Trump Should Urge Europe to Resist Putin’s Pipeline Politics
If Trump really means “America first,” he needs to raise the pipeline issue.
President Donald Trump may not have an agenda to guide his huddle with Russian President Putin on the margins of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, but the G20 does. Unfortunately, the G20 agenda likely does not include Nord Stream 2, the planned second Russian natural gas pipeline to Europe. This makes it all the more crucial that Trump raise Nord Stream 2 directly with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Far from being just a simple “economic project” between Russia and the European Union as Merkel has claimed, Nord Stream 2 will strengthen Russia’s hand in using energy to coerce European allies and partners. Germany has the most to gain from this second pipeline and Merkel has the influence, but not the motivation, to stop the Russian project. If Nord Stream 2 is allowed to proceed, it will offer an irrevocable advantage to a cunning adversary and undermine EU security and sovereignty, with adverse consequences not just for Europe but for the United States. If Trump really means “America first,” he needs to raise the pipeline issue with Merkel.
Odds are that Nord Stream 2 does not top the agenda for many Washington swamp dwellers either, but it should. Russia has shown for years that the weapons in its arsenal go beyond its military. Putin has not hesitated to weaponize access to Russian energy to coerce his neighbors, especially Ukraine. With most of Europe still dependent on Russia for a portion of its energy needs, Putin’s energy weapon is potent. The easy availability of cheap Russian gas is seductive for European nations, who would rather spend their money on things other than alternative fuels. At the moment, alternative energy sources such as wind, solar, or nuclear don’t come close in cost and ease of access to Russian gas, leading to Europe’s strong dependence on Russian energy. Even if Russia is successful in feeding Europe’s dependence through a second pipeline, there is no guarantee that European expectations of lower Russian energy prices will be more than a mirage.
For the United States, it is a familiar issue dating back to the Cold War, when the first Soviet pipelines to Western Europe were built. The problem for the United States is that allies dependent on Russia to warm their homes will not back U.S. efforts to twist Russia’s arm when tough sanctions need to be levied — or when a NATO request for an armored brigade to cross the border needs to be approved. The Russian energy weapon is a real one and Nord Stream 2 gives the Russians another loaded pistol to put to Europe’s head.
The EU is quite aware of this pistol and could take it away from Russian hands if it so chooses. Germany leads the EU and Merkel could be the strong leader that makes the tough decision to move EU nations away from further dependence on Russian energy, and instead toward doubling down on EU energy diversification and self-sufficiency. But if the EU makes the decision not to block Nord Stream 2, the United States will pay the price for Germany and the EU dancing to a Russian tune. At a minimum, Trump must raise this with Merkel and point out that the EU’s decision will have serious national security implications for the United States and for NATO, with corresponding implications for economic and trade relations between the United States and the EU, the largest trading and investment partnership in the world.
Nord Stream 1 was Putin’s first attempt to get Russian gas directly to market without having his pipeline traverse “problematic” neighbors like Poland or Ukraine. The pipeline goes under the Baltic Sea directly from Russian gas fields to a German port, and from there to European customers, providing Russia the added benefit of depriving Ukraine of passage fees. Nord Stream 1 was so successful for Russia and the European industrial consortium that built it (Austrian, Dutch, French, and two German companies) that the Russians and their business partners began planning for Nord Stream 2. In fact, Merkel’s predecessor, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, left government in 2005 and joined Gazprom to give a German accent to Russia’s second effort. The Russians will need all the help they can get from him, because this time around, voices warning of the peril of dependence on Russia for energy are growing stronger in the EU, especially from the nations of Eastern and Central Europe, who know what the Russian yoke feels like.
In June, EU energy ministers met informally to discuss Nord Stream 2. Unfortunately, the voices of opposition were no match for the lure of the Euro signs dancing in the eyes of many energy ministers who wanted the European Commission to move forward with negotiating Nord Stream 2 directly with Putin. After the summer break, ministers will decide formally whether to move forward with negotiations. All indications are that the EU will move forward; when asked about Nord Stream 2, Merkel was dismissive of concerns and downplayed any major EU role in a decision, responding that Nord Stream 2 needed no extra EU mandate.
Merkel is up for reelection in September and likely will not do anything that contradicts her public stance on Nord Stream 2; she especially will not do anything that hurts German business or makes it look like she is in cahoots with Trump. At the same time, without a strong German push this fall in the EU against Nord Stream 2, the project will likely proceed. Trump should advocate for a delay in any EU decision until after the German elections, and only after a thorough discussion of the strategic implications of Nord Stream 2 for NATO. Such “economic projects” are not usually on NATO’s agenda and NATO has no vote on such national decisions. But given the strategic implications of Nord Stream 2 for NATO, and its impact on the effectiveness of the alliance even as NATO forces are being deployed to the Baltics to deter Russia, NATO is the right venue for such a discussion. At the end of the day, it is a decision for European nations to make, but the United States has a vital stake in that decision, as does NATO. Before EU nations decide on the way ahead, NATO’s concerns and that of NATO allies must be heard and considered when the fateful decision is made in Brussels.
Photo credit: ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images
Jim Townsend is an adjunct senior fellow in the Center for a New American Security's Transatlantic Security Program. He served for eight years as President Barack Obama’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO. @jteurope