Putin will use militarized pipeline to blackmail Europe

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Russian President Vladimir Putin pictured at his residence in Novo-Ogaryovo on July 8, 2021 (Alexei Nikolsky / Presidential Press Office / TASS via REUTERS)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to visit the White House on July 15. When she meets US President Joe Biden, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline will likely be high on the agenda. The United States has long opposed this Kremlin-led energy infrastructure project, but in recent months Biden has made it clear that he is ready to explore possible trade-offs that could minimize the negative impacts of the pipeline while still preventing a break in US-German relations.

At the next meeting in Washington, Merkel is expected to present the economic case for Nord Stream 2 while reiterating assurances that Germany is ready to insist on continued transit of Russian gas through Ukraine after the end of the current contract, which is due to expire in 2024.

From a purely commercial point of view, Merkel’s arguments may seem convincing. But as most honest observers recognize, Nord Stream 2 is no ordinary business venture. On the contrary, it is a geopolitical weapon directed at the heart of Europe which was conceived from day one as a tool to isolate Ukraine and strengthen Russia’s position in its confrontation with the Western world.

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With the construction of Nord Stream 2 currently nearing completion, Russia is doing little to allay fears that it intends to blackmail Europe with the new pipeline. On the contrary, Moscow’s actions indicate that it is increasingly confident in its ability to leverage the energy supply for geopolitical purposes.

In recent months, the Kremlin-controlled gas giant Gazprom has turned down Ukrainian offers for additional pipeline capacity, despite the surge in European demand for gas due to a range of factors, including maintenance of other Russian gas pipelines. Moscow prefers to wait for Nord Stream 2 to go live and wants to send a clear message that it expects Russia’s European customers to facilitate this process without delay.

Russia’s decision not to send additional gas to European markets via Ukraine resulted in record prices and plummeting gas stocks. This is raising concerns across Europe ahead of the next heating season.

The Ukrainian gas transmission network operator is more than capable of meeting any increase in European demand for Russian gas supply, but in recent years Moscow has preferred to reduce flows while developing alternative transit routes bypassing the ‘Ukraine. Despite this general downward trend, both in 2019 and 2020, Gazprom has reserved additional Ukrainian capacity to offset temporary deficits due to pipeline maintenance work elsewhere. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that Moscow had no major problems with this practice until the current summer season. Most observers attribute this policy change to Nord Stream 2 and Russia’s willingness to stress that the new pipeline is the only way to secure additional gas supplies.

Moscow’s actions cannot be explained with reference to Gazprom’s legitimate economic interests. In reality, these recent maneuvers reflect Russia’s geopolitical interests and the personal preferences of Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin clearly sensed a lack of unity within the Western world over the Nord Stream 2 project and is keen to deepen these divisions while asserting its own strategic advantage.

By refusing to address the current shortage of supplies, Putin hopes to increase pressure on Germany and the EU to issue the final approvals required before Nord Stream 2 can enter service. In this thinly veiled manner, he intends to underscore the growing strength of Russia’s position as Europe’s main gas supplier.

The recent actions of Gazprom demonstrate once again that Russia is not a reliable partner and does not intend to separate economic interests from geopolitical interests. Instead, Moscow views energy supply as a foreign policy tool to expand Russian influence. This is most immediately apparent within the confines of the former Tsarist and Soviet empires, where modern Russia continues to view its independent neighbors as partially sovereign and under informal Kremlin control.

Ukraine is the main target of Russia’s current pipeline policy. While the negative impact of Nord Stream 2 on the Ukrainian economy has been well documented, Putin’s new pipeline poses a potentially much greater threat to Ukrainian security. By undermining the country’s status as a key transit route to the EU, Moscow will succeed in significantly reducing the geopolitical importance of Ukraine. This could pave the way for a major escalation of Russia’s ongoing military intervention in Ukraine.

As the battle over Nord Stream 2 now enters its final and decisive phase, it is time for EU leaders to reflect on the implications of this game-changing infrastructure project. Is it really in Europe’s interest to support a pipeline that Russia clearly sees as a geopolitical weapon? How can EU leaders claim to be on Ukraine’s side while allowing Nord Stream 2 to continue?

The only sensible answer to these delicate questions is greater European solidarity. Unless Ukraine and EU member states unite now, there is no doubt that they will each be individually victims of further acts of Russian blackmail and aggression once Moscow consolidates its control. on the continent’s energy supplies.

Inna Sovsun is a Ukrainian MP from the Golos party.

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The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.

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