| 5 MINUTE READ | The bubble that burst in the Baltic Sea
One thing in common between the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline and the global pandemic caused by the Corona virus is a shroud of deception around their origins.
When information is curated and weaponized and inconvenient truths are obscured and buried, to make sense of what is happening we need to see the underlying patterns. That would help us appreciate why comedians embody the zeitgeist of our times, as the last remaining truth tellers, who allow us to laugh over what would otherwise make us lament.
The opening moves
Twenty-five years ago, presumably in the light of America’s own response to the Cuban missile crisis, Senator Joe Biden said NATO’s expansion to include Russia’s Baltic neighbours could provoke an aggressive response from Russia. Since then America has led a gradual expansion of NATO to include Russia’s Baltic neighbours.
During the early part of this year, President Joe Biden warned that if Russia invaded Ukraine, America would bring an end to the Nord Stream 2 project. Since then Russia went to war with Ukraine and recent subterranean explosions, off the Danish Island of Bornholm, punctured both the Nord Steam 1 & 2 pipelines.
A few days before those explosions, the German media reported American ships – with 4000 soldiers, helicopter pilots, marines and strategists – passing the Danish Island of Bornholm before their automatic ship identification systems were turned off so they could no longer be located.
Europe’s energy artery
The geopolitical significance of the Nord Stream project stemmed from Russia’s central role in Europe’s energy basket.
Russia supplied around 200 billion cubic metres (BCM) of gas annually to meet close to 50% of European demand. 55 BCM of this gas flowed through the Nord Stream 1 subsea pipeline and about 45 BCM through the older terrestrial networks passing through Ukraine. Nord Stream 2, with an additional 55 BCM of capacity, had the potential to eat into Ukraine’s annual US$ 1.2 billion gas transit fee income and dilute its erstwhile leverage over Russian energy supplies into Europe. The commissioning of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, ready since late last year, was stalled by Germany in close consultations with the White House, as a first response to the crisis in Ukraine.
A raft of further sanctions on Russia, saw a spike in oil and gas prices that resulted in a skyrocketing of European energy costs. While Russian gas sales to Europe were throttled, this was more than compensated by a mix of new customers and rising prices. As Europe faces the prospect of a long cold winter with power cuts, energy rationing and the consequent possibility of mobile network outages, steelmakers like Arcelor Mittal and chemical makers like OCI have begun moving manufacturing operations to the USA. Continued uncertainties around basic utilities, could turn this trickle into a trend.
The negotiation gambit
In the meantime, what Russia expected would be a swift victory, has become an extended quagmire that exposes its lack of battle readiness. As sanctions began to erode critical military supply chains, Russia halted deliveries through Nord Stream 1 under the pretext of maintenance outages caused by supply bottlenecks. This set the ground for a negotiation with Germany to ease sanctions in exchange for gas.
Russia needs to reinforce its depleted military equipment against a resurgent Ukrainian force inundated with western armaments. High energy prices have led to widespread protests in Germany, with demands for an easing of sanctions and the opening of Nord Stream 2. An urgent case for both sides to strike a compromise was evident.
By taking away the ability for them to barter resources instead of blackmail, the Nord Stream explosions have placed a lid on any immediate scope for negotiations between Germany and Russia. Repairs on this US$ 11 billion piece of energy infrastructure, now buckled and inundated with corrosive sea water, are underway. But the uncertain timelines to bring them entirely back on-stream provide a window to cleave Europe away from Russian energy towards more expensive alternatives from further afield. American Secretary of State Anthony Blinken described the potential shift in the geopolitics and economics of the region due to this development, as a ‘tremendous opportunity’. A Europe besieged by higher costs and lower competitiveness sounds more like a death knell.
The approaching endgame
The winners and losers of this development are clear.
The breach in the Nord Stream temporarily restores the erstwhile centrality of Ukraine’s strategic leverage at a crucial time, through control over the last surviving major artery that can carry Russian gas into Europe. It strengthens American influence in the region, from a primary provider of defence, to a potential supplier to plug Europe’s energy vacuum.
America’s geopolitical strategy to wean Europe away from Russian energy, has been explicitly stated by President Biden. This echoes statements made by former Republican Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice almost a decade ago, demonstrating an enduring consistency in policy across party lines. The US-EU gas deal in March this year, saw an expansion of American gas cargoes into Europe. Since this would not be enough to meet the energy shortfalls induced by sanctions, having shut most of its nuclear power plants post Fukushima, Germany temporarily restarted 27 coal fired power plants in June. With the possibility of an extended Nord Stream outage, green energy and Greta Thunberg may get eclipsed by more quotidian European priorities.
As Putin is gradually encircled and cornered on an emptying chessboard with limited options to his west, will the possibilities of how this war ends get more apocalyptic? Or will Russia lurch more eastward, with its bounty of natural resources merging with the rising tide of the east?
The price of friendship
Unlike the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan, which relied on which side had the highest tolerance for pain, this war appears like it is being fought on American terms. To be lost by which side runs dry of resources first. From across the wide buffer of the Atlantic, instead of facilitating the compromises necessary for peace, Biden alluded to the need for a regime change in Russia, has pressed on with sanctions and sustained the flow of aid and reinforcements to Ukraine. Who will get weighed down first by this hawkish American stance?
More than a battered Russia or an emboldened Ukraine, the weakest link in this matrix of conflict may lie in Europe. With a predilection to occupy the moral high ground at the cost of pragmatism in how it defends its sovereign interests, the gradual decline of Europe now has a sense of inevitability. Perhaps Xi and Putin were forewarned by an old Henry Kissinger observation in ways that Zelensky and Scholz were not, that ‘To be an enemy of America can be dangerous, but to be a friend is fatal’.
The Nord Stream wreckage in the Baltic seabed is a contemporary monument to this unfortunate truth.
With research inputs from my daughter Shloka, a Grade 12 student of global politics at the Cathedral and John Connon School
(This post was published in the Sunday Guardian)