US sanctions against Nord Stream 2 – and their historical legacy

The most recent example of how the Cold War seemingly is reinvigorated in the Baltic Sea takes the form of US economic sanctions against companies that are involved in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline.

Nord Stream 2, like its predecessor Nord Stream 1, enables Western Europe to import more natural gas directly from Russia without the disturbances that for many years have characterized Russian-European gas flows via Ukraine and Belarus. This has made the Baltic gas pipelines, the first of which was taken into operation already in 2011, highly controversial in large parts of Central Europe, not least in Poland and the three Baltic countries. Poland’s foreign minister back then, Radosław Sikorski, famously dubbed Nord Stream 1 the “Molotov-Ribbentrop Pipeline”. The Nordic countries, for their part, worried about the potential environmental consequences of laying a steel pipeline carrying huge volumes of methane under high pressure at the bottom of the Baltic Sea – especially so in view of its already critical ecological state. There were also fears, on both western and eastern shores, that Nord Stream was a kind of Trojan horse, a dangerous military object on par with the multitude of military infrastructure that, ever since the world wars and the Cold War, covers much of the Baltic Sea countries’ territorial waters. This imagination grew further when the pipeline company stated that it wished to erect a “service platform” in the waters off the Swedish island of Gotland. That platform gave rise to public outcry and in the end did not materialize. But the pipeline did.

US sanctions against East-West infrastructure projects have a long history. The current sanctions are strikingly reminiscent of controversies that played out around other East-West natural gas pipelines during the Cold War. Several US governments repeatedly tried to prevent East-West pipelines from being built, first in the years around 1960 and then, during the Reagan administration, in the early 1980s. I have written about this in my book Red Gas: Russia and the Origins of European Energy Dependence (2013). The actual result of the attempts to disrupt the pipeline projects has usually been to cause tensions between different Western countries and, in particular, between Western Europe and the United States. The pipelines themselves have always materialized anyway. It is likely that the result will be much the same this time.

As a matter of fact, the US sanctions appear at a strange point in time, because Nord Stream 2 is already more or less completed. Only 160 km of its total length, 2460 km, remains to be lowered, the rest is already there, resting on the sea bottom. Nevertheless many actors feel so threatened by the geopoliticization of their activities that they instantly disrupted all work on the pipeline. A friend of mine in Norway was perplexed to see the large pipelaying ship “Pioneering Spirit” anchored up during Christmas in the port of Kristiansand, just outside his house. There it would remain while awaiting further decisions on how to proceed.

Pioneering Spirit

Today Russia’s energy minister Aleksandr Novak told journalists that the new plan is to bring in another pipelaying vessel to complete the project. The only problem is that this ship is currently in the Russian Far East. And so a variety of non-Baltic regions – from Norway’s Atlantic ports to the distant Pacific – are becoming part of the Baltic political drama.

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