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Russia pipeline fuels German coalition split as Ukraine tension rises

Nord Stream 2, Russia’s gas pipeline across the Baltic Sea, has already driven a wedge between Germany and the US and sown discord in Europe. Now, as fears mount that Russia will attack Ukraine, it has become a bone of contention inside the German government itself.

Germany’s coalition partners are split on the pipeline, which its critics say will hugely increase Europe’s reliance on Russian natural gas, with the left-of-centre Social Democrats largely backing it and the Greens opposed.

Green foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, who will make her first official trip as foreign minister to Kyiv on Monday and Moscow on Tuesday, has indicated that Nord Stream 2, which is complete but has yet to be certified, cannot go ahead if Russia invades its western neighbour.

The Social Democrats, who have traditionally favoured entente with Moscow, are more ambivalent, insisting on the importance of Russian gas for German industry. SPD chancellor Olaf Scholz has refused to publicly entertain sanctions against the project.

The divisions “are weakening Germany and the EU”, said Stefan Meister, an expert on eastern Europe at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). “We are seeing that the German government has no consolidated position and is . . . still looking for a Russia policy,” he said.

The split was underscored again this week when two senior SPD politicians went out of their way to try to ringfence Nord Stream 2 from the Russia-Ukraine crisis.

Defence minister Christine Lambrecht said the pipeline “shouldn’t be dragged into this conflict”. And Kevin Kühnert, SPD general secretary, said international disputes were being deliberately encouraged “in order to bury projects that have always been a thorn in the side of some people” — an apparent dig at the Greens.

The contrast with the rhetoric coming from Baerbock could not be clearer.

She has repeatedly made reference to an agreement between the US and Germany in July last year which said Berlin would impose energy sanctions on Moscow “should Russia attempt to use energy as a weapon or commit further aggressive acts against Ukraine”.

Some have suggested that Moscow is already weaponising its gas exports. Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency, said last week that Russia was throttling gas supplies to Europe at a time of “heightened geopolitical tensions”. He said it was holding back at least one-third of the gas it could send to Europe while depleting the storage facilities it controls on the continent to bolster the impression of tight supplies. Russia has repeatedly denied any manipulation of supplies.

At least both the Greens and SPD have agreed on one thing — that the negotiations held last week between Russia and the west were necessary to try to avert war. The US, Nato and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe all held talks with Russian officials in the past few days in an attempt to deter Moscow from escalating the conflict with Ukraine.

But the Russian response was dismissive, with officials describing the talks as a “dead end”. Meanwhile, some of the roughly 100,000 Russian troops deployed at locations close to the country’s border with Ukraine conducted live-fire exercises last week, and on Friday Kyiv said it was the target of a “massive cyber attack” that disabled about 70 government websites.

The Russia-Ukraine imbroglio is the first big crisis that Scholz, a pragmatist who says he wants to emulate Angela Merkel’s cautious, middle-of-the-road policies, has faced as chancellor.

In his public statements, he has been ultra-cautious, emphasising the need for a peaceful resolution of the conflict and warning against any attempt to change Europe’s borders by force.

But he has also firmly resisted pressure from some in US president Joe Biden’s administration to state explicitly that NS2, which is awaiting approval by the German regulator and the European Commission, will be stopped if Russia sends troops into Ukraine.

US officials say Berlin is being nudged in the right direction. Victoria Nuland, undersecretary of state, said last week that the German government had taken “significant steps” to “slow their consideration of implementation of the pipeline”.

But in public at least, Scholz has scrupulously avoided threatening sanctions against NS2, insisting repeatedly that it is a “private-sector initiative” that has nothing to do with the Ukraine crisis.

That marks a subtle but important shift away from the line adopted by Merkel, who admitted in 2018 that NS2 was “not just an economic project”, and that political factors also had to be taken into consideration — not least the need to preserve Ukraine’s status as a transit country for Russian gas.

Yet not all Social Democrats agree with Scholz’s cautious approach. Michael Roth, a former deputy foreign minister who is now head of the Bundestag’s influential foreign affairs committee, said on Friday that Germany should send a clear signal to Moscow that it would withhold approval of NS2 in the event of aggression against Ukraine.

Putin was always threatening to turn off the energy tap, he said. “But you can’t blackmail us,” he told Der Spiegel. “Should Russia continue its military escalation towards Ukraine, all options should be on the table.”


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