Germany Will Never Back Down on Its Russian Pipeline

If it looks like Berlin is colluding with Moscow, that’s because it is.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomes Russia's President Vladimir Putin
German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomes Russia's President Vladimir Putin as he arrives to attend the G-20 summit in Hamburg, northern Germany, on July 7, 2017. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Few countries have reckoned with their own past as thoroughly as Germany, and yet history still has a way of contaminating nearly every issue in its foreign policy. Much of this is imposed from outside with more than a little sleight of hand: debtor countries invoking the Nazi period to avoid German creditors, human rights abusers recalling the Third Reich to shame Berlin out of sanctions, weak European Union members lamenting the supposed return of a German-dominated Europe.

Some of it, however, is self-inflicted. German officials have been known to wiggle out of higher defense spending by implying that maybe they shouldn’t be trusted with it, German CEOs have implausibly claimed ignorance of detention camps near their factories in China, and German leaders defend business deals with Russian President Vladimir Putin as a war debt for Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union.

There is a surreal tongue-in-cheek quality to this use of Germany’s past. No fair observer of modern Germany could seriously claim its economic policies bear any resemblance to the Nazi period; no sane German leader actually believes their country couldn’t spend more on security without also invading Poland. But the resilience of the memory of Nazism has proven a potent weapon: For Germany’s critics, who want to contain its political and economic power in Europe, and for German politicians themselves, who are increasingly desperate to escape political crises of their own making. It is in this latter category that Nord Stream 2 is best understood.

Nord Stream 2 is a pipeline that, if completed, will pump gas directly from Russia into Germany, at the expense of Central and Eastern Europe and over the objections of the EU. Russian motivations here are no great mystery: By traveling the Baltic seabed rather than the Ukrainian countryside, Nord Stream 2 would eliminate Ukraine from the transit system that delivers Russian gas to Europe, expand Putin’s freedom of operation to wage war there, end Kyiv’s leverage in Moscow and Brussels, and give the Kremlin a kill switch over Germany’s energy supply. It is not the first time that Russia—which regards the independent states on its Western frontier as impermanent—has sought to close the distance to Germany.

Less obvious is why the entire German establishment gives the impression of sharing Putin’s view of the post-Soviet sphere. The explanation is both banal and alarming. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, German Chancellor Angela Merkel accelerated the phaseout of nuclear energy in her country, taking power plants offline without a plan for replacing the loss in energy supply. The result has been significant growth in Germany’s dependence on fossil fuels, with Gazprom offering the cheapest supplies of natural gas. Germany remains committed to ambitious climate targets, but the more pressing needs of German industry, the consumption habits of German voters, and Merkel’s mismanagement of energy policy have cemented German dependence on Russia.

The problem with all this is not the increasingly lucrative Russo-German relationship per se, but that European energy policy is being made unilaterally by Berlin: that Nord Stream 2 would reduce the Western European gas market’s connections to Central and Eastern Europe, threaten the supply security of countries like Poland, undermine the physical security of Ukraine, and hand Moscow the ability to turn the lights off in Central Europe, all in order to fix a domestic German mess made by the German government.

These circumstances are even more startling considering Berlin has other options that don’t entail burning bridges across the EU. It could extend the deadline to phase out nuclear power or reverse the ban altogether. It could reduce demand for energy from industry through higher prices. It could pay higher prices to diversify away from Russian supplies. But it hasn’t and it won’t, because all of these policies are political suicide in Germany, which is currently in a superwahljahr—a year full of elections, including six regional votes and a federal election in September. Goodwill with Moscow, and the additional supply capacity of Nord Stream 2, exempt German politicians from having to make unpopular choices and keep the lights on in a superwahljahr.

The protection of German political fortunes is coming at the price of erosion in European cohesion, a fact making itself felt through increasingly shrill diplomacy. As EU and U.S. opposition to Nord Stream 2 mounts, more normal justifications for the pipeline—Germany’s right to make its own economic decisions, concerns for energy supplies, climate targets, fear of angering Moscow—are giving way to lines of argument that seem to call its sanity into question: insisting that other countries have no right to meddle in a Russo-German project pursued at their expense, assuming that important EU policy should be made in Berlin without interference by Poland or the Baltic states, and objecting that Americans simply want to force their own gas down Germany’s throat, a bizarre PR strategy that culminated in the recent claim by Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, that Germans owe Nord Stream 2 to Russia for World War II.

The two strongholds of dissent in German politics are the Green party, which opposes the pipeline on environmental grounds, and the coterie around Norbert Röttgen, the chair of the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee, who shares U.S. concerns about the pipeline’s geopolitical impact. But they are both proving no match for the deep well of Russophilic and anti-American sentiment across German society, available for the coalition government to tap into as needed.

It is not just in the former East Germany: The feeling that Russia is Germany’s cultural and spiritual sister country, that American culture is commercial and lifeless, and that Germans never agreed to full integration with an American-dominated “West” has a long history and wide purchase among German voters. To paraphrase the journalist Richard Herzinger, Germans themselves sometimes approach the problems raised by the German Question by keeping open the Russian Option. But the “Option” only exists, as Herzinger notes, to “be exercised if various disputes with Western allies become too great.” This might suggest that Berlin feels a level of desperation for Nord Stream 2 not adequately appreciated in Washington.

This pipeline is one of the few bipartisan issues in U.S. foreign policy, but it’s not clear Democrats and Republicans agree about the right thing. Republican senators and former Trump administration officials are convinced that, thanks to U.S. sanctions law, Nord Stream 2 “will never deliver gas,” it “is going to die,” and the “easier path forward would be for the Germans to pull the plug, unilaterally ending the pipeline.” U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration believes it can halt the pipeline without imposing sanctions on German entities, and rumors of a Biden-Merkel compromise deal are gaining steam. What unites the White House and Senate is confidence that, somehow or other, the United States will eventually prevail, and Germany will back down. At this point, as one former National Security Council official recently put it, “It’s just a matter of who gets the credit.”

That the German government views Nord Stream 2 as a matter of survival, that it is committed to completing it at all costs, and that any conceivable “deal” will likely involve the United States, not Germany, blinking first, does not seem to have occurred to many in Washington. But no amount of U.S. sanctions will convince Merkel to risk letting Putin turn off the spigots in an election year. No U.S. concessions on tariffs or NATO commitments will persuade her to undercut the profits and solvency of German industry. No amount of U.S.-EU solidarity will induce her to allow the impression of a veto over German economic sovereignty. She will not risk voter abandonment of her party, even if it means bequeathing a broken system to her successor. She has left Biden, and herself, no options.

We should therefore expect Germany to stick to its guns, perhaps with token promises to Washington on China and military spending, and some cosmetic recompense for Ukraine. If and when the pipeline is completed, there will be cries of concern from Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states, perhaps alluding to the return of Russo-German collusion, circa 1938. Whether that’s fair or accurate will be up for debate. Who is to blame, will not.

Jeremy Stern is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Future Europe Initiative and was previously a senior advisor at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin.