BERLIN — The flurry of political activity and summitry between Berlin and Moscow this summer has been unusual, compounded and complicated by President Trump’s declaration that a natural gas pipeline project will render Germany “a captive” to Russia.
But analysts say German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s meeting this month with Russian President Vladimir Putin — their second since May — should not be construed as bowing to Moscow’s will, despite a determination by both sides to continue with the energy project.
As Mr. Trump’s unorthodox approach forces countries on both sides of the Atlantic to rethink the post-World War II international order, Ms. Merkel is leveraging her nation’s historic ties to Russia to keep her diplomatic options open and Europe’s interests protected, many here say.
“What’s the benefit of having moral integrity toward Russia, which means a more [confrontational] position, when there’s nobody left with a weight like Germany, with that relationship with Russia, who can talk to them on the same eye level?” said Olaf Boehnke, a senior adviser with Rasmussen Global, a Brussels-based think tank.
German businesses have led the charge in building Nord Stream 2, a second natural gas pipeline connecting Russia and Germany under the Baltic Sea. The pipeline would effectively double gas supplies to Germany from Russia, which already accounts for 40 percent of the nation’s gas imports, representing 9.6 percent of total energy consumption, according to government statistics.
Critics fear the pipeline will also give Mr. Putin massive new leverage over Ukraine, which currently hosts the main transit pipeline for Russian gas being sold to European markets. Washington has even raised the prospect of sanctions on European companies that invest in Nord Stream 2.
Mr. Trump “wasn’t so wrong” at the NATO summit in Brussels last month when he condemned Germany’s dependence on cheap Russian gas, especially because Germany, as Europe’s largest economy, could buy from less-problematic partners, said Claudia Kemfert, head of the Department for Energy, Transportation and Environment at the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin.
Mr. Putin as recently as Wednesday was defending the pipeline project from U.S. and European criticism, telling reporters in Sochi that Europe needs Nord Stream to satisfy its growing energy needs. Russian officials said Mr. Trump’s sharp words were motivated in large part by the desire to promote U.S. natural gas suppliers as an alternative source for the European market and to bring down a potential competitor.
“Russia is the optimum supplier for the European economy,” Mr. Putin said, according to The Associated Press. “We are ready to compete with anyone, but we expect a fair competition in line with international norms.”
Ms. Merkel has called the choice of Russia purely a business decision, but that decision becomes much more complicated with the raft of geopolitical issues Nord Stream 2 presents.
The top concern is that opening Nord Stream 2 threatens Ukraine’s status as a transit hub for Russian gas heading to Europe. Of the 51 trillion cubic gallons of natural gas sent to Europe last year from Russia, almost half passed through Ukraine’s infrastructure, according to European Union statistics — a source of continual friction between Moscow and Kiev.
At the same time, Nord Stream 2 lines Mr. Putin’s pockets and provides critical revenue to the Kremlin while aggravating EU states such as Poland — historically suspicious of both Russia and Germany — and the United States, which has long been against the project for its potentially disastrous geopolitical fallout.
“From the perspective of Angela Merkel, I think she underestimated from the beginning the damaging factor of Nord Stream 2 within the European Union,” said Stefan Meister, director of programs on Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.
Won’t be ‘duped by Putin’
While the United States sought to isolate the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, the West German government believed that the best way to deal with Moscow was to foster good economic relations and interdependence. Moscow oversaw communist East Germany for more than four decades after the end of World War II.
That strategy persisted well after German reunification in 1990 and into the new millennium. Former East Germans such as Ms. Merkel held fast to the notion that Germany must preserve a special relationship with Russia.
“It was an economically driven policy … where you’re trying to ignore the political consequences,” said Mr. Meister.
Sentiment changed after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which Mr. Meister called the “big break in German-Russian relations.” Berlin, once Moscow’s most amicable partner in the Western camp, led the charge to impose painful retaliatory sanctions to punish Russia, infuriating Mr. Putin and his allies.
But with Mr. Trump saying he wants better relations with Russia and the U.S. taking a more hands-off approach to Russian aggression in Syria and elsewhere, Nord Stream 2 presents an “opportunity to use this limited influence Germans might have on the Russian side” to curb Moscow’s actions, said Mr. Boehnke.
It’s a buyer’s market for natural gas, with Germany able to turn anywhere — from the United States to fellow EU suppliers — to buy gas. That means Russia’s state-controlled oil giant, Gazprom, can’t play hardball on supplies and prices out of fear that Germany will withdraw from the deal, said Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.
Ultimately, officials here say, that means Ms. Merkel can tease concessions out of Mr. Putin. She pressed at the recent summit for a guarantee that Ukraine doesn’t lose its transit rights because of Nord Stream and is seeking Russia’s commitment to help end the civil war in Syria so tens of thousands of migrants in Germany can be sent home. The migration has been a nagging domestic issue for Ms. Merkel, who has opened the door to more than 1 million refugees since 2015.
Ms. Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, learned to speak Russian and was surveilled by Russian intelligence, knows how to deal with Mr. Putin, said Mr. Gressel.
“There is a microversion of the special relationship and [the one] between Putin and Merkel,” he said. “Other politicians from non-post-Soviet countries of Europe will be duped by Putin quite quickly.”
As Mr. Trump challenges the premises of the multilateral Western order and questions the value of international institutions, “we have to have clear positions. We need Western unity,” said Mr. Boehnke. “[Ms. Merkel] is maybe the best in negotiating this.”