Why the United States Won’t Admit Defeat in the Fight against Nord Stream 2

As a child, I loved to play chess, and often acted according to the principle that one should “never give up.” Even in an absolutely hopeless position, I tried to play the game out to a checkmate out of childish stubbornness and adherence to principles. Now Ukraine, the Baltic countries and the United States are displaying a similar stubbornness in the development of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

In fact, the game has already been hopelessly lost. Pipe installation was already completed on Sept. 10. The benefits of Nord Stream 2 in view of Europe’s raging energy crisis and the further degradation of Ukrainian statehood are obvious to everyone. The pipe certification process is underway; despite a number of technical and bureaucratic obstacles, it is on track to be completed in 2022. Consequently, Nord Stream 2 is an objective reality and something that many need. However, the United States continues to fight it for some reason despite loud approval from Ukraine and the Baltic states, claiming some kind of “Moscow energy weapon,” and by imposing sanctions against companies and courts that helped to lay the pipe along the bottom of the Baltic Sea.

Planning Horizons

It is easy to understand Ukraine — Kyiv’s position is rational both from the point of view of economics and domestic politics. Ukraine understands that it is impossible to disrupt the launch of Nord Stream 2 (unless it wants to provoke a major war with Russia, which will force Moscow on one side, and Washington, Brussels and Berlin on the other, to scatter throughout the trenches). However, delaying the launch is actually realistic. The later gas delivery from Nord Stream 2 in Russia to the EU begins, the more money Ukraine will receive for the transit of Russian gas through its territory. It wouldn’t make up for lost time, and the transit of gas through the Ukrainian Gas Transportation System will sooner or later be reduced. But Ukrainian leadership is not engaged in strategic planning; it makes plans one election cycle at a time for the most part, sometimes planning overnight. Alternatively, Kyiv would be engaged in increasing the competitiveness of the Ukrainian GTS, where it could find funds for repair and introduce adequate transit prices.

In addition, the fight against Nord Stream 2 seems to be the most important tool for maintaining the legitimacy of what is left of Ukraine’s current internal politics. In the absence of other big victories — major economic projects, foreign policy successes, etc. — Ukrainian state propaganda fills in. It seeks, in censorship terms, to play things up — that is, it tries to spin small achievements as great victorie, including Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s visit abroad, the supply of American Javelin anti-tank systems, the Turkish Bayraktar drone strike in Donbass and, of course, the sanctions against Nord Stream 2.

According to Ukrainian propaganda, promulgated at Kyiv’s suggestion, the idea that Nord Stream 2 is not a Ukrainian problem, but a common problem for all of Europe is being conveyed to the West. Oddly enough, such tactics are quite successfully sold to Ukrainians, who have long associated Nord Stream 2 with the next act in Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine’s sovereignty rather than with Russia’s desire to provide cheap and reliable gas transit to Europe.

You can also understand Poland and the Baltic states, which are literally drowning in the fight against Nord Stream 2. For these countries, resistance to the project carries great ideological significance. (“We are an outpost of the civilized world defending against Russian aggression.”) In addition, it is also a foreign policy issue for Poland. After the construction of Nord Stream 2, Germany will become the most important gas distribution hub, which will strengthen Berlin’s position in Central and Eastern Europe. The Poles, claiming leadership in this region and not feeling much love for the Germans, are trying to delay this unpleasant moment as much as possible.

And what is the interest of the Americans, who are the main drivers of the sanctions against Nord Stream 2? Is their interest in the economy, in the unwillingness to create a competitor in Europe for suppliers of liquefied natural gas from the United States? First, American liquified natural gas producers are now sending gas to East Asia, not to Europe. In addition, the economic disadvantages of sabotaging Nord Stream 2 may overshadow any potential advantages. Even the German Greens — a political force loyal to America and now included in the German government — oppose any further fight for sanctions, since this struggle will hurt German companies. “It is we, the Greens, who have always fought against the pipeline, who cannot understand what kind of friendship they are striving for if we impose sanctions against friends when they do business with a third party. The pipeline was and is a mistake of the German government, not of America,” said Omid Nouripour, a spokesman for the party on foreign policy.

Akella Can’t Miss

Nevertheless, the United States has an interest here. It is not so much selfish and momentary, as in Ukraine, as it is strategic with regard to both domestic and foreign policy.

First, do not forget that the anti-Russian agenda is now one of the few that unites the Republican and Democratic Parties. It is a kind of platform where parties can cooperate and develop relationships. Joe Biden is fully aware that such cooperation could backfire on America and on its strategy to strengthen American alliances, but with his low approval rating, he cannot publicly speak out against new sanctions. Therefore, according to The Hill, he has to secretly ask the Democratic leaders of Congress not to impose such sanctions, which he cannot veto.

Second, the United States does not need Russia to score a resounding success for Nord Stream 2. It’s not just about building a pipeline in Europe, but about Moscow’s victory over Washington, about the political will and perseverance that Russia displayed in pursuing a serious geopolitical project despite the desires and resistance of the great superpower. As a result, a precedent has been created — a kind of blunder like Akella. Countries, seeing that Russia’s stubbornness has brought it victory, can defend their interests against potential American pressure much more significantly. That is why sanctions are needed after the fact — after the construction of the pipeline is completed — not in order to stop an already completed project, but to punish companies for participating in it. Any other company that wants to participate in other projects that are against American interests will understand that U.S. refusal to impose sanctions for this participation immediately does not mean that America will not impose them down the road.

As for the United States’ participation in delaying the certification of Nord Stream 2, the situation here is also obvious. America cannot stop the certification itself, as it could not stop construction, but it can make sure that certification is completed after Vladimir Putin and Biden reach some sort of compromise. The reason for this is that the Nord Stream 2 certification will be a bargaining chip in these talks. The United States will declare that Nord Stream 2’s successful passage of all bureaucratic process was made possible only because America withdrew all its objections. This is like Pharoah granting permission for the sun to rise in the east — but here there is already uncertainty as to the nature and extent of American propaganda. Still, the United States has no other option but to minimize the damage to American global strategy from Russia’s success.

So it seems that in international relations, it is sometimes still useful to play out an absolutely hopeless game to the end. It will be easier to deal with the other issues later.

*Translator’s Note: Akella was a Russian software company specializing in the development, publishing and distribution of video games and multimedia products. The company went out of business in 2012.

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