Despite protests by the United States, workers are busily preparing thousands of steel pipes that will become part of a vast undersea pipeline bringing gas from Russia to Germany’s northeastern Baltic coast.
Known as Nord Stream 2, the project will double the amount of natural gas Russia can funnel directly to the Europe from newly tapped reserves in Siberia, intentionally skirting Eastern European nations like Poland and Ukraine. It also promises much-needed jobs in this poor German backwater, some three hours’ drive north of Berlin.
But the United States and some other German allies have bristled at the project, warning that it could give Moscow greater leverage over Western Europe.
Energy-poor Germany already relies heavily on Russian gas and so far Chancellor Angela Merkel has deftly kept the new $11 billion pipeline off the table while imposing sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine.
But as plans become closer to reality, the pressure has increased on her, and last month after meetings with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko she acknowledged that Nord Stream 2 was more than just a business project, saying that “political factors have to be taken into account.”
With Merkel heading to Sochi on Friday for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a senior U.S. diplomat warned that proceeding with the project could result in sanctions for those involved.
“We would be delighted if the project did not take place,” U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary Sandra Oudkirk, an energy policy expert in the State Department, told reporters in Berlin on Thursday.
She said Washington is concerned Nord Stream 2 could increase Russia’s “malign influence” in Europe.
Oudkirk said the new pipeline would divert gas flows away from Ukraine, which depends heavily on transit fees, and could become a pathway for Russia to install surveillance equipment in the Baltic Sea, a sensitive military region.
She said the U.S. is “exerting as much persuasive power” as it can to stop the project, and noted that Congress has given the U.S. administration explicit authority to impose sanctions in connection with Russian pipeline projects if necessary.
“Any pipeline project — and there are many multiple pipeline projects in the world that are potentially covered by this sanctions authority — is in an elevated position of sanctions risk,” she said.
Jens Mueller, a spokesman for Nord Stream 2, dismissed concerns from the U.S. and several European countries, saying the new pipeline would merely be one of many sources of natural gas for Europe.
“This pipeline can’t be used to blackmail or negatively affect any country,” he told The Associated Press in an interview.
Merkel’s trip to the Black Sea resort of Sochi, her first visit to Russia in a year, will be a diplomatic balancing act.
While the German leader has taken a hard line on Russian actions in recent years — from the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria to the chemical attack on a former Russian spy in Britain — Germany badly needs to secure its gas supply and Berlin has calculated that Nord Stream 2 offers the best deal.
Europe’s biggest economy is also the world’s biggest importer of natural gas. According to Kirsten Westphal, an energy policy expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said its import needs are likely to grow.
Source: The Associated Press