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Merkel about ‘political’ Nord Stream 2. Live ammunition or shooting blanks?

Fot. www.president.gov.ua
Fot. www.president.gov.ua

The chancellor Angela Merkel met president Petro Poroshenko on Tuesday, April, 10th.  Apart from political courtesies and routine confirmation of support, she made a statement on Nord Stream 2 which shows it has become a problematic issue for Germany. Yet is this a real breakthrough?

No one needs to be convinced that the climate regarding controversial pipeline has become progressively worse. However, nobody expected such a speech of the German chancellor.  If we tempt to carry out an experiment (and do not indicate the names of the authors of quotations), I bet dollars to doughnuts that a lot of readers would be misled.

‘We discussed the issue in detail and Ukraine’s reservations were carefully heard. Yesterday I talked to President Putin and I said it cannot be the case that Nord Stream 2 means Ukraine no longer has any significance with regard to the transit of natural gas’, Angela Merkel declared.

The chancellor’s statement, with trust in her good intentions, may be perceived as polemic with the communication strategy chosen  by parties engaged in the Nord Stream 2 project. It is worth noting that as recently as 2015 at the meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in Berlin, Alexander Novak (Minister of Energy of Russia) declared that after 2019 (date planned of NS2 opening) the gas transit agreement with Ukraine would not be extended. The Gazprom’s chief, Alexiei Miller, commented the issue along the same lines. After some time such a statement was corrected due to some objective difficulties like infrastructural issues. On the other hand it was realised that this kind of narrative puts wind in the sails of the investment’s opponents. From this moment Russian officials (headed by Vladimir Putin) have confirmed their readiness for keeping the transmission system through Ukraine if cost-effective.

The newest example of this changed attitude is a recent comment by Miller on the gas transmission through the Ukrainian territory which Gazprom shall continue (even after operation of Nord Stream 2 and Turkish Stream) but with capacity reduced to 10-15 billions of cubic meters. For comparison, in 2017 the ‘blue fuel’ transmission from Russia to Europe reached the highest value from 8 years and was equal to 93,5 billions of cubic meters. And this context is a key for understanding Merkel’s statement. The chancellor indicated that the major problem is not Kiev’s elimination from the gas transition process but its marginalisation – and the 6.fold reduction of capacity should be considered as such. It may appear that this issue will be main bone of contention in the project since every Moscow’s action in a gas sector is aimed against Ukraine and its ‘gas’ importance.

The second and more important point raised by the German chancellor is a question of Nord Stream 2 ‘qualification’. ‘It has strategic importance for Ukraine. In our view, the Nord Stream 2 project is not possible without clarity of how Ukraine's transit role will continue. From this you can already see that this is not just an economic project, but that, of course, political factors must also be taken into account’ Merkel said.

Although Germany has for the first time acknowledged allies' concerns on the political aspect of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, one swallow does not make a summer. The chancellor's choice of words marked a change from her previous line that it was a purely economic project. ‘We cannot interfere with trade relations’, she had always replied to Poland and other countries opposing the pipeline and pointing at possible geopolitical consequences of the project. It was in line with comments of other key German politicians and managers. Yet, it did not prevent Berlin’s elites from attending high level meetings at which the key decisions on the pipeline were discussed. German, Russian and Austrian authorities have repeatedly showed a gesture of support for the project in media as well as within the EU’s institutions. Having this in mind, we should welcome the chancellor’s recent statement. In fact, it formed a gap (minor but potentially problematic) in a ridiculous narrative of ‘unpolitical’ NS2.

Polish politicians have also been very clear on the issue. ‘In case of NS2 operation, Russian dependence on Ukraine will be declining. We can imagine then various military and political scenarios and this is the thing I warn our allies against. This is the danger I talked to Mr Tillerson about in Warsaw a few weeks ago’, prime minister Morawiecki said in February, just before his trip to Berlin. So far, our western neighbours have treated Central-European reservations with caution. Yet, is the Merkel’s statement a real wind of change? We will see.

We cannot be excessively optimistic. Merkel’s speech seems to be significant but maintaining her point of view in following months is of utmost importance. It would however be naïve to expect that Germany will join the team of Poland, Ukraine and the Baltics and start to fight the project – a little distance from the investment completely satisfies Warsaw. However, the proposed revision of the gas directive is a real acid test. Berlin’s actions will then show if Merkel’s statement reflects her in-depth thought or is simply a next political ploy aimed at keeping the pipeline’s opponents off guard.