The West versus Russia

Following the imprisonment of the Russian opposition leader, Alexeï Navalny, EU-Russia relations have severely deteriorated. In response to new EU sanctions, several European diplomats were expelled by Moscow, with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov claiming that Russia was ready to end all ties with the EU. This comes at a fraught time for the gas pipeline, Nord Stream II, an issue that has been further complicated by the arrival of Joe Biden in the White House.


The Trump administration was a staunch opponent of Nord Stream II, a new gas pipeline set to deliver Russian natural gas to Germany under the Baltic Sea. This opposition, and the sanctioning of European companies involved with the pipeline’s construction, sparked several diplomatic spats particularly between the United States and Germany, who is in desperate need of new sources of energy to replace its shuttered nuclear power plants. For the Trump administration, though, opposing the pipeline also served the double purpose of shoring up support with eastern European countries like Poland and Ukraine, who see the pipeline


The Biden administration has changed the calculus, however. First, eager to repair America’s relationship with Europe, the new administration is wary of pushing the issue of the pipeline with Germany, who it sees, for better or for worse, as the de facto leader in Europe. Secondly, President Biden is no friend to the American fossil fuel industry; on his first day in office, he revoked the permits of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, a move that was resoundingly condemned in Canada and lead to the elimination of over 1000 jobs in the middle of one of the worst economic crises in American history. So, it is clear that Mr. Biden is willing to accept a certain level of collateral damage, and even anger America’s closest allies, in order to satisfy his party’s left wing.


This extends as well to the Nord Stream II where the Biden administration has quietly dragged its feet on implementing new sanctions. This posture has earned the new administration several strong rebukes, not only from eastern European countries that feel betrayed by America’s lack of zeal, but also by two Democratic senators—Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire—who urged the new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to move swiftly to stop the pipeline, which is set to be completed later this year.


Despite new threats from Secretary Blinken, no new major sanctions have been implemented and Germany has redoubled its resolve to complete the project, even over the objections of its European Union allies. Without a major shift in either American or German policy, it seems likely that the pipeline will ultimately be completed. But, the project’s opponents are not without their own gambits: in Europe, Poland continues to appeal to EU courts to block the project and, in the United States, there is still hope that enough pressure, foreign and domestic, can move the Biden administration to take real action rather than just try to keep up appearances. Whatever happens, it is unlikely that the German-American relationship will emerge unscathed as Germany’s commitment to the project has already soured many American policymakers and the American sanctions already in place have angered many German officials. This pipeline marks what will continue to be a major challenge for the transatlantic relationship for the foreseeable future. If America and Europe are to be partners in tackling their common challenges, managing disagreements will become more important than ever and the issues over Nord Stream II show that the two have a long way to go before they achieve some formula for effective mediation.