Trump’s opening volley at the NATO summit was a surprise attack on Germany, for its plan to increase natural gas imports from Russia via the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project.
Days before he is set to meet one-on-one with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Trump railed against Germany as a “captive of Russia,” directly tying gas imports from Russia to U.S. commitments to NATO and saying “we have to talk about the billions and billions of dollars that’s being paid to the country we’re supposed to be protecting you against.”
As with many of President Trump’s statements, there is a kernel of truth in it that.The US has long opposed Nord Stream 2, which would double the capacity of pipelines flowing directly from Russia under the Baltic Sea to Germany, arguing that it increases a key strategic vulnerability of Europe: it’s dependence on Russian gas. And this view is shared by many of Germany’s European neighbors.
Proponents of the project dismiss these concerns on pragmatic terms. Europe, already highly dependent on gas imports from abroad, is projected to see domestic production fall dramatically over the coming years. While LNG imports from the US could potentially help fill some of that shortfall, that’s a high-cost option, and Russia gas should be part of the solution, they argue. While Russian gas accounts for about a third of all gas consumed in the EU today, the EU accounts for 60% of Russian state-owned gas company Gazprom’s exports – meaning that the vulnerability cuts both ways.
Russia does have a history of using natural-gas supplies as a pressure point in conflict, most recently in June 2014 when it turned off the taps to the Ukraine in the heat of the crisis it precipitated there. Russia cited a legitimate payment issue, much as it had in 2006 and the winter of 2008-2009 when it restricted supplies, causing gas shortages in other Eastern European markets. But taking this action in the midst of an armed conflict sent a strong message on Russia’s willingness to exploit Europe’s energy supply vulnerabilities to advance its geopolitical aims.
In response, the European Commission immediately launched the European Gas Stress Tests, an exercise to determine in detail the potential impact of a gas supply disruption. If was the first time such a coordinated effort had been undertaken, with all participating countries working through the same process and using common standards. They considered a range of scenarios, including up to a 6 month complete halt in all Russian gas imports into the EU during Autumn/Winter peak demand. And what they found sits as the center of opposition to Nord Stream 2: the EU could weather a major supply disruption if they took a cooperative approach to reduce the impact on most affected countries.
Nord Stream 2 is seen as a direct threat to that cooperative approach. By doubling the capacity of the pipelines across the Baltic Sea, Russia could conceivably cut off gas flowing through the Yamal-Europe pipeline, crippling Eastern European members of NATO without directly impacting Germany, potentially undermining the alliance.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has sought to allay these concerns. Soon after the issuance of final permits to allow construction to proceed in March of this year, she assured that “I made it very clear that a project such as Nord Stream 2 is in our view not possible without clarity on how Ukrainian transit will proceed,” noting that political factors must also be considered in what she had to date described as a purely private sector venture. And her government is pursuing LNG imports as well.
Wherever one comes out on the wisdom of pursuing Nord Stream 2 these questions were not the focus of the President’s remarks. Given his embrace of Vladimir Putin and disdain for NATO, one might assume he saw this as just another trade grievance against our allies in the EU. If they’re the enemy, why aren’t we getting that money?
In some ways, these comments shouldn’t have come as a surprise at all. With a zero-sum, transactional approach to world affairs in which someone is always being taken in the deal, the U.S. with President Trump at the helm is not only undermining our alliances, but also systematically eroding the economic interdependence that makes conflict so costly.
The greater threat to NATO comes not from a gas pipeline, but from the President himself.