Britain’s foreign secretary has joined a last-minute push to urge Nato allies to block the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, warning that Moscow would exploit its position if Europe nations became reliant on it for energy.
Liz Truss, at her first Nato foreign ministers meeting in Riga, also warned that Russia would be making a strategic mistake if it invaded Ukraine, promising an economic and diplomatic response by Nato.
The UK has been at the forefront of Nato countries, along with Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states, to question the wisdom of the pipeline that will take gas from Russia to Europe though the Baltic Sea bypassing Ukraine and depriving Kyiv of energy transit fees.
In a sign of her determination to challenge Russia, Truss, the UK foreign secretary, was also pictured in a tank along with British troops in Estonia, in pictures reminiscent of her role model, Margaret Thatcher.
It remains to be seen how far the UK can push its opposition to Nord Stream 2 but the prime minister, Boris Johnson, in a foreign policy speech at the Guildhall this month raised the issue’s profile saying: “We hope that our friends may recognise that a choice is shortly coming between mainlining ever more Russian hydrocarbons in giant new pipelines, and sticking up for Ukraine and championing the cause of peace and stability.”
Truss wrote in a Sunday Telegraph article: “Nord Stream 2 risks undermining European security by allowing Russia to tighten its grip on those nations who rely on it for gas.”
Yuri Vitrenko, head of Ukraine’s state energy firm, Naftogaz, speaking at Chatham House, in London, on Monday, praised Johnson’s remarks as “timely and helpful”. He added: “Britain is an important ally. Boris Johnson does not look like he is afraid to confront Putin and he is calling things by their names.” He pointed out the UK could not be decisive since the outcome could depend on EU energy law.
Vitrenko argued the current Russian pipeline through Ukraine acted as “an important deterrent to a full-scale war” since if an invasion happened once Nord Stream 2 gas started flowing, “the revenues of Russia will not be affected, European consumers will not be affected – what we will hear is some deep concerns from European politicians, but it will not change Russia policy or military aggression”.
It was thought the long running economic and political battle against the 1,200-mile pipeline had been largely lost since so much of the construction was complete, and because the Biden administration, in a compromise agreement with Germany in May, dropped sanctions against the $10bn pipeline. Germany instead agreed to provide Ukraine with a subsidy to transition to green energy.
But British ministers intent on backing Ukraine do not think the battle to contain Nord Stream – one largely conducted inside the EU – is lost. They point to paragraph two in the German/US statement of June, which says: “Should Russia attempt to use energy as a weapon or commit further aggressive acts against Ukraine, Germany will take action at the national level and press for effective measures at the European level, including sanctions, to limit Russian export capabilities to Europe in the energy sector, including gas, and/or in other economically relevant sectors.”
The UK claims Russia has been endangering European allies by limiting gas supplies in exactly the way that the agreement sought to rule out, a view strongly shared by many US Republican senators who are now blocking the defence budget to block Nord Stream.
Britain is also testing the water to see how the new German coalition will handle Nord Stream 2, noting the coalition agreement was silent on the issue. At least rhetorically, the new government is much tougher about defending Ukraine and Russian human rights abuses, British officials believe.
Oliver Krischer, a German Green politician, tipped by some to join the new super ministry for the climate and the economy, told Frankfurter Allgemeine this week: “Since gas demand will not increase in Germany or Europe, I see no need for Nord Stream 2. There is no commitment to this in the coalition agreement.”
To add to the sense of policy in flux, certification of the pipeline was temporarily suspended by Germany’s energy regulator on 16 November on the technical grounds that its owners, Russia’s Gazprom, had created a German subsidiary for the German branch of the pipeline that did not meet the requirements of domestic law.