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
The African oil markets of China and the continuous daily needs for crude oil
In an attempt to position themselves as international players in the global oil and gas market, China’s national oil companies are investing heavily in the exploration and production of oil and gas supplies in Africa. Africa is the second largest region in supplying oil and gas to China, after the Middle East, with over 25% of its total imported oil and gas.
There are three key players committing an almost equal share of the planned 15 billion US dollar spending to the development and production of the African oil sector: China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation (SINOPEC) and China National Offshore Oil (CNOOC).
The joint investment is expected to be the fourth largest one in the 2019-2023 period, after BP Plc, Royal Dutch Shell Plc and ENI SpA. This investment in African oil and gas is larger than the 10 billion dollars that the People’s Republic of China is investing in South America and is more than double the estimated investment in North America. Coa Chai, an expert at GlobalData, said: “About two thirds of spending is in Nigeria, Angola, Uganda and Mozambique. SINOPEC and CNOOC are well-established in Nigeria and Angola, while CNPC has a stake in the Rovuma LNG project in Mozambique”. He also added: “The increase in domestic energy demand has led China to diversify its imports of natural resources and China’s presence has increased significantly in almost 20 African countries”. One of China’s largest trading partners is the largest African oil producer, namely Nigeria. Nigeria currently pumps two million oil barrels a day and aims at producing three million barrels a day by the end of 2023. As China’s domestic oil production keeps on declining, experts predict that up to 80% of crude oil will be imported over the next 15 years.
There have been several remarkable investments by CNOOC, including the acquisition of a majority shareholding in an oil and gas exploration project by the Australian company FAR Ltd. The latter is drilling oil off the coast of Guinea-Bissau (West Africa). A FAR Ltd. spokesman said that CNOOC would obtain a 55.6% stake in the Sinapa and Esperança licenses of Swedish Svenska Petroleum Exploration AB. The Chinese oil producer may choose to become the operator of the joint venture after the completion of an upcoming offshore drilling campaign. CNOOC’s interest will be converted into a 50% share in case of successful discoveries. In Nigeria, CNOOC’s investment and involvement dates back to 2005 and the company is now the largest Chinese investment entity in Nigeria.
In 2006, CNOOC spent 2.3 billion dollars to acquire a 45% stake in the deepwater license of the Nigerian company OML 130, which is located in one of the most prolific oil and gas fields on the planet and contains the deposits of Akpo (discovered in 2000) and Aegina (discovered in 2003).
The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) has made public its support for Chinese investment in Nigeria, despite the fact that the region has had considerable problems with the populations involved. These problems include sporadic outbreaks of violence: some young people have taken actions, including theft, as a way to demand access to the country’s oil wealth. There has also been a questionable lack of transparency by NNPC, which apparently has not been able to demonstrate its billion dollar revenues in recent years.
While trying to meet the growing domestic demand for fuel, Aliko Dangote (No. 1957) – the richest African and Nigerian business tycoon – is building what will be Africa’s largest oil refinery in the former capital Lagos. The nine billion dollar megaproject is supposed to be completed by the end of 2020, thus doubling Nigeria’s refining capacity and potentially turning the country into an exporter of refined products.
As China’s largest oil and gas producer in terms of efficiency and power developed, CNPC has recently signed a contract with the government of Benin (West Africa) to build and operate a crude oil pipeline in the region. It will extend for 1,980 kilometres from the Agadem oil field in Niger to the Seme Terminal port in Benin. It is the largest investment in a transnational pipeline that CNPC has ever made in Africa and aims at further allowing the transport of crude oil from Niger to international markets, as well as promoting social and economic development in Benin. Besides these large companies that invest heavily in the oil and gas industry, China is also contributing to the growth of African infrastructure as a way to have great economic and social impact. A noteworthy entrepreneur is Wilson Wu, an electrical engineer, who now manages the free trade zone of the Ogun State, Nigeria: a public-private project in which the local government provides the land and Chinese companies the capital. Wu is said to be one of about one million Chinese citizens who have ventured into Africa over the last twenty years to seek their fortune.
The daily need for black gold
It should be noted that the People’s Republic of China has increased its oil share by 20% so as to take advantage of low oil prices. Indeed, according to an announcement by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, in a situation of declining demand and signs of increasing supply, the world’s largest oil buyer has increased the share for the use of crude oil abroad by non-State entities for 2021 by over 20% compared to 2020.
The increase in the import quota is equal to about 823,000 barrels per day, which is slightly lower than the amount pumped by Algeria that is an OPEC member. The companies that will use oil include privately-owned refineries, known as “teapots”, which in recent years have become increasingly important in the global oil market. These companies have been operating their facilities at a higher utilization rate than in 2019 for many months now, while their counterparts in the United States and Europe are lagging behind.
The increase shows that China’s oil purchases will be even larger at a time when global demand is facing new headwinds coming from further restrictions and blockages, while Covid-19 infections are spreading again in Europe and the United States.
Deteriorating demand prospects, together with a new supply in Libya, have weighed on reference prices, thus bringing West Texas Intermediate down to 6% on October 26, 2020. At 7:29 a.m. New York local time, the crude oil price was 2.4% lower, at $34.93 per barrel.
Behind the import push there is the ambitious expansion of China’s capacity. The country’s brand new mega-refinery, Zhejiang Petrochemical, started up one of its new 200,000 barrel/day crude oil distillation units on November 1. Another independent Chinese refinery, the Shenghong Petrochemical Group, is working on the construction of the country’s largest crude oil unit, which is expected to start up by the end of 2021.
Oil traders have been buying cargoes since the beginning of October 2020 and sending them to China, hoping to capitalize on an expected increase in demand at the end of the year when the independent refineries obtain the import licenses for 2021.
According to the Ministry statement, China has set the import quotas of crude oil for non-State companies at 243 million tons. According to the data collected by Bloomberg, this is equivalent to 4.9 million barrels per day. China has kept its annual quota unchanged at 202 million tons for this year, after an extraordinary increase of over one million oil barrels per day for 2019 compared to the previous year.
Energy Research Platform Takes Central Stage under Russia’s BRICS Chairmanship
After the Ufa declaration in 2015, BRICS, an association of five major emerging economies that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, has made energy cooperation one of its priorities besides attaining an admirable significant influence on regional affairs and very active on the global stage.
That 7th summit held in July in the Russian provincial city of Ufa in Bashkortostan, under Russia’s initiative the BRICS adopted the key guideline for expanding among many other spheres, development of energy cooperation, bridging the scientific and technological gap, as well as finding solutions to the challenges in the energy sector among the members.
The Ufa Declaration (point 69) states “Recognizing the importance of monitoring global trends in the energy sector, including making forecasts regarding energy consumption, providing recommendations for the development of energy markets in order to ensure energy security and economic development, we call on our relevant agencies to consider the possibilities of energy cooperation within BRICS.”
“Taking into consideration the role of the energy sector in ensuring the sustainable economic development of the BRICS countries, we welcome balancing the interests of consumers, producers and transit countries of energy resources, creating the conditions for sustainable and predictable development of the energy markets,” it further stated.
Worth to remind here that it was Russia’s proposal to hold the first meeting of the BRICS Ministers of Energy during the fourth quarter of 2015. While reaffirming the importance and necessity of advancing international cooperation in the field of energy saving, energy efficiency and developing energy efficient technologies, the BRICS look forward to developing intra-BRICS cooperation in this area, as well as the establishment of the relevant platform.
In 2020, Russia holds the rotating chair of BRICS. BRICS has neither a secretariat nor a charter. The country that chairs BRICS organizes the group’s summit and coordinates its current activities. Russia has been holding series of conferences focusing on different directions. In mid-October, the BRICS Energy Ministers held their meeting and approved a roadmap for cooperation in energy sphere that runs until 2025. Due to coronavirus pandemic, it was video conference chaired by Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak.
The influence of BRICS nations on the international arena is increasing due to the increasing economic power of the participating states, and it is imperative for them to coordinate their positions in energy cooperation, Minister Novak said during the meeting.
“Today, the BRICS nations represent nearly one fourth of global GDP and over a third of global consumption and production of energy. In this regard, it is very important to coordinate the positions of our nations where we have common interests and speak from a unified position in global platforms which concern themselves with matters of international energy cooperation,” he said.
“We have already begun to implement this idea in practice. Our nations have launched informal consultations on the sidelines of the G20 and on the sidelines of the World Energy Council. Beginning our work this year, we have collectively determined three key vectors of the energy dialogue. These are the support for the development of the national energy systems of BRICS nations, technological cooperation and facilitation of improved terms for investment in energy, contributing to the stability of energy markets and increasing the role of BRICS in the global energy dialogue,” Novak emphasized.
The roadmap adopted at the end of the meeting is the first comprehensive document that sets out agreed plans for the development of the energy dialogue between the five countries. The meeting also issued a communique confirming the intention to strengthen their strategic partnership in the energy sector and the area of energy security, and noting the important role of all types of energy, including fossil fuels and nuclear power.
The ministers affirmed that energy transition should correspond to national conditions and each country should determine the optimal policy without being compelled to adopt models that do not fit BRICS countries, according to the Russian ministry statement.
On October 15, Moscow hosted the first Annual Meeting of the BRICS Energy Research Platform, where analytical reports by the BRICS countries presented. That was followed by the largest youth energy event in BRICS. This year, delegations from all five countries comprised of representatives of Line Agencies responsible for the implementation of energy and youth policies as well as over 150 young scientists and experts from 40 leading universities and industrial organizations took part in the summit.
According to surveys conducted by the VTsIOM, Russian public opinion research centre, the number of families that have been taught to save energy has doubled over the past five years. That the BRICS countries are taking part in the #TogetherBrighter International Energy Saving Festival, as part of the BRICS Energy Week (October 16 – 20) was a landmark event of Russia’s BRICS Chairmanship.
Notably, the Energy Research Platform designed to encourage the research community’s involvement in the practical activities on drawing up energy resource plans. Two major events took place as part of the Energy Research Platform. The results submitted for consideration by the heads of state for effective industrial interaction and practical cooperation in developing and implementing new joint energy.
Based on national statistics and forecasts, leading BRICS experts have prepared the “BRICS Energy Report” – a review of the energy sectors in the five countries, and the “BRICS Energy Technology Report” – focuses on the priorities of technological development of the fuel and energy sectors in BRICS. The reports came from leading experts, representatives of major research institutes and energy companies from the BRICS countries as well as international energy organizations, such as OPEC, GECF, the World Energy Forum, the Clean Energy Ministerial and the World Energy Council.
In September, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held an online meeting of the BRICS Foreign Ministers Council in Moscow. That was second of such meetings this year under Russia’s chairmanship. The first one was dedicated exclusively to mobilizing efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus infection.
Within an updated Strategy for BRICS Economic Partnership to 2025, Russia has drawn proposals on developing a new mechanism for the five member’s interaction in securing sustainable economic development in the post-pandemic age.
The theme of the Meeting of the Leaders of BRICS countries is “BRICS Partnership for Global Stability, Shared Security and Innovative Growth” which is planned for November 17 via videoconference, to be coordinated and moderated in Moscow. This year the five countries have continued close strategic partnership on all the three major pillars: peace and security, economy and finance, cultural and people-to-people exchanges.
“Despite the current global situation due to the spread of the coronavirus infection, the activities under the Russian BRICS Chairmanship in 2020 are carried out in a consistent manner. Since January 2020, more than 60 events have been organized, including via videoconferencing. The BRICS Summit will provide impetus for further strengthening cooperation together with our partners and ensure well-being of BRICS countries,” – noted Anton Kobyakov, Adviser to the President of the Russian Federation, Executive Secretary of the Organizing Committee to Prepare and Support Russia’s SCO Presidency in 2019 – 2020 and BRICS Chairmanship in 2020.
Since 2009, the BRICS nations have met annually at formal summits, with Brazil having hosted the most recent 11th BRICS Summit in November 2019. Russia is pushing forward significant issues of five-sided cooperation in the bloc’s three areas of strategic partnership: policy and security, economy and finance, and cultural and educational cooperation. The five BRICS countries together represent over 3.1 billion people, or about 41 percent of the world population.
Don’t Expect Sanctions to Stop Nord Stream II
Republican Senator Ted Cruz has become the principal Sisyphus-like character to take over the task of rolling the boulder of sanctions against Nord Stream II. The last four years have seen tumultuous U.S. sanctioning efforts against the project and have epitomized an outdated, stale, and dangerous policy against the Russian Federation that should be re-prioritized and established alongside American principles and level-headed recommendations. This current policy of the passé will not change overnight, however, a sober, self-reflective examination of the failed sanctioning efforts on the part of U.S. policymakers could lead to one less thorn in the side of the Russo-American relationship. As the project nears completion, European and American critics of it have attempted to wield a Russian domestic issue, the alleged poisoning of opposition politician Alexey Navalny, as a pressure tool to stop it. With Denmark recently granting permission to continue laying the pipeline using pipe-laying vessels with anchors along the southeast coast of Bornholm, this disheartened push may now prove too weak.
It’s Time to Let Go
When former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden first voiced his disapproval of the Nord Stream II pipeline and called it a “bad deal” for Europe in 2016, it was to be expected that the weight of his utterance would have the power to transform into a discernible political reality sooner rather than later in the halls of U.S. Congress. Especially in light of America’s perspective LNG aspirations hoping to meet Europe’s growing import needs. This would not come in the form of recurring strong-worded messages or initiating a new wave of tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats but by way of economic sanctions. After all, this has long been the U.S. go-to.” When it comes to Russian pipelines, U.S. efforts to derail them since the 1960s, the time of the construction of the Druzhba (Friendship) pipeline, have largely seen a string of failure. Sanctions have also more generally become, as Hunter Cawood aptly frames it, “a mythology that has persisted and lived on in spite of failure after failure”. Hopes of finding an exception to this convention did not begin with a flying start.
It’s time to let go…because of an incoherent strategy, appearing in a historical context of failure, signals peril.
Round One: Shaky First Steps
This new task of sanctioning the NS2 project appeared not as a unilateral and relatively clear-cut scenario as had been the case of sanctions vis-à-vis, for example, Iran, where its effects could do minimal damage to the robust transatlantic relationship with the EU. Overarchingly, the principal argument and qualms from the side of the U.S. was the claim of its detrimental impact on the EU’s energy security and, as a shared concern with various EU countries spearheaded by Poland, the “threat to EU unity”. As we shall discover, U.S. justifications for sanctioning NS2 would zig-zag around different lines of reasoning but would frequently come back to this notion of Russia’s malign influence. NS2, more interestingly, became a scenario where entanglements of linking the target of sanctions with a particular cause could become awkward in light of any signs of ambiguity or lack of clarity. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, from her part, was clear in this regard: this was an economic project, first and foremost, that required no extra mandate from the EU. To disagree on this principle, as the U.S. would do from the onset by likening it to that of a “weapon”, would become the root of the disagreement.
In August 2017, this is precisely what occurred when the subsequent Trump administration dealt the first real blow by targeting foreign investments into Russian export pipelines and against energy companies which owned 33% shares or more. This arose in light of the multi-faceted bill called the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Receiving praise in Congress, President Trump did not share the same optimism about the bill and called it “seriously flawed”, namely due to its encroachment on the executive branch’s authority to negotiate. In such a move, the issue was that major European companies involved, including Austria’s OMV, were left in limbo about realistically being able to finance the project. It would spark debate in Europe and evoked serious questions about the legal implications of the sanctions bill itself and the role of the U.S. in European affairs; Germany and Austria jointly called it an “unacceptable intervention” in the EU’s energy sector. This initial European reaction would ultimately reach the Department of State that went on to clarify and water down their effects the following October — the project effectively gained immunity from the capital restrictions. It appeared that NS2 could steamroll ahead for now, however, the first fissures in the relationship with Europe had materialized over it.
It’s time to let go…because the sanctions damage the transatlantic relationship with the EU.
This begs the question: what did sanctions achieve in round one? Deriving from a historical context where the efficacy of sanctions rests on a measly success rate of around 4%, a coherent approach could, once again, not be identified. Apart from the initial uncertainty, the effects of the first round of watered-down sanctions did not require any kind of major adjustments from the side of the partners involved and Germany could effectively grant permission for the project’s construction in its territorial waters in January the following year. There were, nevertheless, a few caveats. The sanctions did serve as an attempt to scare off Russia’s European partners and Gazprom did issue a warning to its investors that the sanctions had the possibility of delaying the project. They would also hamper efforts to raise money with an added risk premium demanded by stakeholders.
The initial steps, moreover, appeared to have a principal strategic intention in mind from the part of the U.S. — a type of “CNN Effect”: signaling for greater awareness and visibility of the alleged detrimental impact of NS2, stimulating the desire of American and European policymakers to respond to this perceived threat and opening up another front of pressure against Russia. While, concurrently, evaluating options for the future that would still require intensive lobbying, identifying and acting upon the right legal mechanisms, and providing a strong argument to wary Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) nations like Finland, Sweden, and Denmark to put an end to the pipeline. What the U.S. seemed unready for was Gazprom’s hefty lobbying activities on U.S. soil, spending $1 million to shield the pipeline from the sanctions and ensuring that American legislators were “correctly informed about the project”/ At this stage the sanctions had developed into a nuisance at most, however, this initial round sounded the alarm for European and Russian stakeholders that future pressure was to be expected.
It’s time to let go…because they are treated as a nuisance rather than effective policy.
Round Two: Not So Easy, EEZ
In early 2018, it was Poland that assumed re-energized attempts of pushing for additional U.S. sanctions against the project and called U.S. efforts surrounding a new bill, not covering NS2, as “ambiguous and unsatisfactory” for the Polish side. Once again, clarity and concreteness from the U.S. could not be identified in the response. On April 12, despite this renewed talk of sanctions, Finland granted a full set of permits for its construction in its EEZ, the second country to do so after Germany. Sweden followed suit on June 7. However, if Poland wanted another chance for the project’s complete shutdown, they would just have to wait another few months when they were presented with a golden opportunity right at the height of Russiagate following the Trump-Putin Helsinki Summit on July 16. This time Republican Senators John Barrasso and Cory Gardner introduced a bill, which through Section 232 of CAATSA, would be used to “identify and sanction U.S. and foreign entities supporting or expanding Gazprom’s near-monopolist role in providing energy to U.S. allies.” For President Trump, it was an opportunity to slam his fist down on allegations of “bowing down to Putin” at the Summit. The geopolitical theatre now served another domestic purpose. All things considered; this new round was deemed the one — it was the “kill-switch” that its advocates hoped would terminate the project for good. John Barrasso, the chief architect of the bill, had simply had enough of, what he called, “Europe’s addiction to Russian gas”.
It was not to be. Regardless of the buzz surrounding this bill in U.S. Congress, Germany and the companies involved in the project expressed the same position as they had done previously by emphasizing its lucrative economic gains for the European continent. However, ambiguous positions had now started to appear within the U.S. government itself with Trump admitting that Germany had the right to participate in the project just days after the Helsinki Summit, even though he had labeled Germany a “captive” of Russia before the NATO Summit just weeks before. Nevertheless, Nord Stream II gained enough confidence to begin construction in German waters despite not yet having found the last piece of the legal puzzle — Denmark. The year would finish with the intrigue of the Nordic country still not giving the go-ahead after proposed changes to the country’s laws even threatening to block the project back in April. Further U.S. threats took the year to a close.
With Barrasso’s bill and the unanimous efforts by U.S. policymakers, the sanctions now had further backing domestically, although questions about their potency were now a concern upon the realization of the steadfastness of the EEZ countries. Three out of four of them were, until that point, not swayed by U.S. pressure. To put an end to the project would not solely be in the hands of the U.S.
It’s time to let go…because key variables are beyond U.S. control.
Round Three: Loopholes, The Deciding Factor?
If the U.S. had hoped that 2019 would be the year for the project’s shutdown, such wishful thinking would see a reality check early on. In February, Nord Stream II scored a partial victory that was handed to it by the EU itself in the form of a new deal governing import gas pipelines. The catch was not in the deal itself, which was aimed at ensuring that the principles of EU energy legislation apply to all gas pipelines to and from third countries, but in the loopholes that were created because of it. The intrigue of Denmark had become relevant again and its threats to block the project would now seemingly not matter as the Danish regulatory authority would be denied a decisive say. It would now practically be in the hands of German regulators. However, while it initially seemed favorable to NS2, the pipeline project company would launch a notice of the dispute to the EU as it claimed it was in breach of the Energy Charter Treaty and discriminated against the project, which resulted in successive failed agreements over the next few months. NS2 and the partners involved were determined to put up a fight wherever it arrived.
In May, the leadership of Nord Stream II signaled that it was so confident in the project’s completion that it did not even need a “Plan B” against the sanctions. It was also this month that saw further justification efforts from the side of the U.S. for ramping up their implementation, and it would involve Russia’s neighbor to the West – Ukraine. Due to the diversion of gas around the country made possible by the project, major U.S. statements about its plans for further sanctions tend to surround official visits to the country. The U.S. Energy Secretary at the time, Rick Perry, during the inauguration of President Vladimir Zelensky, was firm in his assessment that the pipeline will be used to “split eastern European nations away from those of central and western Europe.”
The split was very real but not what Rick Perry had in mind. The Visegrád Group, initially solid in opposing the project and creating a united front against it in the European Commission, had seen a divergence of opinion from 2016 when the project was in its early stages and before the wave of successive Russian lobbying efforts. Czechia, Hungary, and Slovakia have diverted or hushed up their positions about the project for various reasons and it had now become, as some describe, an “imaginary unity” against it. Out of these four countries, only Poland has maintained a persistent position.
It’s time to let go…because old partners have moved on, losing interest in rallying against it.
In October and November, NS2 scored two major victories. One, by claiming victory in Denmark when the country finally approved the construction of the pipeline in the waters that are part of its economic zone. Two, Germany’s parliament effectively allowing the project to “skirt European rules that forbid one entity from the being both the producer and the supplier of natural gas.” The nervous U.S. response came in the form of a U.S. Energy Department official stating that “The United States will examine all tools at its disposal regarding the project.” One of these tools would arrive in December.
On the 21st, Donald Trump signed a new package of sanctions, part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2020, that were labeled by the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, as being “pro-European.” The problem was that Europe, now as clear as ever, had started to see it in a very different light with the German finance minister, Olaf Scholz, reiterating Germany’s position by calling it a “serious interference in German and European affairs.” Most alarmingly, moreover, was not the European reaction to this round but the Trump administration had now shown a major sign that was the culmination of this failed years-long effort to see its demise. Two anonymous Senior U.S. Administration officials admitted, in a rare concession, that this move was too late to have any effect.
Despite these statements, this new round did complicate the situation for the project with the main contractor of the pipeline, Swiss group Allseas, suspending its operations in light of their announcement. The language of the NDAA targeted “vessels that engaged in pipe-laying at depths of 100 feet or more below sea level for the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project.” As such, the project would have to find alternative contractors and vessels for the remainder of it. To date, it can be regarded as the most convincing move in this chronicle of sanctioning efforts. A nuisance, financially and temporally, but far from project-terminating. Despite this setback, the next year would require something extraordinary in a last attempt to derail the project completely. Could the U.S. find another one of these tools? It was the eleventh hour and the project was 90% complete.
It’s time to let go…because, after four years, the U.S. has come to the realization: it’s too late.
Round Four: The Present
In light of the situation with Allseas and the suspension of the work of contractors, the year began with Russia’s announcement that the country would seek to complete the pipeline without the assistance of these foreign companies. It would simply need a pipe-laying vessel equipped with a dynamic positioning system, additional organizational work, and a permit from Denmark on the use of pipe-laying vessels with an anchor, which would seek to expand on their ability to complete it on their own. The vessel, the Akademik Cherskiy, would be found, but it was months away on the other side of the world docked at Russia’s Pacific port of Nakhodka. It was acquired in 2016 as part of a contingency plan should European companies drop out of the project. The issue, however, was that it had no relevant experience conducting such large-scale work and would need months to complete it, delaying the expected completion time to the end of 2020 or even the first quarter of 2021.
In February, Donald Trump’s top energy official, Dan Brouillette, dismissed any talk of delay and put forth the most confident U.S. stance on the project yet: the project will not be completed. Citing Russia’s “absence of technology,” Brouillette was adamant that the current phase was too difficult for Russia to get out of. Especially as a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators, spearheaded by Ted Cruz, was preparing the next round of sanctions that made one question what even there was left to target. It would become known in June that the bill would expand on the scope of the sanctions enacted in December and extend beyond vessel-owners; it would target insurance, tethering-facilities, equipment, and other firms having any involvement in the project. It has been hailed as a “super-sanctions” bill. Another case of being the one. Russia’s immediate response was in direct contrast to Brouillette: nothing will stop it from being built. As the chronology reaches the present, three major events have occurred in July and August.
The first being Denmark’s green light allowing for less technologically advanced ships to continue laying the pipeline off the coast of Bornholm, which would potentially negate the impact of the sanctions. The need for such an allowance relates to the toxic warfare substances left at the bottom of the Baltic Sea after WWII and thus, because of Denmark’s obligations to the Law on the Continental Shelf and under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a permit was needed for pipe-laying vessels with an anchor as these carry a greater element of risk. Russia has one such vessel — the Fortuna. This move expands Gazprom’s freedom of choice in vessels for finalizing the construction as these are not affected by the sanctions.
The second, the U.S. House of Representatives passing the NDAA amendment of sanctions, which would still need to be approved by the Senate and the President before becoming law. As the opposing sides claim victory with these events, the war of words has ramped up with the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, threatening the companies involved and telling them to “Get out, or risk the consequences.” On the other side, the harshest response has come from the German Eastern Business Association (OAOEV) that has, for the first time, started planning for retaliatory measures and the German Defense Minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, calling the latest move as running afoul of international law. In August, a letter was additionally sent by three U.S. senators to the operator of Mukran port, threatening “crushing legal and economic sanctions” if it continues its support for the project, which was harshly responded to by German policymakers. This has, undoubtedly, galvanized a scene of tension as both parties look towards an uncertain future of the transatlantic partnership.
The third, a domestic issue concerning Russian opposition blogger and activist, Alexey Navalny — German allegations of his poisoning with a Novichok-class nerve agent during his journey from Tomsk to Moscow. It would’ve seemed far-fetched to assume that an internal matter of the Russian Federation would uproot calls to cancel an unrelated project from the side of European and American policymakers, but the year is 2020 and anything can be used as leverage. Merkel was immediately bombarded with pressure to scrap it, but her cabinet has been adamant in their assessment that its completion should not depend on the case of Navalny.
It’s time to let go…because it is the right opportunity to save face concerning international law.
Forecast: Observations and Russian Counteractions
160 kilometers remain. A Danish green light. A new round awaiting approval by the Senate and President. Backlash from Europe. An American election. An alleged poisoning. These are the current circumstances of a project that has seen a cliff-hanger of a journey that is ready for its grand finale. As we approach it, several observations can be made about what to expect considering this complex reality and what Russia’s availabilities are for effective counteraction.
Nord Stream II Will be Completed Despite a Delay
It has become clear that, due to the amount of time and resources invested in the project and being this close to the finish line, Russia is going to seek to complete it regardless if the new round of sanctions pulls through, be it alone or with the assistance of its European partners. The Danish green light has facilitated this move significantly, however, it is up to the latter to decide on whether to prioritize these deemed lucrative economic gains through making this process even smoother by standing firm and actively counteracting the ongoing sanctioning efforts. Bolstered EU efforts would be an advantage, pragmatically and symbolically.
As Germany grows increasingly displeased with the sanctions and business entities already considering the pursuit of retaliatory measures, it is likely that it will do so. Nevertheless, a delay is expected due to the technological lag of the Akademik Cherskiy and because of the sanctions in December of last year, as has been admitted by the Russian President. This is without factoring in the consequences of the new round that could create a further temporary cessation of activities. The added issue of using the case of Navalny as leverage and as a pressure tool with the intention to scrap it should also be expected from the side of both European and U.S. policymakers. Germany has given mixed signals in this regard, suggesting that it should not be used as a factor in the completion of the pipeline, but has recently pressured Moscow to cooperate in the investigation for the country not to “force it to rethink the project.” Regardless, further debate and pressure from this angle can be forecasted.
For Russia, such an effort to complete it continues to be necessary, not only due to the prospective economic gains but as yet another way to reiterate Russia’s rejection of unilateralism in international politics. Should Russia succeed, it would further its reputation of maintaining resilience in the face of the long-standing reality of U.S. sanctions and would allow the country to continue the tradition of being a reliable supplier of natural gas to Europe. Anthony Scaramucci, the former White House Director of Communications, described such resilience already in 2017: “I think the sanctions had in some ways an opposite effect because of Russian culture. I think the Russians would eat snow if they had to survive.” Furthermore, it would exemplify the failure of current U.S. policy vis-à-vis Russia that would bring it one step closer to realizing that a novel approach is needed.
It’s time to let go…because Russian resilience will allow for the project’s completion, no matter the cost.
Further Damage to the Transatlantic Relationship
Since the initial fissures first perceived in 2017, the deterioration of relations between the U.S. and the EU has been apparent in connection with the project. If the new round passes both the Senate and President, it is to be expected that Europe will respond with more than just words of disappointment. The effects of this years-long tiptoeing around Europe’s reaction to the sanctions are likely to surmount further this year; Germany is now weighing in on countersanctions and so is its wider business community. If these are applied, the ball would be in the American court to respond as it sees appropriate, which will likely become yet another source of contention.
If the EU continues to be ignored in its requests to discuss the issue as allies and U.S. unilateralism continues, the latter may damage its perceived role on the European continent. As the EU expresses its intention to pursue a path of sovereignty and freedom of choice in international trade, by impeding and dictating this want, it treats the former as under-valued and incapable of discerning what is in their best interest. It does not show signs of a healthy alliance or relationship. Should Europe succumb to this pressure, as a matter of principle concerning its multilateral agreements with the U.S., it will set a precedent of continued interference and would demonstrate a complete lack of sovereignty.
For Russia, this entails another scenario of strongly condemning this new round of sanctions as it has done throughout by shattering the link of being a political, rather than an economic, project. Europe, for the most part, is aware of this distinction, however, the focus should be on American policymakers, conveying this message through all possible channels.
U.S. Election Unlikely to Have an Impact on Project Completion
November 3 is fast approaching, and the American domestic situation remains tense and unpredictable. The two front-runners, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, would be welcomed in attempts to settle the issue of sanctions against the project. However, judging by their previous actions, the former evidently having more to judge from, it is unlikely that Election Day will radically transform the overarching U.S. position vis-à-vis the project.
Joe Biden’s critical remarks from the onset as Vice President, right before Trump’s election, demonstrate that the Democratic Party would’ve likely pursued, at least, a similar path. This is more notably evidenced by the mostly bipartisan support of the bills introduced in this years-long process, which is a rare occurrence in the present polarized climate. What is different this time is that Joe Biden is running for President and has been escalating a hostile campaign against Russia in the process. Whether this will convert into a more unbending and obstinate stance on the issue of NS2 can be drawn upon his vital role and previous history of convincing Europe to institute a sanctions regime against Russia — a likely scenario of continuation.
In the event of a Trump re-election, we can simply extrapolate the administration’s actions over these last four years. That is unless Trump can use his second term to pursue the improved Russo-American relations he initially had pursued with Russiagate now losing its appeal. With this freedom to maneuver, dropping sanctions against NS2 can potentially be used as a bargaining chip.
For Russia, the crux of the issue lies in the bipartisan support for the sanctions. Russia should adhere to its current strategic plans and not rely on a favorable outcome in the election for their removal. Even so, the election period itself is unlikely to bring any sharp-pointed tools with the potential to terminate the project, as the result in November will occur at a time when Nord Stream II is projected to be completed. It will be too late, and a “kill-switch” can, therefore, only be found in the actions of the present, which are currently en route to the Senate.
An ideal scenario would entail a tripartite summit involving Russia, USA, and Europe to find a solution to the issue — a push towards an entente. Given the current complexity of affairs, however, it would require a strong willingness from all parties involved, a willingness that has been absent from the American side.
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