On October 7, the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his German counterpart Heiko Maas issued a joint statement condemning the “Russian involvement and responsibility” in the Novichok poisoning of Alexey Navalny. In retaliation for the violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, France and Germany will share several proposals for sanctions with their European partners.
This statement occurs in the complex and unstable context of the Russian-European project, Nord Stream 2. Undermined by threats of U.S. sanctions, this infrastructure venture, surely the most ambitious in Europe, is currently at a standstill.
In Germany, various political figures are voicing their willingness to abandon the project, such as Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Bundestag and presidential candidate of the CDU. Another candidate, Friederich Merz, offered to immediately suspend the work for two years in reaction to Navalny’s poisoning. Despite these pressures, Angela Merkel can still rely on other supporters, such as the former chancellor, and chairman of the supervisory board of Nord Stream, Gerhard Schröder, or Nils Schmid, the vice-chairman of the SPD group in the Bundestag. As the German Chancellor begins her final year in office, the future of the project has never been so uncertain.
What is Nord Stream 2?
Nord Stream is a setup of gas pipelines that would allow Germany to be supplied with Russian natural gas via the Baltic Sea. The first two pipelines were inaugurated in 2011 and are known under the name “Nord Stream 1.”
The Nord Stream 2 project for the construction of two other pipelines was launched in 2018 to double the quantity supplied by Nord Stream 1.
While benefitting from the unmitigated support of Moscow, Nord Stream 2 is a truly European project, driven by 4 countries: Russia (through Gazprom — 51% shares), Germany, (through Wintershall and PEG Infrastruktur — 15.5% each), and France and the Netherlands (9% each, via Engie and Gasunie). In addition, more than 100 companies from 12 European countries are involved in the construction of Nord Stream 2.
The pipeline is a response to Germany’s increasing demand for natural gas. The German energetic transition policy aims to reduce coal-burning and close nuclear reactors by 2022. Natural gas is necessary to achieve this transition and could become, according to an article from Reuters, the second pillar of the power supply after renewables.
Nord Stream 2 would allow Russia to transport gas in unmatched quantities to Europe. This competitive advantage, along with the low price of Russian gas, resulted in the United States’ strict opposition to the project. Indeed, since the advent of technical innovations allowing the extraction of shale gas and its export as liquefied natural gas (LNG), the USA has become one of the leading gas suppliers in the world. However, the cost of producing American gas is much higher than that of Russian gas. It is therefore easy to understand the American hostility towards the project. On December 21 2019, while Nord Stream 2 was 94% complete, the threat of an American antitrust law to sanction companies involved in the construction of the pipeline led Allseas, a Swiss company, to halt its work. In order to resume work, the consortium has to find another contractor, but other firms fear finding themselves under U.S. sanctions.
American pressure is greatly felt in Europe. Last August, a group of U.S. Republican senators vowed to impose “crushing legal and economic sanctions” on the Port of Sassnitz in Germany. The USA also slowed down the project by putting pressure on the countries concerned by the route, such as Denmark, which was the last one to issue authorization for the pipeline to cross its territorial waters. As one of the major U.S. allies in Europe, Poland’s antitrust watchdog slapped a record $7.6 billion fine on Gazprom, which represents 10% of the Russian company’s revenue. Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish Prime Minister, also called on Germany to halt the Nord Stream 2 project, depicting it as a threat to the stability of Europe.
It is certain that the creation of the pipeline, by stimulating competition, would allow a more reasonable price on the European gas market. Critics of the project fear a dependence of European countries on Russian gas. This argument can easily be questioned. Indeed, Nord Stream 2 in no way prevents other suppliers such as Algeria, Norway, the USA or the Netherlands from supplying gas to European countries to diversify their supply. The central issue is that of a lower price, which, as in all markets, worries suppliers.
Opposition to Nord Stream 2 is not motivated by market share concerns only, as global energy supply flows have an inherent geopolitical dimension. The position of Ukraine epitomizes this intertwining of economic, energy security, and geopolitical aspects. Indeed, Nord Stream 2 would also allow Russia to bypass Ukraine, located on the main current route for European imports of Russian gas—and to deprive it of 2 billion dollars annually, roughly 3% of the country’s GDP. Because of its key strategic position, in the long term, it is in the interest of all countries to maintain a cordial relationship with the latter. This is why the question of its loss of income must be addressed, respected and treated seriously, both by Russia and by its Western partners.
Navalny Poisoning: a Tool in Information Warfare
The objective of this article is not to lift the veil on the unfortunate poisoning of Alexey Navalny but to understand how this affair is treated by the mass media and what impact it has on the Nord Stream 2 project.
On August 20, Alexei Navalny fell ill on a flight between Siberia and Moscow and was placed in a coma for two weeks. Initially hospitalized in Omsk, he was transferred to Germany on August 22, where, following blood work, the Novichok nerve agent was found in his system.
Although the outcome of the Navalny case remains unknown, it is already fueling pro-Western and pro-Russian arguments. First of all, by the communication of Mr Navalny himself, who, via social networks like Twitter or Instagram, accuses the Kremlin of his poisoning.
In the overwhelming majority of Western media who use him as a figure to denounce the Russian system, Alexey Navalny is presented as the primary opponent of Vladimir Putin. The first analysis of the case published by Le Monde (one of the most popular French newspapers) states, “there is a simple truth: political violence is inherent to the Putin system.”
This thesis, depicting Russian power assassinating its opponents, comes from an old narrative framework and reminds us of a collective subconscious very present in Western minds. There are many examples, for example the Skripal Affair recently, but also in Russian history, such as the elimination of Paul I by Catherine II, the sponsored assassination of Trotsky, Alexander I, etc. It is essential to take into account this common bias moulded by the Cold War when analyzing Western media criticism of Russian power.
In the context described previously, the choice of Navalny’s relatives to transport him outside of Russia, to Germany, on purpose or not, necessarily gives a geopolitical and international dimension to his poisoning.
The outcome of this assassination attempt is, at present, murky and difficult to anticipate. Nevertheless, the criticism, analysis and denunciation of the presumed role of the Russian government in the poisoning have made it possible to question the place of Russia in the system of international relations.
The American newspaper Politico clearly highlights the dynamics in Western mass media. In an article dated September 16, Polish Minister of European Affairs Konrad Szymański took a stance on Nord Stream 2. The article headlined, “Navalny poisoning shows why Putin’s pipeline must be stopped.” As the article goes on, he denounces the Russian-European project, criticizes German energy consumption and defines the poisoning of Navalny as a “rude awakening” of the danger that Europe runs when dealing with Russia.
Several major European newspapers have used similar arguments, such as The Guardian, Le Figaro, Corriere della Sera or Deutsche Welle. Alexei Navalny is, well beyond his control, a communication tool in the information warfare. His case is instrumentalized and allows different stakeholders to assert their interests.
Nord Stream 2: Revealing Interests and Influences
In this geopolitical chessboard based on communication, some countries have obvious interests. This is the case for the United States, Poland, the Baltic States and Ukraine. On the other hand, Austria’s President Alexander Van der Bellen supports the project. After talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, he declared, “In this particular case, we are talking about diversifying gas supplies. This is a commercial issue.”
Most of the other stakeholders have more ambivalent positions. France, which contributes to the project through the company Engie (whose state has 23.6% of the shares) has a clear economic interest in the realization of the project. However, the country—in a declared approach of rapprochement with Russia since the election of President Macron—is also subject to American influence through its bilateral relations and structures such as NATO.
The American influence is even more visible on Denmark, despite the denial of the Danish government on the interference of foreign powers. The country first authorized the construction of the gas pipeline in its territorial waters on October 30, 2019, a few months after the election of Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. More recently, in an interview with Danish agency Ritzau, the latter declared, “I’ve been against Nord Stream 2 from the start” and “I don’t think we should make ourselves dependent on Russian gas.”
We can also remember that in July 2020, Mike Pompeo, American Secretary of State, visited Denmark. During this visit, he publicly praised the country’s energy policy.
What About the Future?
Angela Merkel has on several occasions insisted on the absence of a link between the poisoning of Navalny and the construction of Nord Stream 2. While the project has stalled since last year, this speech shows the vital interest of Germany for privileged access to Russian gas. Germany’s energy transition depends on it. However, as we have seen, Europe is fundamentally divided on this project. As a true driving force of the European Union, Germany must condemn the poisoning of Navalny, treated in a German hospital, in order to consolidate its leadership.
France, the other great leader of the European Union, is following it in this process. This is why the joint statement of the two foreign ministers, Mr Le Drian and Mr Maas, presented in the introduction underlined the following concerning sanctions: “Proposals will target individuals deemed responsible for this crime and breach of international norms, based on their official function, as well as an entity involved in the Novichok program.” The absence of any mention of the Nord Stream project, while it is at the very centre of current geopolitical tensions, shows the strong will of the two countries to carry out the project.
Completion of the pipeline, which has already cost Russian and European partners more than 9.5 billion Euros, will greatly depend on the treatment of information in key countries, with Germany at the forefront. Time is playing for the United States while Angela Merkel, still faithful to the project, will be replaced within a few months. If the project is not completed or abandoned before the next German election, we can be sure that Nord Stream 2 will occupy a prominent place in the debates.
From our partner RIAC
Nord Stream 2: To Gain or to Refrain? Why Germany Refuses to Bend under Sanctions Pressure
The chances of the sanctions war around Nord Stream 2 to rage on after the construction of the pipeline is finally over seem to be high. That said, we have to admit, with regret or with joy, that it will be completed, and for the following reasons:
Germany, like any other European country, has set itself the task of abandoning coal and nuclear energy within the next few decades. In reality, however, there is no alternative to coal and nuclear energy. Simultaneously forsaking gasoline and diesel cars, which is something Europe dreams about, will inevitably increase the EU’s demand for electricity. However, green energy is unlikely to satisfy Europe’s energy needs any time soon. Hopes for cheap thermonuclear energy are unlikely to come true until 2050 at best. Therefore, in the coming decades, natural gas, Russian and other, will obviously remain the most convenient and cheapest fuel. At the same time, regardless of where the pipelines run, Russian natural gas will account for a significant share of the European and world markets. This is not politics – just a simple economic reality.
Despite the attributed environmental benefits of Nord Stream 2 and the Russian natural gas, the positive impact of replacing coal with natural gas remains largely unclear as it depends on the volume of methane leaking from the processes of gas extraction and transportation. Nonetheless, Nord Stream 2 presents itself as an attractive alternative for the EU as it would help decrease gas prices because Russia will be able to supply the EU with higher amounts of gas, thus, decreasing demand for expensive imported liquified natural gas (LNG).
Nord Stream 2, although a privately-financed commercial project, has political implications. Politics and economics are too closely intertwined, and in the short term at that. The abandonment of Nord Stream 2 will hardly weaken Russia and force the Kremlin to introduce democratic reforms. This will only result in Europe losing a good opportunity to effectively ensure its energy independence, as well as that of its Baltic and Eastern European allies, many of whom, unable to fully integrate themselves into European energy systems, continue to buy electricity from Russia.
At the same time, Nord Stream 2 will help make Germany a guarantor of the EU’s energy security. More and more people now feel that the sanctions against the Russian-German project are essentially meant to undermine Germany’s growing influence. However, even this abnormally cold winter has shown that political problems and competition for influence in the EU are taking a back seat to energy security issues. The disruption in LNG supplies from the United States has only underscored Europe’s need for the Nord Stream. Besides, when completed and controlled by Germany, Nord Stream 2 could be used as a means of pressure against Russia and Russian supplies which is exactly what Brussels and Washington want.
Yet, the United States continues to oppose the Nord Stream 2 project and, thus, trans-Atlantic tensions between Germany and the United States are on the rise. Like the Obama and Trump Administrations which opposed Nord Stream 2 and introduced tangible steps to halt its progress, the Biden Administration is too faced with a lot of pressure by American lobbyists and members of the Congress in order to push back and halt Nord Stream 2 progress and efforts. However, until this very day, US President Biden and his administration did not sanction the project, which could be understood in lights of Biden’s struggling efforts to repair relations with Germany after the Trump Administration’s accusations towards and troop withdrawals from Germany. Thus, although the current administration under Biden still opposes Nord Stream 2, it is reluctant to impose any sanctions because its priorities lie with repairing US-German ties in the Post-Trump era.
The United States is not the only opposing International player to Nord Stream 2, but even many Eastern European countries, including Slovakia, Ukraine and Poland are against the pipeline project in fear of geo-economic insecurity. For instance, it is believed that Nord Stream 2 would cost Ukraine approximately $2 to $3 billion in losses as the transit volumes shift from Ukraine to Nord Stream 2. Another argument put forth by European opposition to Nord Stream 2 is that it would undermine the EU’s energy solidarity or even a potential “Energy Union”; however, Germany and supporters of Nord Stream 2 often highlight that the imported Russian gas would not only benefit Germany, but rather all of Europe. The pipeline is expected upon completion to be able to transport 55 billion cubic meters of Russian Natural Gas to Germany and other clients in Europe!
Despite oppositions, threats of sanctioning and the earlier construction halt in December 2019, it seems that the Gazprom-Pipeline Nord Stream 2 will be completed and will go online soon as the Biden Administration continues to refrain from imposing sanctions.
How Azerbaijan changed the energy map of the Caspian Sea
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, crude oil and natural gas have been playing a key role in the geopolitics of the Caspian region. Hydrocarbon revenues became an important source of economic growth for the Caspian Basin countries such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. Shortly after gaining independence in the early 1990s, the Caspian states implemented energy policies that protect their national interests. According to the BP 2020Statistical Review of World Energy total proved energy reserves of the Caspian states are: Kazakhstan has30.00 billion barrels of oil and 2.7 trillion cubic meters of gas, Azerbaijan 7.00billion barrels of oil and 2.8 trillion cubic meters of gas, and Turkmenistan 0.6billion barrels of oil and 19.5 trillion cubic meters of gas.
Such rich hydrocodone reserves allowed the Caspian states to contribute significantly to the global energy markets. Today, the Caspian states are supplying oil and natural gas to various energy markets, and they are interested in increasing export volume and diversification of export routes. In comparison with Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, which supply energy sources mainly to China and Russia, Azerbaijan established a backbone to export energy sources to Europe and Transatlantic space. As the Caspian Sea is landlocked, and its hydrocarbon resources located at a great distance from the world’s major energy consumers, building up energy infrastructure was very important to export oil and gas.
To this end, Azerbaijan created the milestone for delivery of the first Caspian oil and natural gas by implementing mega energy projects such as Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline and Southern Gas Corridor (SGC).Now, one can say that both energy projects resulted from successful energy policy implemented by Azerbaijan. Despite the COVID-19 recession, the supply of the Azerbaijani oil to the world energy markets continued. In general, the BTC pipeline carries mainly Azeri-Chirag-Gunashli (ACG) crude oil and Shah Deniz condensate from Azerbaijan. Also, other volumes of crude oil and condensate continue to be transported via BTC, including volumes from Turkmenistan, Russia and Kazakhstan. As it is clear, the BTC pipeline linked directly the Caspian oil resources to the Western energy markets. The BTC pipeline exported over 27.8 million tons of crude oil loaded on 278 tankers at Ceyhan terminal in 2020. The European and the Asian countries became the major buyers of the Azerbaijani oil, and Italy (26.2%) and China (14%) became two major oil importers from Azerbaijan.
The successful completion of the SGC also strengthened Azerbaijani position in the Caspian region. The first Caspian natural gas to the European energy markets has been already supplied via Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) in December 2020, which is the European segment of the SGC. According to TAP AG consortium,a total of one billion cubic metres (bcm) of natural gas from Azerbaijan has now entered Europe via the Greek interconnection point of Kipoi, where TAP connects to the Trans Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP). The TAP project contributes significantly to diversification of supply sources and routes in Europe.
Another historical event that affected the Caspian region was the rapprochement between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. The MoU on joint exploration of “Dostluk/Friendship” (previously called Kapaz in Azerbaijani and Sardar in Turkmen) offshore field between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan was an important event that will cause positive changes in the energy map of the Caspian Sea.
The Assembly of Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan Parliament have already approved the agreed Memorandumon joint exploration, development, and deployment of hydrocarbon resources at the “Dostluq” field. It should be noted that for the first time two Caspian states agreed to cooperate in the energy sector, which opens a window for the future Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP) from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan. Such cooperation and the future transit of Turkmen oil and gas via the existing energy infrastructure of Azerbaijan will be a milestone for trans-regional cooperation.
The supply of the Caspian and Central Asian natural gas to European energy markets was always attractive. Therefore, the TCP is a strategic energy project for the US and EU. After the signing of the Caspian Convention, the EU officials resumed talks with Turkmenistan regarding the TCP. The May 2019 visit of the Turkmen delegation headed by the Advisor of the President of Turkmenistan on oil and gas issues was aimed at holding technical consultations between Turkmenistan and the EU. Turkmen delegation met with the representatives of the General Directorate on Energy of the European Commission and with the representatives of “British Petroleum,” “Shell” and “Total” companies. TCP is a project which supports diversification of gas sources and routes for the EU, and the gas pipeline to the EU from Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan via Georgia and Turkey, known as the combination of “Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline” (TCP), “South-Caucasus Pipeline Future Expansion” (SCPFX) became the “Project of Common Interest” for the EU.
Conclusively, Azerbaijan is a key energy player in the region. Mega energy projects of the country play an important role to deliver Caspian oil and gas to global energy markets. However, the Second Karabakh War has revealed the importance of peace and security in the region. The BTC pipeline and the Southern Gas Corridor linking directly the Caspian energy to Western energy markets were under Armenian constant threat. As noted by Hikmat Hajiyev, the Foreign Policy Advisor to the President, “Armenia fired cluster rocket to BTC pipeline in Yevlak region”. Fortunately, during the Second Karabakh War, Azerbaijan protected its strategic infrastructure, and there was no energy disruption. But attacks on critical energy infrastructure revealed that instability in the region would cause damages to the interests of many states.
In the end, Azerbaijan changed the energy map of the Caspian Sea by completing mega energy projects, as well as creating the milestone for energy cooperation in the Caspian region. After Azerbaijan’s victory in the Second Karabakh War, the country supports full regional economic integration by opening all transport and communication links. Now, the importance of the Caspian region became much more important, and Azerbaijan supports the idea of the exportation of natural gas from Turkmenistan and the Mediterranean via SGC. Such cooperation will further increase the geostrategic importance of the SGC, as well as Azerbaijan’s role as a transit country.
The Silk Road of Gas: Energy Business from Central Asia to Europe
Central Asia possesses a significant role within the global geopolitical balance since it comprises numerous trade channels that link many businesses with millions of target customers from China to Portugal and vice-versa. Withal, by having abundant hydrocarbon potentials, the region offers tremendous opportunities to the global and local players.
Throughout the recent period, the preponderance of the energy-based plans and policies triggered the emergence of mega projects in the region, such as the Southern Gas Corridor, Central Asia–China gas pipeline, TAPI, and a possible Trans-Caspian pipeline in the upcoming years. Albeit these intense investment activities are foreshadowing new regional perspectives for economic development, it also generates additional alternatives and realities for the European policymakers.
The new business in the traditional routes
Anciently, the region was home to the legendary Silk Road, which was shaping the vivid economic landscape of the planet. Today, the region’s erstwhile role in trade seems to be revitalized to some extent by the projects such as the Road and Belt Initiative. In contradistinction to the past, energy forms the backbone of modern trade in Central Asia despite some cardinal difficulties of marketing and transportation.
In the last decade, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan had some attempts to increase their presence in the sector via their involvement in Central Asia–China gas pipeline. Notwithstanding, none of them was able to establish a comprehensive framework of cooperation with the EU as Azerbaijan. Through its unique Southern Gas Corridor project, which enables the transfer of the natural gas from the Shah Deniz field of the Caspian Sea to South Europe, Azerbaijan had radically transformed the pipeline mappings at the Caspian region. Concomitantly this channel provides a tremendous chance to the other landlocked Central Asian countries to be able to meet the rising demand in the European market.
From the European Union perspective, energy can be categorized as a strategic sector since the European economy increasingly relies on international suppliers. Currently, 54% of the energy consumption within the EU is imported mainly from Russia. More specifically, in 2019, Russian stake in the EU’s natural gas import was 44%, and the dependency of EU countries on Russian gas in 2013 as follows: Estonia 100%, Finland 100%, Latvia 100%, Lithuania 100%, Slovakia 100%, Bulgaria 97%, Hungary 83%, Slovenia 72%, Greece 66%, Czech Republic 63%, Austria 62%, Poland 57%, and Germany 46%. These substantial factors are forming the backdrop of the EU’s diversification policy in the concerning field through the establishment of intense diplomatic and economic ties to ensure the sustainability of energy security.
During the anticipated turbulent periods, especially considering the latest exacerbation between Russia and the Western bloc over the Ukraine dispute, the European economy might inevitably face some severe hurdles. Since there is a possibility that the process might be accompanied by the risk of the blockage of the Russian gas by the transit countries.
The viable solution
Geopolitical escalations undoubtedly hasten the energy diversification process within the European Union. Therefore, the essence of the energy policy of the EU can be categorized as a combination of liberal and realist approaches. Although the union intends to achieve its economic goals via the market mechanisms, it also adopts a realist standpoint in International Relations, specifically in the energy context.
As stated by the British Petroleum data published in 2019, proved gas reserves of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan totaled26,2 trillion cubic meters or 13,1% of the world’s known reserve. Undoubtedly, such an enormous potential would significantly contribute to the energy security of the EU.
Given the current situation in the European energy market and the global political climate, the EU cannot ignore its energy security concept, which is the fundamental aim of energy policy. In this sense, Southern Gas Corridor appears like the most convenient alternative by considering the future possibility of the construction of the Trans-Caspian pipeline that would dramatically facilitate the direct transfer of the Central Asian gas to South Europe.
As long as the EU is dependent on the imports of fossil fuels, the necessity of the balance in the energy sector will remain topical. Hence the formulation of a rational approach towards cooperation with potential suppliers, particularly key countries such as Azerbaijan, is essential. Otherwise, the energy notion will remain a risky and problematic political and economic instrument.
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