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Nord Stream 2 Deal Is Not a Gift to Putin but a Realistic Choice

September 09, 2021
by
Jackson Janes
Stephen F. Szabo
5 min read
Photo credit: Lisic / Shutterstock.com
Opposition to the Biden administration’s deal with Germany over the lifting of sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project has continued in Washington and European capitals despite Chancellor Angela Merkel’s meeting with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv last month or his recent meeting with President Joe Biden in Washington.

In both exchanges, Zelensky voiced his discontent with Nord Stream 2. Merkel and Biden affirmed U.S. and German commitment to Ukraine with serious offers of economic and military support without changing course on the pipeline. 

This controversy is understandable, but it also reflects differing strategic and economic interests. Germany’s government has long stressed that the deal was to secure the acquisition of sustainable energy resources based on reliable supply lines not only for Germans but also for Europeans, a position anchored in the alliance with Austrian, Dutch, and French companies engaged in the project. Of course, the geopolitical is impact of the pipeline is apparent to those who see Russian leverage on Europe emerging as a threat with this initiative, especially in those countries whose histories with Russia are burdened by Cold War legacies and those which now feel threatened by the aggressive posture of President Vladimir Putin. 

These clashes notwithstanding, the decision by the Biden administration to recognize the fact that the pipeline is a reality makes strategic sense. Biden’s choices are about shaping the framework of confrontation not only with Russia but equally important with China in the future. The Geneva meeting between Biden and Putin following the G7 and NATO summits signaled the need to continue the dialogue despite the ongoing clashes over Ukraine. In both cases, Germany must be a strategic partner without which these policies will falter. 

The criticism aimed at Nord Stream 2 is that it makes Europe more dependent on Russian energy and Ukraine more vulnerable to Russian aggression. While it is true that its revenues go to support the Putin system and that it deepens Russian ties to Germany, the pipeline also builds interdependence between Russia and Europe. In stressing that Europe has leverage, Merkel has argued that it is not a one-sided weapon for Russia given the country’s high dependence on income from oil and gas. The volume of gas has not changed, only the supply route, which is more reliable and less subject to pressure than the Ukrainian alternative. The economic and military guarantees by Washington and Berlin to Kyiv signal they are prepared to respond to Russian threats and to partially compensate Ukraine for lost revenue.

Much of the opposition in the U.S. debate is based on the view that the pipeline is a gift to Putin as well as the assumption that the United States can and should stop the project.

Much of the opposition in the U.S. debate is based on the view that the pipeline is a gift to Putin as well as the assumption that the United States can and should stop the project. In fact, the pipeline may be expected to be fully operational even before a new government takes office in Berlin after this month’s elections. Continued opposition could be more of a gift to Putin as it could deepen German resentment against policies fostered in the Trump era. While sanctions have been the preferred tactic in Congress, that tool has a double-edged impact in that it opens the door to other players—in particular China—interested in using that same weapon, as demonstrated by Chinese sanctions on Australia and Europe. Some American commentators continue to view Germany as a semi-sovereign state totally dependent on U.S. security, not as the leading power in Europe today. And even during the Cold War, when West Germany was deploying NATO missiles against Moscow’s opposition, it was engaged in gas pipeline agreements with the Soviet Union despite vigorous opposition and sanctions from Washington. Even if the Green Party, which has expressed its opposition to Nord Stream 2, is in the new government coalition in Berlin, a renewal of these sanction tactics is unlikely to work. One only has to look at the complete failure of the strong-arm attempts by Richard Grenell, Trump’s ambassador to Germany, to see this.

The Biden decision, like many strategic choices, is not a pretty one—but it is realistic. Since the end of the Cold War and in the wake of Brexit, Germany is now the United States’ most important ally, and not only in Europe. The emergence of China as the chief strategic challenge has only made Germany more central given its key role on China policy in the European Union. Part of the U.S. strategy will involve a balancing of relations with Moscow and Beijing with an eye on inhibiting closer relations between them. That will require close collaboration between Washington and Berlin. 

The emergence of China as the chief strategic challenge has only made Germany more central given its key role on China policy in the European Union.

Germany, under a new government, will have to show that it is the partner that the Biden team thinks it is. It has to balance its economic interests with a broader strategic vision and abandon happy talk about how trade and economic ties will eventually liberalize China and Russia. As of now, those messages are missing among the leading contenders to succeed Merkel. Following their meeting in Washington, the joint statement by Biden and Zelensky stated “Ukraine’s success is central to the global struggle between democracy and autocracy. We stand shoulder to shoulder, optimistic in our common goals to advance democracy, deliver justice, enhance prosperity, and bolster security for Ukraine.” The combined strength of Germany and the United States will be needed to achieve these goals. 


Jackson Janes is president emeritus of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies and senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Stephen F. Szabo is adjunct professor, the BMW Center for German and European Studies, Georgetown University and the author of Germany, Russia, and the Rise of Geo-Economics.