There has been a political and media storm of outrage about the U.S. ambassador in Berlin, Richard Grenell. In a recent letter, he warned German companies about being involved in the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. It was perceived as a threat, with Grenell pointing out to the recipients of the letter that they too could be hit by U.S. sanctions against the large-scale project, which is operated by the Russian state energy company Gazprom.
Formally speaking, the ambassador's actions may contravene diplomatic conventions and could even turn out to be counterproductive if his aggressive conduct discourages skeptics there from speaking out openly against Nord Stream 2. After all, nobody wants to be seen to be yielding to American pressure or to be in service of American business interests.
But all this does not change the fact that the U.S. ambassador is in the right. Germany is making a serious political error by sticking rigidly to implementing Nord Stream 2, which could have serious consequences not just for relations between Germany and the U.S. but also for European cohesion and Germany's reputation among its European partners as well.
Even if Grenell's behavior has given further fuel to such projections, the row over the Russian gas pipeline is by no means a conflict between the U.S. on one side and "Europe" on the other. But supporters of Nord Stream 2 are trying to give this erroneous impression as incessantly as representatives of the German government are trying to play down the explosive intra-European nature of this issue.
Berlin Has Increasingly Isolated Itself
In response to Grenell's attack, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that “questions of European energy policy must be decided in Europe, not in the U.S." What Maas didn't mention was that many E.U. countries, including Poland, Denmark and the Baltic states, have long been strongly objecting to Nord Stream 2 – ten of them did so back in 2015 in a letter to the European Commission, which has always been skeptical of the project as well. The additional imports of Russian gas don’t just present security issues; they contradict the E.U.'s climate and energy objectives, which aim to radically reduce the use of fossil fuels by 2030.
The European Parliament adopted a resolution in December calling for Nord Stream 2 to be cancelled. One hundred members of the parliament wrote a letter to Angela Merkel accusing her of splitting Europe by sticking to Nord Stream 2. "Choose the European way," they wrote, "not the ‘Germany first’ way."
Hence it is Berlin that has increasingly isolated itself in Europe over this issue. With its stubborn refusal to take seriously the worries of large numbers of Europeans that Vladimir Putin's regime could use the additional deliveries of Russian gas as a political tool to divide and blackmail European countries, Berlin is discrediting its much-repeated passionate commitment to multilateralism, which it claims to uphold globally against Donald Trump's unilateral capriciousness.
The stereotype is that the German government has always pointed out that Nord Stream 2 is purely an economic matter. But experts calculate that the commercial success of the pipeline project is highly doubtful. They say that the cost of implementing it is now three times more than the official cost. Nord Stream 2 could turn into a massive loss for Gazprom. Nevertheless, the Kremlin is sticking to it with all its might – another sign that it sees the project primarily as a means of extending its influence in Europe.
For that matter, Berlin likes to emphasize that it is making its support of Nord Stream 2 dependent on Russian assurances to maintain the transit of gas through Ukraine, which otherwise would not just suffer significant financial losses but also lose a bargaining chip against further intensification of Russian aggression. Particularly in light of the current situation in which Russia is trying to economically suffocate Ukraine in the Sea of Azov, the unwavering adherence to the German-Russian gas deal is an especially disastrous signal.
Putin has not allowed Berlin to induce him to pay more than lip service that Russian gas will continue to be delivered through Ukraine so long as it is economical. His reference to the criterion of economic viability makes it very clear that the matter is subject to his arbitrariness.
Dressing up the continuance of Nord Stream 2 as an act of resistance against Trump's geopolitical hubris is altogether misleading. There is cross-party consensus in the U.S. Congress that Western investors are to be prevented from investing in the Kremlin-controlled Russian oil and gas industry – especially among the forces that want to strengthen the transatlantic alliance and see Russia's policy of aggression as an imminent threat to Western democracy as a whole.
By passing the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act, which contains the threat of sanctions in this regard, Congress has even made legal provisions to prevent Trump from making deals on his own with Putin at the expense of Western allies. If Germany undermines the West's united front against Putin, this weakens Trump's transatlantically minded domestic opponents, not Trump himself.
The fact that Trump seems to be taking an unusually hard line against Moscow is doubtless because he thinks in terms of economic advantage. It is no secret that the U.S. wants to massively increase its share of the European energy market. But reducing American resistance to Russian energy dominance in Europe to the motivation of the U.S. wanting to stop an annoying competitor like Russia in order to force more expensive American liquid gas on the Europeans is a demogogic contraction of the problem.
The fact that the pressure from Washington has been brought to the fore at all in this way is not due to American malice. Rather, it is because Germany's unquestioned dependence on Russia has cornered an array of European partners, whose only hope now of stopping the fateful Nord Stream 2 is pressure from U.S. sanctions.