Vladimir Putin started his 4th term as Russia's president by promising ambitious new social programs. He may be able to deliver on these promises because the price of petroleum, one of the mainstays of Russia's state budget, has risen steadily. A barrel of oil, which was $30 two years ago, fetched $70 this week.
Another reason Putin may be optimistic is Germany's unswerving support for Nord Stream-2, the undersea Baltic pipeline that will supply Russian natural gas directly to Germany and other parts of Europe. Nord Stream-2 will double the capacity of the previously built Nord Stream-1 pipeline from 55 to 110 billion cubic meters per year.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has backed the Russian-led project, despite protests from the European Union and several EU member states. At the same time Gazprom is building a pipeline that will supply Europe from the south, as well. The goal is to prevent Europe from developing alternatives to Russian gas, which gives the Kremlin important political-economic leverage over the continent
On May 3, Germany became the 1st EU country to begin building its portion of Nord Stream-2-in its Baltic Sea port of Lubmin. The construction started before Sweden and Finland signed off on the pipeline running through their waters. The Lubmin work was a poke in the eye to both the EC and European Parliament, both of which oppose the project.
By pursuing the pipeline, Germany is also defying the US and Ukraine. Washington has threatened sanctions against the Nord Stream-2 project's 5 European partners-Engie, OMV, Shell, Uniper and Wintershall. Moreover, US President Donald Trump called Berlin hypocritical for supporting a Russian revenue project while enjoying the benefits of the NATO protective umbrella against Moscow.
Russia embarked on Nord Stream to reduce its reliance on gas pipelines to Europe that run through Ukraine. If Russia is able to entirely shift its export volumes away from the Ukrainian pipeline network, Kyiv stands to lose billions of dollars per year in gas transit fees. On a trip to Berlin in early April, Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko again failed to persuade Merkel to pull out of the Nord Stream-2 project.
She has continued to try to soothe both Ukraine and those EU countries worried that Nord Stream-2 will not only undermine Ukraine's economic viability but also keep the European continent dependent on Russian gas. In a meeting with Slovakia's Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini, Merkel tried to square the circle by calling for "constructive and long-term solutions aiming to keep Ukraine a transit country for Russian gas".
Meanwhile, Russia has chosen a general contractor for its segment of Nord Stream-2-Stroytransgaz, half-owned by President Vladimir Putin's billionaire friend Gennady Timchenko. And Gazprom's deputy CEO, Alexander Medvedev, has even said on Russian TV that he would not rule out a Nord Stream 3, if there is European demand.
Along Europe's southeastern flank, Gazprom has also completed the 1st segment of the Turk Stream pipeline, which will send Russian gas under the Black Sea to Turkey and on to southern Europe. It completed the 900-kilometer segment in less than a year-a record pace for laying complicated deep-water pipeline infrastructure.
In contrast, it took almost three years to build the 1,345-kilometer Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP), which will deliver gas overland from Azerbaijan through Georgia (via the South Caucasus Pipeline) to Turkey and beyond to Europe. Work is set to begin June 19 on a pipeline connecting TANAP from the Turkish border to Southeastern Europe.
Germany's continued support for Nord Stream-2 and Washington's failure to make good on its threats to sanction major Russian gas projects are key reasons why Gazprom continues to build pipelines to Europe. EU member states are not only divided on Nord Stream-2, but also on policies to decrease the continent's dependence on Russian gas.
Germany wants to import more Russian gas as it phases out coal and nuclear power. And a combination of Russian gas and planned liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities will make Germany an important European gas hub. Germany's support for Nord Stream-2 is a double-edged sword for the rest of Europe, however.
On the one hand, its plans to become a natural gas hub would boost the EU's largest economy; and both Berlin and Moscow claim the pipeline will make Europe as a whole more energy-secure. On the other hand, these plans will clearly undermine the EU's energy-supply diversification efforts by flooding European gas markets with Russian supplies.
The completion of Nord Stream-2, expected for 2019, would increase Moscow's stranglehold on the continent's energy supplies. It would also provide Russia with a useful tool to put greater pressure on Ukraine.
Given the long-term threat that a number of European leaders say Nord Stream-2 poses to the continent, Germany may someday have to choose between its own Russia-related economic and political ambitions and the continued viability of Europe's political and energy unions.
The opinion of publishing author not always coincides with the opinion of the editorial board.
Author: The Jamestown Foundation