperous state.”
Outside of Ukraine, the pipeline has been a source of frequent political tension. These tensions fulminated in 2019 when former President Donald Trump hit Russia with heavy sanctions and harshly criticized Germany for its increased dependence on Russian natural gas. This caused the project to be delayed for another 2 years. The aggressive approach to foreign affairs resulted in a slew of sanctions and counter-sanctions between Germany and the US, straining relations between the countries considerably. Since Joe Biden has entered office, many of these sanctions have been waived in an attempt to mend relations. According to Deutsche Welle political correspondent Simon Young, “pushing back against Germany on this particular issue isn’t serving the United States’ wider strategic interests in relation to Europe.”
However, the recent turnabout concerning Nord Stream 2 has not been singularly motivated by a desire to make peace with America’s allies. Joe Biden has been uncharacteristically cool towards Ukraine, despite his public support of the nation’s efforts to regain sovereignty. Ukrainian officials have expressed great surprise at his lack of interest in disavowing the construction of Nord Stream 2. Officials have spoken on the issue, saying that “Biden’s attitude towards Ukraine is one of ‘benign neglect’ — designed to send the message that Kyiv must do more on the reform front,” says Deutsche Welle. In 2015, then Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Diplomacy for the State Department Robin Dunnigan spoke at a press conference on the Obama administration’s response to the burgeoning conflict in Ukraine, stating “Why would you support Ukraine with one hand and strangle it with the other.” Biden’s ambiguous response is indicative of a trend in recent American administrations.
Among the strategies geared towards alleviating this continued exploitation of Ukraine, economic approaches have been the most common and immediate option that policymakers and locals have turned to. According to the Ukraine Media Crisis Center, “47 percent of Ukrainians that consider realistic the prospects of Ukraine’s restored sovereignty over Crimea say tougher international sanctions against Russia achieved through diplomatic efforts are most efficient.” Germany and the US have agreed to place heavy economic sanctions on Russia if the pipeline is used as a political weapon, either towards Ukraine or Germany. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has also stated, according to the Brookings Institute, “if the Russians continue their current course, Ukraine at some point may adopt a Plan B. That could entail building a virtual wall along the line of contact and pushing the entire economic burden of occupied Donbas on to Russia…They can only hope that, as the costs of occupation mount for Russia, including the costs imposed by U.S. and Western economic and financial sanctions, the Kremlin will look for a different course of action.”
Additionally, steps could be taken to unite the EU under a single “Russian strategy.” Previously, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has controlled the EU’s attitudes toward Russia, but now that she’s finally stepping down, a new opportunity to reshape German foreign policy has emerged. Ralf Fücks, the director of the Berlin-based Center for Liberal Modernity, claims in an interview he gave for Deutsche Welle that the relationship with Russia is “at a very critical point,” and that discussions surrounding a common EU policy shouldn’t necessarily be focused on developing a better relationship with Russia. Instead, the focus should be on “readjusting the relationship between conflict and cooperation,” and reconsidering what the current state of European politics should allow. This would prevent the internal disagreements that have frustrated discussions about Russia in the past while neutralizing some of the political sway that Germany now holds after the construction of Nord Stream 2.
Internal issues plaguing Ukraine could also be addressed to help bolster the country as an international player and make it more prepared to deal with Russia; addressing rampant domestic corruption should be a key Ukrainian strategy. According to the Brookings Institute, the Ukrainian government can “effect domestic reform by themselves and take other key steps, such as curbing the oversized political influence of the country’s oligarchs.” Internal reforms are highly regarded by Ukrainian citizens, with “Forty-six percent [of those that support Crimean reunification] say[ing] reforms and economic well-being on mainland Ukraine will motivate Crimeans and result in a more robust economic system.”
In her article, “Biden And Ukraine: Unwavering Support Or Rhetorical Game?”, OWP Correspondent Jiannan Luo argued that “Biden needs to do the most crucial thing to treat Ukraine as a real partner, not a tool to counter Russia.” Solving a years-long conflict with world superpowers will be difficult, but the well-being and empowerment of Ukrainian citizens need to be kept in mind throughout peace talks with Russia, Ukraine, and the EU.
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