A Russian journalist takes a picture of herself in front of the pigging station at the Nord Stream 2 gas landing facility at Lupmin in Germany. Photo: Jens Büttner/dpa-Zentralbild/AFP

When Joe Biden was a candidate for US president last year, he talked tough about stopping completion of Nord Stream 2, the Russian-German gas pipeline, as a threat to European security.

This week, he all but signed off on its completion by removing sanctions against the German-run company in charge of the project.

In doing so, Biden dismissed Eastern European ally concerns, made German Chancellor Angela Merkel happy and showed Russian leader Vladimir Putin that he intends no tough punishment for Russia’s occupation of parts of Ukraine nor its crackdown on dissidents at home.

Biden still plans to sanction smaller Russian companies and ships involved in the enterprise, but letting the Germans off the hook reduces the chances blocking it. News agencies quoted a State Department official saying stopping the project was now a “long shot.” It could be finished by year’s end.

It’s a far cry from the tough line Biden projected when he ran against Donald Trump. Trump placed the sanctions on the pipeline company, Nord Stream2 AG, headed by a former East German in intelligence agent and ally of Putin.

Biden, in promising Baltic NATO allies he would oppose Nord Stream 2, noted, “This project would severely jeopardize Ukraine’s access to Russian gas.” After he took office, he called the pipeline, “A bad deal for Europe.”

His decision also goes against comments by Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his Congressional confirmation hearing last winter. Blinken had said he was “Determined to do whatever we can to prevent that completion” of the pipeline.

Angela Merkel and Joe Biden, then US vice president, at a security conference in Munich in 2015. Photo: Christof Stache/AFP

But appeasing Germany appeared more on the administration’s mind than punishing Putin. Blinken now says that letting the project go ahead is in the national interest because Germany wants it and therefore it is “consistent with the President’s pledge to rebuild relationships with our allies.” 

Merkel’s government quickly expressed satisfaction. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Germany regarded the decision as a constructive step, which “takes into consideration the extraordinarily good relations that have been established with the Biden administration.”

Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said the step foretold the normalization of relations with the US and reflects “a touch of normalcy in US politics,” a reference to the contrast in tumultuous relations with the Trump administration.

The decision made waves in Washington. Republican politicians suggested that Biden was taking a soft line on Russia, despite only last month having called Putin a killer.

Republican Senator Ben Sasse scoffed at the decision. “Only recently did two months ago, President Biden called Putin ‘killer,’ but today he’s planning to give Putin, his regime, and his cronies massive strategic leverage in Europe,” he said.

Pipe systems and shut-off devices at the Nord Stream 2 gas landing station in Lubmin, Germany. Photo: Jens Büttner/dpa-Zentralbild/AFP

Germany regards the pipeline as a commercial boon and a means of securing steady supplies of natural gas not subject to interruption in Ukraine. In the past, Russia blocked gas flows through its pipeline as part of its pressure on Kyiv to ally itself with Moscow.

NATO allies Bulgaria, the Czechia, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, all countries that were once under the Soviet Union’s thumb, have opposed Nord Stream 2.

So does Ukraine, whose eastern territories are occupied by Russian-backed rebels and whose Crimean peninsula Moscow has annexed. Completion of Nord Stream 2 will deprive Ukraine of transit fees it collects from Moscow.

The European Union’s parliament asked Germany to cancel Nord Stream 2 due to the poisoning, widely blamed on Putin’s security services, of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. Merkel rejected linking the pipeline to Russian human rights issues.

Dozens of German and European companies are involved in the $11 billion project, which is 95 per cent complete. Merkel, who is leaving office this year, said the deal was just a “commercial” venture, although Germany’s Russian partner in the project, Gazprom, is majority-owned by the Russian state.

Former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder heads a so-called investors committee at Nord Stream and is on the board of Rosneft, a major Russian oil firm.

German-Russian relations raise a question niggling at allies of Germany: Do Berlin’s business ventures dangerously outweigh its self-declared devotion to European values, not to mention its attachment to NATO?

In that vein, Germany pushed for a new trade deal with China, ignoring a Biden request it wait until he could consult Merkel as president.

The EU parliament  declined to ratify the deal because of human rights concerns over repression of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang province and of pro-democracy dissidents in Hong Kong. Merkel said she prefers that Germany hold a “human rights dialogue” rather than use trade as a pressure tool.

However, the German government recently put brakes on the entry of Huawei, the Chinese communications giant, into the German 5G cellular network. It added a possible government veto power over involvement of “suspicious” companies.

The move presents a difficult balance for Germany whose relations with China have become key to its economic health. China is now the country’s leading trade partner, surpassing the United States and Netherlands.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.