Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly asked President Joe Biden to impose sanctions on Russia before an invasion begins, and has been denied every time.
Last summer, Zelensky warned Biden the risk of invasion would soar if sanctions were lifted on Vladimir Putin’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but that warning was ignored.
Zelensky said in a June interview that he was “unpleasantly surprised” by Biden’s unwillingness to continue the Trump administration’s opposition to Nord Stream 2, an $11 billion pipeline project running across the Baltic Sea from Siberia to Germany. The pipeline is scheduled to become operational sometime in the second half of 2022.
The pipeline will double the amount of gas Russia’s state energy company Gazprom can ship to Europe – and it bypasses current shipping routes that run through Ukraine. Transit fees for those shipments represent about $2 billion in annual revenue for Ukraine.
One reason the Trump administration opposed Nord Stream 2 is that it gives Russia enough economic leverage over Europe, and especially Germany, to realign the politics of the entire continent. Those warnings were prescient, as Germany is clearly drifting away from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and moving increasingly into Russia’s political orbit. France may not be far behind.
In June, Zelensky warned Nord Stream 2 is a potent geopolitical “weapon in the hands of the Russian Federation,” and said he was baffled by Biden’s seeming inability to appreciate the danger.
“I believe that even if there was only one percent left, it would still be possible to stop such a serious leverage that Russia will have in the future to influence energy security and Europe in general, including Ukraine. Even if there was only one percent left, it just needs to be done,” he urged.
“Moreover, everything is now in the U.S. President’s hands only, and I am sure that he is aware of that, and his team is aware of that, they know that,” he insisted.
Zelensky pronounced himself first angry, and then “disappointed,” by Biden’s opposition to sanctions on Nord Stream 2 and grimly mused that American was preparing to sacrifice untold Ukrainian lives to preserve its relationship with the pipeline’s client, Germany.
In December, Zelensky stressed that sanctions should be applied before Russian leader Vladimir Putin sends tanks rumbling across the border because the Russian strongman thinks the sanctions threat is a bluff, and even if he does suffer some economic repercussions for invading Ukraine, he can tough it out.
“For us, it is important to have sanctions applied before, rather than after, the conflict would happen, because if they were applied after the conflict would happen, this would basically make them meaningless,” Zelensky said.
“We have war going on for eight years. We understand that only if the sanctions are applied prior to the armed conflict would they become a prevention mechanism for any possible escalation,” he argued.
On Wednesday, the Kremlin explicitly stated Putin was prepared to withstand punitive sanctions, dismissing them as “not painful” but “politically destructive.” Putin drove the point home by wrangling Italian business leaders into a conference call despite pleas from their government to snub him.
The Peterson Institute for International Economics argued last week that Nord Stream 2 makes Putin the one who can dictate foreign policy for Europe by threatening sanctions, given Europe’s energy crisis and its appetite for cheaper gas.
European gas production is dwindling at the exact moment the European Union (EU) is emerging from pandemic slowdowns and ramping other industries up. The International Energy Agency (IEA) accused Russia of deliberately reducing shipments to Europe at the end of 2021 to make the gas crunch worse and increase Russian economic leverage.
Nord Stream 2 would take Ukraine out of the equation, giving Putin both the ability to threaten 20 percent or more of Europe’s electrical generation capacity and argue that wrecking Ukraine will not jeopardize the flow of gas into the continent.
The Center for Security Policy (CSP) noted in 2019 that Russia has not been shy about manipulating gas supplies and prices to influence Ukrainian politics, and Nord Stream 2 will vastly increase Moscow’s leverage over Kyiv – essentially giving Putin the power to wipe out 3 percent of Ukraine’s GDP with the flip of a switch, at minimal cost to either Russia or Europe.
“If Moscow shuts off gas supply one winter will Germany, as a NATO member, be any more capable of fighting price hikes or political demands than Ukraine was? Freezing citizens and irate businessmen will likely motivate German politicians to cede whatever necessary to turn heat back on. NATO military strength will be entirely irrelevant,” CSP predicted.
Biden tried warning Putin in December that invading Ukraine could scuttle the Nord Stream 2 project but, to put it mildly, those warnings do not appear to have ruffled any Russian feathers. As noted above, Putin has missed no opportunity to demonstrate that Nord Stream 2 is a reason for the Europeans to indulge him, not a reason for them to oppose him.
Former European Council president and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in November called Nord Stream 2 a “bad project” from the EU perspective and the biggest mistake of outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s career.
“I’ve done everything I could to make the EU less reliant on Russian gas, including establishing an energy union,” Tusk complained.
Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee wrote a letter to Biden in March, warning that sanctions should have been increased to match the administration’s tough talk against Nord Stream 2 – a project Biden himself once described as a “bad deal for Europe.”
The House letter called on Biden to coordinate with the Ukrainian government and heed its warnings about the pipeline.
“It is a Russian malign influence project that threatens to deepen Europe’s energy dependence on Russia and, consequently, enhance the Putin regime’s ability to exert political pressure throughout Europe. It would also allow the Putin regime to bypass Ukraine in exporting natural gas to Western Europe, decoupling the security of Ukraine from broader European security and rendering Kyiv more vulnerable to Russian aggression,” the Republicans wrote.
“Nord Stream 2 is always an elephant in the room. It looms large over anything to do with Russia, Germany and Ukraine,” an unnamed U.S. official admitted to the Financial Times in December. That does not sound like the realists in the administration think the pipeline is a cudgel gripped firmly in their hands. As the Ukrainians warned, it was a terrible mistake to let that elephant sit in the room while their fate was decided.