OPINION: Germany has scuppered Nord Stream 2 but there are questions left to answer

After Russia officially recognised two rebel-held regions of Ukraine as independent states, Germany mustered the strength to call an indefinite halt to Nord Stream 2. Better late than never, writes Brian Melican, but why was the pipeline project allowed to get this far in the first place?

A sign for Nord Stream 2
A sign for Nord Stream 2 with the slogan "Committed. Reliable. Safe." Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

If, as the old dictum goes, a week is a long time in politics, then a month is an eternity – especially when one of the politicians in play goes by the name of Vladimir Putin. Just a month ago, I wrote about Germany’s willingness to give the Russian president not just the benefit of the doubt, but seeming carte blanche to ride roughshod over Eastern European nations’ right to self-determination – and about our apparent unwillingness to stop the crazed pipeline scheme poised to finally render our gas supply wholly dependent on Russian imports. Now, on 22/2/22, Nord Stream 2’s number is finally up.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Germany is in a muddle over Russia – and it only has itself to blame

The snap decision to halt Nord Stream 2 has not come one second too soon. And, oddly enough, we have Putin himself to thank. Essentially, in suddenly deciding to recognise breakaway Ukrainian regions long under his control as “independent” last night, he has finally done enough to make our leaders in Berlin wake up and smell the samovar. After all, with Russia firmly in the grip of a megalomaniac authoritarian now so patently intent on redrawing the boundaries of Eastern Europe, even the most Moscow-friendly SPD government politicians now have to recognise that it would be nothing short of unconscionable to flick the switch on the new pipeline – one which would up the percentage of Russian gas in our imports to way north of 50 percent, making us eminently blackmail-able, deprive Ukraine of much-needed transit fees from Russian gas currently flowing through pipelines across its territory, and would be perceived as treachery by our allies in Europe and North America.

Eleventh-hour realism

For all this sudden bout of eleventh-hour realism in Berlin is welcome, the delay in decisive action here – and the lengths to which we allowed Putin to go prior to it – remain quite simply scandalous. Even when approved in 2005, the pipeline was controversial: many energy sector experts never thought it essential to Germany’s gas supply, especially given that we were already (on paper at least) committed to a green energy transition; moreover, the environmental damage was always going to be non-negligible and the costs high. All this should have been enough to rule the pipeline out from the start, even in those geopolitically more relaxed times before Russia went renegade. Yet work went on apace as the Grand Coalitions and the CDU/FDP administration of 2009-2013 inexplicably kept backing the project despite increasingly vocal concerns raised here and abroad.

The fact that Russian aggression in 2014/2015 and its annexation of Crimea were not seized upon as another pressing reason – and an ideal excuse – to kill off this wholly unnecessary project before it got anywhere near completion will undoubtedly be the subject of a parliamentary enquiry. Many MPs in the new intake were still in school when work began on Nord Stream 2, not in the Bundestag, and so will quite rightly demand to know how it can be that the pipeline was actually finished in September last year (just as they were being elected) and filled with gas before it was stopped at the very last possible moment. Surely, they will ask themselves, somebody could have and should have done something earlier.

So Angela Merkel will need to come out of retirement briefly to explain how, after her predecessor Gerhard Schröder had approved the pipeline just weeks before switching from the Chancellery to the Kremlin payroll, she allowed German foreign and energy policy to continue on and on down this damaging dead-end path for so long – even as she led a European sanctions regime against Russia in the wake of its incursions into the Ukraine. Her Foreign Minister, then Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, one of Schröder’s protégés, will also have some squirming to do as young MPs from his own party, the SPD, ask him to explain his unwavering support for the project in office – support he has toned down since retiring to a transatlantic think-tank. His predecessor in the Foreign Ministry, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, may also have some questions to answer – little more than a minor inconvenience for him, no doubt, given that he is still active in Berlin politics, having just been re-elected as nothing less than our president. And they will definitely want to talk to Manuela Schwesig, freshly re-elected as Minister President of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, to find out why she helped misdirect state funds into a supposedly charitable organisation set up for the sole purpose of completing the pipeline in the face of US sanctions.

Nord Stream 2

Manuela Schwesig (SPD) visits a Nord Stream 2 construction site in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Jens Büttner

An abject failure

Yes, Nord Stream 2 is an abject national failure in which almost every leading German statesman and woman of recent decades has had a hand. The fact that it will now, mercifully, not go into service and allow Russia to further destabilise the Western alliance on which we depend for our security, cannot erase this from our record. It will, however, allow us to start rebuilding trust with our key military and economic partners – notably France and the US, both of whom had, as we pressed ahead with the pipeline regardless, began to doubt our morality and/or sanity of late. It will also offer reassurance to countries in the Baltic we are pledged to defend: after we delivered 5,000 helmets to the Ukraine (and nothing more) a few weeks back, the likes of Lithuania were, understandably, starting to wonder just how serious we are about hemming in Russian aggression. Better late than never.

READ ALSO: How will the Nord Stream 2 freeze affect Germany’s gas supplies and prices?

There will be those out there who will argue that this is all part of some clever ruse, a last-minute switcheroo in which Russia, thinking it was about to get us hook, line, and sinker, now finds itself with an expensive and quite useless rod lying out of reach on the Baltic seabed. This would, however, be overstating the case. Germany simply allowed Nord Stream 2 to get far too far, depleting its reputational credit and lulling itself into a false sense of energy security instead of going green as planned. Now, just as our nuclear power plants have gone offline, we are scrambling to get neglected off-shore wind projects going again, and Russia has throttled deliveries through existing pipelines, we find ourselves in bleak mid-winter with historically low gas stores and a pipeline that won’t go on stream. This is not strategy – or certainly not good strategy – and a March cold-snap could make the wait for spring feel interminable.

So while a week or a month may indeed feel like a long time in politics, the real eternity here was the unbroken 17-year period in which Nord Stream 2 enjoyed Berlin’s backing. We now have less than 17 months to break our dependency on Russian gas for good.

Member comments

  1. Let’s just hope Europe won’t go cold in the intervening time it takes to find an alternative to Russian gas, nuclear has been ruled out which leaves renewables the best option.

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What the Nord Stream pipeline leaks mean for people in Germany

Security experts are increasingly convinced that leaks in the Nord Stream pipelines are the result of sabotage. Could there be further attempts to damage infrastructure - and what would the consequences be for people in Germany?

What the Nord Stream pipeline leaks mean for people in Germany

What’s going on?

Earlier this week, Swedish and Danish authorities reported three unexplained leaks in the two Nord Stream gas pipelines running between Russia and Germany. It came after a dramatic drop-off in pressure had been registered in both Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 on Monday night, reducing the capacity of the pipelines to zero.

On Tuesday, the Danish military published videos showing huge circles of gas bubbling to surface of the Baltic Sea – in some cases, stretching up to a kilometre in diameter. 

Nord Stream pipeline leaks

A video released by the Danish authorities shows gas bubbling up in the Baltic Sea. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Danish Defence Command | –

Then, on Thursday morning, the Swedish coast guard reported yet another pipeline leak, suggesting that the damage to the pipelines may be greater than previously imagined. 

“There are two leaks on Swedish territory and two on Danish territory,” a Swedish coast guard official told the AFP news agency on Thursday.

The leaks are located near the Danish island of Bornholm in the Swedish and Danish economic zones but in international waters.

What’s behind the leaks?

The discovery of the damage has caused widespread concern in the European Union that critical infrastructure is being targeted by hostile actors.

Though investigations are still ongoing, Danish authorities have reported explosions in the affected areas shortly before the leaks were discovered. 

Both EU authorities and the NATO defence alliance are assuming that the leaks – and explosions – are the result of deliberate sabotage.

“As far as I can tell, it is a very intelligent attack that could not have been perpetrated by a normal group of people,” EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said on Wednesday evenings, adding that there was a high risk that a state could be responsible. “We have suspicions, of course. But it is too early to judge that conclusively.”

READ ALSO: Who is behind the Nord Stream Baltic pipeline attack?

Military experts have been slightly less reserved in apportioning blame for the destruction, with several looking to Russia as the most likely perpetrator of the attacks. 

“Leaks in gas pipelines are extremely rare,” Norwegian naval officer and military expert Tor Ivar Strömmen told AFP. Both the Nord Stream pipelines are both new and highly robust, he said. 

“I see only one possible actor, and that is Russia,” Strömmen added.

Meanwhile, Michael Giss, a naval commander in the German Bundeswehr (army), pointed to the fact that Russia’s sham referendums in occupied eastern regions of Ukraine and the likely attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines occurred on the same day.

“We also know that there are drones in the Russian navy – or even small submarines – that could be used for such purposes,” Giss told Tagesschau. “I also don’t want to exclude the possibility that certain measures may have been taken in advance during the construction of the pipeline to trigger such an event.”

The motivation could be to unsettle an already nervous Europe and drive gas prices even higher, experts believe. 

Has this affected gas deliveries to Germany?

So far, gas deliveries haven’t been impacted by the damage to the pipeline – though the leaks have rendered both of the pipelines inoperable. 

The gas supply hasn’t been affected because neither of the Nord Stream pipelines are currently in service. At the start of September, Russia cut all gas deliveries to Germany via the Nord Stream pipeline in what is widely seen as retaliation for western sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine.

In the case of the recently completed Nord Stream 2, the pipeline has never been in operation: Germany took the decision not to receive gas through the pipeline just days after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Nevertheless, both pipelines contained gas at the time of the leaks: Nord Stream 1 is likely to have had residual gas from previous deliveries while Nord Stream 2 was likely filled after completion for testing purposes or as a way to place political pressure on Germany to put the pipeline in operation. 

READ ALSO: Germany says must brace for ‘unimaginable’ after gas leaks

Nord Stream 2 pipeline parts

Unused parts for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

Has this impacted energy prices?

Prices for natural gas have risen significantly in the European energy markets this week. On Tuesday, shortly after the first leaks were discovered, gas prices shot up from €167 per megawatt hour to €182 per megawatt hour.

By Wednesday, TTF futures contracts for Dutch natural gas – which represent trends in the EU market as a whole – had gone up to €212 per megawatt hour for deliveries in October and to €234 per megawatt hour for deliveries in January. This marks an increase of 14 percent and 11 percent respectively.

However, gas prices still aren’t anywhere near their previous peak in August, when TTF contracts soared to €346 per megawatt hour. Experts also believe that the latest hikes aren’t likely to last.

That’s partly because most European countries have succeeded in filling up their gas reserves in preparation for winter.

In Germany, which has the largest gas storage capacity in Europe, the gas storage facilities were around 91.5 percent full on September 27th. The government hopes to fill the facilities to at least 95 percent of capacity by November 1st. 

To relieve citizens and businesses, the government is also working to introduce a gas price cap in the coming weeks. That would likely see households pay a capped rate for a certain amount of energy per year, with anything above that subject to market rates. 

This would shield people from the worst of the price rises, even if Russia carries through on its latest threat to shut off gas deliveries via the Ukraine. 

German politicians are debating how this would be paid for. 

READ ALSO: German regional leaders call for energy price cap

Could there be more attacks in future?

The fact that a potential attack on critical infrastructure was able to slip under the radar is a major concern. It has raised fears that other parts of critical infrastructure, including electricity cables, other gas pipelines and internet cables could be subject to future sabotage attempts, which would have a huge impact on people’s lives. 

One particularly worrying target is the some 1000km of underwater cables that deliver electricity from Finland to Germany via the Baltic Sea, experts believe.

According to NATO security expert David van Weel, critical infrastructure like this has become a major target for cybercriminals and hostile states. Analysts have been warning for years that China and Russia are conducting spy operations to assess the undersea infrastructure of NATO countries.

Beyond gas, supplies of drinking water and electricity, internet connectivity could also be under threat. 

Electricity cables deliver power to a factory in Hamburg.

Electricity cables deliver power to a factory in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Bockwoldt

There are currently around 400 undersea cables with a length of around 1.3 million kilometres that connect countries across the globe. If these were sabotaged, the consequences for communication and the economy could be disastrous.

After the Nord Stream pipeline leaks, NATO forces – including the German Bundeswehr – are increasing their presence around this vital infrastructure with additional patrols.

The EU is also working on implementing measures to protect the drinking water, electricity and other vital infrastructure in its member states.

The initiative was started in summer and is set to be accelerated in light of the pipeline leaks.