German defence minister Christine Lambrecht has warned against drawing a link between the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and developing tensions between Russia and Ukraine.
Speaking to broadcaster RBB, she said: “We should not drag [Nord Stream 2] into this conflict. We need to solve this conflict, and we need to solve it in talks – that’s the opportunity that we have at the moment, and we should use it rather than draw a link to projects that have no connection to this conflict.”
The comments follow Germany’s freshly sworn in-chancellor, Olaf Scholz calling for a “new beginning” in its relationship Russia.
The 759-mile pipeline has already been completed and currently awaits the green light from Germany’s regulators.
If approved, the pipeline will transport 55bn cubic meters of gas via the Baltic Sea, doubling Germany’s energy imports from Russia.
However, the certification process was suspended last November, with no decision expected until the summer, after concerns were raised over the gas project’s governance.
Washington remains highly critical of Nord Stream 2, with the White House concerned it will increase Europe’s dependence on Russia.
The project remains popular in Europe, with the continent currently embroiled in a deepening energy crisis amid storage shortages, supply issues and increased demand following multiple lockdowns.
Nord Stream 2: Vital energy project or political weapon?
The pipeline, funded by Kremlin-backed gas giant Gazprom, would also reduce the reliance on supplies flowing through Ukraine, which currently enjoys hefty transit fees from supplies flowing through its territory.
Previously, US President Joe Biden agreed with then German chancellor Angela Merkel last July to stay out of the Nord Stream 2 process, provided Russia did not use the pipeline as a weapon to reduce Ukraine’s influence in Europe and put pressure on the continent’s energy supplies.
However, the International Energy Agency has since accused Russia of doing exactly that, with executive director Fatih Birol yesterday suggesting the country was exacerbating the gas crisis by throttling supplies in order to push through certification of the pipeline.
He argued Russia was holding back at least a third of the gas it could send to Europe, and was draining controlled storage facilities to exacerbate shortages in supply.
Birol said: “We believe there are strong elements of tightness in the European gas market due to Russia’s behaviour. I would note that today’s low Russian gas flows to Europe coincide with heightened geopolitical tensions over Ukraine.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has previously dismissed accusations that Russia is using gas as a weapon as ‘politically motivated blather’, while Gazprom has consistently maintained it has honoured all of its gas supply contracts with Europe.
Over the past month, Russia has moved over 100,000 troops within close proximity of Ukraine’s borders, with NATO’s general secretary Jens Stoltenberg now warning there is a “real risk of conflict” between both nations.
These fears have only increased after no breakthroughs were made in talks between the US and Russia in Geneva earlier this week.
Diplomats and advisers from both the Kremlin and White House met in an attempt to tame tensions in the region.
The US, alongside the EU and NATO, wants to dissuade Russia from invading Ukraine.
Russia considers former Soviet Union countries to be within its interests, and opposes the positioning of NATO troops near its borders.
It also opposes any further expansions of the alliance, wanting assurances Ukraine and Georgia will never become members.
The US and NATO are both unlikely to accept these terms, as the West considers Ukraine to be both an ally and a free, democratic nation with the right to make its own decisions.
The proposals would also essentially scrap Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture with multiple European countries relying on NATO support.
White House officials reportedly believe the demands from the Kremlin are intentionally unreasonable so they can be used as a pretext for war.
The talks followed extensive virtual negotiations between Putin and Biden last month, where the US president warned Russia that he will impose economic sanctions on the country if it militarily intervenes in Ukraine.
However, he has since stopped short of committing boots on the ground, and it is also unclear how damaging economic sanctions would actually be – with Russia having already developed alternatives to the SWIFT payment system it uses to complete international transactions.
Republicans put pressure on Biden to intervene in pipeline controversy
The US senate is set to vote on a bill pushed forward by Republican senator Ted Cruz that would mandate American sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG, the company overseeing the pipeline.
The Republicans have returned to their hawkish outlook on Russia since the last election, after the party’s stance became more ambiguous under former president Donald Trump.
According to the Washington Post, the pipeline is known around Capitol Hill as the “the Molotov-Ribbentrop pipeline,” a derogatory reference to the 1939 non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union.
It is not expected to garner enough support to pass in senate currently controlled by the Democrats, with 60 votes required to approve the bill.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has publicly called for US senators to support sanctions, however Biden is opposing the bill because he doesn’t want to hand Cruz a victory, while also hoping to maintain diplomatic flexibility.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has previously criticised the pipeline, encouraging countries to shift to renewables and reduce Russia’s influence in Europe.
At the Lord Mayor of London’s banquet in November, he said: “We hope that our friends may recognise that a choice is shortly coming between mainlining ever more Russian hydrocarbons in giant new pipelines and sticking up for Ukraine and championing the cause of peace and stability,”
Foreign secretary Liz Truss has also lent her support to Ukraine and warned Russia against any invasion.
Last week she said: “Any Russian military incursion into Ukraine would be a massive strategic mistake and would come at a severe cost,” she said.”