In Nord Stream attack, US sees 'a tremendous opportunity'
Without the now-exploded Nord Stream gas pipelines, Europeans fear “a winter of de-industrialization.” As US planners have long sought, the White House sees a “tremendous strategic opportunity.”
The Baltic Sea bombing of the two Nord Stream gas pipelines “threatens to greatly expand the military theater” in Europe (Wall Street Journal), adding “yet another diffuse threat to a growing array of worries, from power blackouts all the way to nuclear war.” (New York Times).
In halls of power on the other side of the Atlantic, the outlook is much rosier.
The idling of Nord Stream, Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared in Washington, is “a tremendous opportunity.” So tremendous, in fact, that Blinken repeated it twice. With both Nord Stream 1 and 2 unable to ship Russian energy directly to Germany for the long-term, Europe has “a tremendous opportunity to once and for all remove the dependence on Russian energy, and thus to take away from Vladimir Putin the weaponization of energy as a means of advancing his imperial designs,” Blinken said. That “offers tremendous strategic opportunity for the years to come.”
As Europe enters winter in the weeks to come, now lacking its traditional Russian source of cheap natural gas, ordinary civilians might not appreciate the tremendous strategic opportunity that their predicament offers Washington bureaucrats. Western sanctions on Russia have already led to job losses, skyrocketing bills, and fears of energy rationing amid forecasts of exceptionally cold temperatures ahead. Just before the Nord Stream blasts, the head of German’s steel federation warned that without Russian energy, “a winter of de-industrialization threatens us in Germany.”
Ahead of this feared winter of de-industrialization, Blinken’s optimistic response to a now assured shut-off of Russian gas might seem odd for a top diplomat. But it is perfectly consistent with a longstanding US effort to kill Nord Stream for good.
In waging a multi-year campaign against Nord Stream, the US has sought to weaken Russia’s economy; undermine Russian integration with the rest of Europe; preserve lucrative transit fees for the US client state in Ukraine; and increase European dependence on US energy, in particular Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). In short, the “tremendous opportunity” that Blinken draws from the Nord Stream sabotage derives from the very goals that he imputed to Putin: “the weaponization of energy” for “imperial designs.”
As one of Blinken’s predecessors, Condoleezza Rice, explained in 2014: "Over the long-run, you simply want to change the structure of energy dependence. You want to depend more on the North America energy platform.”
The US drive to promote dependence on North American energy was escalated by President Donald Trump, who imposed sanctions to stop the Nord Stream 2’s construction while urging the German government to buy American LNG instead. Nord Stream 2, Trump declared in July 2018, is a “tragedy.” In his view, “it’s a horrific thing that’s being done, where you’re feeding billions and billions of dollars... primarily from Germany, into the coffers of Russia.”
Trump’s disdain for the “horrific” Russia-Germany energy project strained US relations with both countries. But because his actions contradicted the predominant Russiagate narrative that he was in fact a Kremlin asset being blackmailed to do Vladimir Putin’s bidding, the Nord Stream sanctions were among many confrontational Trump policies toward Russia that went widely ignored at home.
Trump’s sanctions on Nord Stream 2 caused such a rift with Germany that Biden, upon taking office, initially waived them. But the Ukraine crisis gave Biden a backdoor opportunity to revive Trump’s quest. As Russian forces amassed on Ukraine’s borders in 2021, Biden pressured Germany to commit to cancelling Nord Stream 2 in the event of an invasion. When the Germans still refused, the White House announced that it would achieve its goal with or without them. "If Russia invades...then there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2,” Biden declared on February 7, with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at his side. “We will bring an end to it."
Asked how the US could do that given that “the project is in Germany’s control,” Biden replied: “I promise you, we will be able to do that.”
With someone now delivering on that promise, Biden has offered a tepid response to suspicions of US involvement. Commenting on Russian allegations that the US and its allies were responsible, Biden did not offer a direct denial. He instead claimed that “the Russians are pumping out disinformation and lies... just don’t listen to what Putin is saying. What he’s saying, we know is not true.”
But Russia is not alone in pointing to US involvement. In a since-deleted tweet, Radek Sikorsky, a former Polish Foreign Minister and current European Parliament member, shared a picture of a leak from the pipeline along with the message: “Thank you, USA.” Sikorsky’s spouse, Anne Applebaum, is a leading neoconservative proponent of the Ukraine proxy war, and among a group of historians invited to brief President Biden at a White House meeting in August.
To weaken Russia, “a first step would involve stopping Nord Stream 2”
Why Russia’s adversaries from Warsaw to Washington would want to sabotage its partnership in a massive European energy project differs depending on who their audience is. In public, Nord Stream’s NATO foes argue that Russian energy is unreliable and prone to be weaponized by Moscow. But their internal strategy and analysis, meant for those who shape policy in private, tells a different story.
A 2017 report by Senate Democrats, which called on the US to oppose the Nord Stream 2’s construction, cited the “Kremlin’s history of leveraging energy supplies for political purposes.” To help make its case, the Senate cited a Swedish Defense Research Agency report, which “showed that between 1992 and 2006, Russia imposed 55 energy cutoffs.”
But turning to the Senate’s source material, a less damning picture emerges.
Russia, the Swedish Defense Research Agency report states, “traditionally has been a reliable supplier to the ‘West.’” When Russia has pursued “cut-offs and coercive policies,” particularly in the former Soviet states, these have only “occasionally” impacted “the large nations of Europe.” Of those 55 cutoffs cited by the Senate, “at least twenty” – or less than half – “have occurred during Putin’s reign.” Moreover, of all the incidents “where Russia has put forward political demands in connection to its energy policy or exerted clear punishment for unwanted actions,” it is only “on seven occasions” where “this appears to have been the case.” (emphasis added)
If Western governments recognize that Russia has been a “reliable supplier” of energy, wherein only a fraction of its cutoffs even “appear” to have political motives, why would the US seek to break this supply chain?
A 2019 study by the US government-funded RAND Corporation, tasked with identifying optimal means for "Overextending and Unbalancing Russia," details the underlying rationale. According to RAND, “Russia’s greatest vulnerability, in any competition with the United States,” is “its economy,” which is “highly dependent on energy exports.” If the US could create “supply alternatives to Russian gas”, the report explains, “the main benefit” would be “lower Russian export revenues.” This in turn would “stress the [federal Russian] budget further.”
Accordingly, RAND proposes, of the many “options” for “extending Russia economically”, one stands above the rest: “A first step would involve stopping Nord Stream 2.”
Stopping Nord Stream 2 would not only weaken the Russian economy, the report explains, but — as an added bonus — benefit the US client of Ukraine. If operational, Nord Stream 2 would ship Russian gas directly to Germany, rather than passing through Ukraine as is currently the case. This loss of Ukraine as a passthrough would mean “reducing transit fees” to Kiev to the tune of up “to $2 billion per year,” RAND notes.
Although unstated by RAND, Ukraine’s financial loss would be Washington’s hegemonic loss as well. “If Ukraine, the middleman, was cut out of the process, America simply wouldn’t have the same leverage over European energy supplies,” Russia analyst Johanna Ross noted in February 2021.
For Russia and the rest of Europe, there are other downsides for using Ukraine as a transit point, the RAND report acknowledges. While some Western voices “argue that Russia should be forced to continue to ship gas through Ukraine” – an odd argument to make, if the US were truly concerned about energy coercion – others argue that “Ukrainian siphoning and periodic gas price disputes with Russia have made this route less than reliable for both Russia and its European customers.” That “Ukrainian siphoning” is a reference to the corruption that has plagued Ukraine’s energy industry, dominated by rival oligarchs and their foreign profiteers, as the Biden family is intimately familiar with.
On top of Ukraine’s notorious corruption problems, Russia might also be averse to handing Ukraine lucrative transit revenues given that the two countries have been on opposite sides of the civil war that erupted after the US-backed Maidan coup of 2014. But according to the logic of US policy, Russia should be expected to continue letting Ukraine collect billions of dollars in fees, all while the US carries out its plans to destroy the Russian economy and floods Ukraine with billions of dollars in weapons in order “to fight Russia over there,” as Adam Schiff put in in January 2020.
While Nord Stream 2 would disentangle Russia and Ukraine, it would have the opposite effect for Russia and the rest of Europe. While Russia “earns far more from oil exports,” the RAND report notes, “it is more tightly bound to Europe by natural gas exports.” Although unstated, this would create an obvious problem for US planners: coercing Europeans to support sanctions or open warfare against Russia is far more difficult if their economies, via pipelines supplying vital energy, are even more “tightly bound.”
The RAND report also offers a sober appraisal of the obstacles to reducing Russia’s role as a major gas supplier. “Russian pipeline gas is less expensive than alternatives,” RAND notes, while US LNG is “has typically cost at least 30 percent more.” Accordingly, the “most important flaw” in any campaign against the Nord Stream 2 is that “creating new, non-Russian gas supplies for Europe would be more expensive than continuing to purchase Russian pipeline gas.”
Along with basic economics, there is also the small matter of state sovereignty. After the US passed sanctions against the Nord Stream pipeline in June 2017, Germany and Austria released a joint statement making the inconvenient point that “Europe’s energy supply is a matter for Europe, not the United States of America.”
Given this insistence on leaving Europe’s energy supply to Europeans, not DC bureaucrats, RAND concludes, “it is difficult to see a way to stop or even limit Nord Stream 2.”
If Russia’s invasion of Ukraine didn’t solve that dilemma, then whomever attacked the pipeline surely has, at least for a long while. And with those deep-sea explosions, US strategic planners have finally achieved a long-sought opportunity.