A pipeline too close and yet too far in Europe

Americans are not the only ones to inveigh against the cost of gas at the pump and in their heating bills. In their angst, they pin the blame on their president while it should be clear that Biden has no way to influence the cost of gas. The Europeans are also up in arms because of whopping increases in the price of gas but they have an actual culprit with whom to contend, Russian President Putin. Unlike the Unite States, Europeans suffer from a decline in domestic gas production and an increasing demand for imported gas.The stakes are far greater than Putin’s design to supply natural gas to Germany through a brand new pipeline, named Nord Stream 2, underneath the Baltic Sea and thus skirting the bloody East-West confrontation over Ukraine. The U.S. was caught in the middle as it opposed the pipeline plan from the beginning calling it a Russian “geopolitical project intended to divide Europe and weaken European energy security.”In order to stop the completion of the pipeline, Washington trotted out its usual method of persuasion, the threat of sanctions. Low and behold, however, on May 19 the Biden administration waived the recourse to sanctions. What had happened was that Washington recognized that it was unable to stop the nearly completed project and that all things considered, it was better to rebuild its relationship with Germany after four disastrous years under the Trump administration. The decision led to a free for all in the United States in which the Republicans immediately accused the Biden administration of using a different standard with Canada when it cancelled the Keystone XL pipeline to the U.S. In a sharply worded letter, the Republicans accused the Democratic administration of prioritizing Russian energy over American energy and Russian jobs over American jobs.Even though the Nord Stream is a carrier of gas, not oil, it was true that the administration intended to placate its German ally and the outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel, a longtime proponent of Nord Stream. But then elections were held in Germany and a new coup de théâtre was about to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for Joe Biden. Just when it looked as if Putin had won the game of providing gas to Germany, the new Socialist government in Berlin (that included the Greens, eminently hostile to the Russian gas project) threw a clever wrench into the opening of the pipeline by way of the European Union’s cumbersome legislation. On Nov. 19 the German agency in charge suspended the certification of the Nord Stream company that would manage the gas supply, due to the lack of observance of the so-called “unbundling” that is in practice the separation of the various components of production, transportation and distribution of the Russian gas.Suddenly, the “linkage” between the Ukrainian crisis and the Nord Stream project, long advocated by the American administration, erupted in all its political prominence. The writing on the wall is clear: if Putin were to make a move in Ukraine, directly threatening Kiev and the territorial integrity of the country, the pipeline would become a dead issue. The final irony is that the new chancellor Scholz, a Socialist, has cut a big piece of the Ostpolitik of another Socialist predecessor, Gerard Schröder, not to mention 16 years of equivocation by Chancellor Merkel.In conclusion, it should have been clear from day one that Nord Stream was anything but a purely commercial project. Rather, it was destined to become a battlefield of realpolitik. At the end of the day, both Berlin and Washington concluded that the time had come to cut down Putin’s leverage over Europe. Now it can be said that things have smoothed out considerably in the Atlantic area. Alas, there is a loser: the European consumers who will have to pay through the nose for their heating gas.

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