Despite years of behind-the-scenes cajoling and open threats of economic sanctions from two U.S. administrations, Washington appears to have failed to dissuade Germany from moving ahead with the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline — and Moscow now boasts that the massive Russia-to-Europe project is just months from completion.
Analysts say the U.S. missed key opportunities over the past five years to stop the pipeline, which critics fear will form the backbone of a working relationship between Germany and Russia that could strain NATO, undercut a struggling Ukraine, and threaten the energy security of the U.S. and its allies in Eastern Europe.
It’s not a function of the famously frosty relations between President Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. President Barack Obama and his aides also expressed doubts about the project without persuading Berlin to reconsider.
At several major inflection points since 2014, the U.S. might have been able to exploit political divisions in Germany and global anger toward Russia to either stop the project in its tracks or help turn public opinion against it so that it would no longer be politically viable.
At each of those points, however, Washington has been unable to break through.
Top administration officials now acknowledge that their efforts have fallen flat and say the U.S. could pursue economic sanctions against German companies that have done nothing to slow the project’s progress.
“The Germans appear intent on continuing to build that pipeline,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing this month. “We had done just about all we can to discourage the Europeans, primarily Germans, from building Nord Stream 2, and we’ve done that without success today.”
Mr. Trump’s frustrations with the pipeline boiled over memorably at a rocky Brussels summit in July when he complained to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that Germany was now “totally controlled by Russia.”
“We’re supposed to protect you from Russia, but Germany is making pipeline deals with Russia,” Mr. Trump said at the time. “You tell me if that’s appropriate. Explain that.”
The pipeline, conceived by Russia’s state-owned Gazprom with financial investments from other major international players such as Royal Dutch Shell, is expected to be completed by the end of the year. Russian officials said this month that about 621 miles of pipeline have been finished. When completed, Nord Stream 2 is expected to stretch about 745 miles from the Russian city of Vyborg, near the border with Finland to Greifswald in northeastern Germany.
Critics warn that the project will give Russia an even more dominant role as an energy supplier to Europe, which Moscow could wield as a geopolitical weapon by threatening to raise prices or cut off supplies. Russia last year sent about 7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas to Europe — accounting for about 40% of the continent’s total supply — and Nord Stream 2 could double that amount, its architects say.
Eastern European nations such as Poland, with deep-seated historical fears of rising Russian influence, have been among the most vocal within the European Union against Nord Stream 2, but their arguments have not prevailed.
The pipeline also will deliver a huge financial windfall for Germany, which will be transformed into a European energy hub.
With the project nearing completion, analysts say, the European countries backing Nord Stream, led by Germany and Austria, have effectively backed the U.S. into a geopolitical corner.
“The reality is that Germany and Austria have left little choice to the United States in terms of stopping this thing, except with sanctions,” said Alina Polyakova, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution who has studied the pipeline extensively.
Ms. Polyakova and other analysts say the U.S. is reluctant to move ahead with sanctions because of the ripple effects it could have on the European economy and the further damage it could do to Washington’s relationship with Germany, which is already strained by differences over trade, climate and immigration policy under Mr. Trump.
Analysts say the U.S. has missed a number of opportunities to take meaningful action.
When Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, the U.S. and Europe were largely unified in their condemnation of Moscow. Using economic sanctions to strangle the pipeline then, analysts say, likely would have worked, justified as a way to preserve Ukraine’s critical role as the main conduit for Russian oil to the West.
European leaders were more willing to work with President Obama than they are with Mr. Trump, and Russia’s undeniably hostile actions could have given leaders such as Ms. Merkel the political cover they needed to reject the project.
“I think it was the Obama administration that missed the opportunity, to be honest with you, to get this project stopped,” Ms. Polyakova said. “When the annexation of Crimea happened, that was the key moment. … When we implemented the sanctions [on Russia for its invasion of Crimea], that’s when we missed the opportunity.”
Five years later, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Trump frequently find themselves at odds over NATO defense funding and a host of other issues. It seems unlikely that Germany’s government is in any mood to acquiesce to U.S. demands.
Russian diplomats have played up the image of a bullying Washington trying to dictate what its allies can do. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov late last week again accused the Trump administration of “brazenly” interfering in German domestic decisions.
Furthermore, five years of intense lobbying and public relations campaigns have convinced many German lawmakers and business leaders that Nord Stream is a worthwhile project.
There are, however, key detractors in Berlin. Late last year, splits emerged within Ms. Merkel’s conservative coalition after Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait. The U.S. might have been able to publicly exploit those divisions.
“When diplomatic efforts to ease tensions fail, we cannot ignore the question of whether it is responsible to further increase the dependence of Germany and the European Union on Russia gas,” Juergen Hardt, foreign policy spokesman for Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, told Reuters in December. “Without increased trust in Russian policies, Nord Stream 2 will become a mistaken investment in economic and policy terms.”
That moment, too, passed with no change to the trajectory of Nord Stream.
U.S. lawmakers still warn that Moscow is playing Europe.
“It’s a trap, a Russian trap the Germans are seemingly willing to enter into,” Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican, said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing this month.