by Miceál O’Hurley
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Last week, United States President Joe Biden received Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel to give her the fitting, official last visit to the United States as befitted her long-term relationship no less than four Presidents. The relationship was not always warm, but it was cordial and most often, workable. This was the obligation Biden owed Merkel as a Head of State and ally. The obligation ended there.
Going beyond a celebratory send-off, Biden, as he has proven himself apt to do through the years, and noticeably so now that he is President, put much of his agenda at risk, both domestically and internationally by attempting to do too much at one time. In what Americans call a ‘big swing’, a baseball reference for trying to hit the ball out-of-the-park on a wild outside pitch, Biden sought to repair the United States’ strained with relationship with Germany by one muscular act – lifting Nord Stream 2 sanctions.
In non-baseball speak, he tried to do too much with one gesture and, as everyone knows with the ‘big swing’, you only risk taking it when absolutely necessary. Even then, the odds are you will miss the ball and strike out, letting down your side and losing the game. The question is, with 3-years left in his term of office, and a new German Chancellor soon to take office, and knowing full well that Congress is opposed to the Russian Nord Stream 2 project being completed, why did Biden see such a grand and dangerous gesture necessary at this time? It is baffling.
In withdrawing sanctions that were demonstrably prohibitive for Russia to see the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from being completed, Biden has turned 180 degrees on his previous stance that it was a danger to European security and stability. Biden has now almost virtually ensured Russia will have the ability to threaten Europe’s energy security at whim (something he has shown himself willing to do multiple times over the years, including this month). Moreover, once operating, Nord Stream 2 will reward Russia with new and significant funding stream that all but mutes sanctions that have begun to punish it for its unceasing bad acts, including the attempted brutal annexation of Crimea and occupation of parts of Eastern Ukraine’s Donbas which has killed more than 13,000 Ukrainians and internally displaced more than 1.5 million people. Russia’s conduct is the subject of war crimes investigations by the International Criminal Court.
By striking a deal with Merkel to allow Russia’s Nord Stream 2 project reach completion, an act that will simultaneously financially cripple Ukraine, a critical US ally and place Europe’s energy security squarely in the hands of Putin, a man Biden himself recently called a “killer”, Biden has abruptly and unilaterally changed course. At a time when he cries “America is back!” and seeks to assure allies of America’s stability after the harrowing chaos of the Trump years, this is just one more Biden act that places the stability of the U.S. Ship of State’s in question after years of crippling uncertainty. Biden’s gift to Russia in an attempt to repair his relationship with Germany has not achieved that goal and instead has alarmed key international allies and domestic allies in his own Party.
The dismay of Biden’s hasty decision is being felt in capitals across Europe and at home in Washington, D.C. Holding the slimmest of majorities in the Senate, and unable to rely on the House of Representatives delivering his agenda by themselves, the decision to add his own Democratic Party’s leaders to his critics, when the Trumpian Republican Party is already at his throat, seems abundantly reckless.
Disarray, Dejection and Disappointment at State Department
Upon taking office, Biden and his able Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, both decried how the Trump Administration had rendered the United States center of diplomacy, the Department of State, ineffective after unparalleled resignations and failing to appoint career diplomats to key posts. Biden’s pledge to re-staff the Department of State and nominate Ambassadors to replace interim appointments and get promotions approved by the Senate has hit a brick wall. Now, Biden’s deal with Merkel, allowing Nord Stream 2 to be completed, has undone his plans to rehabilitate the United States diplomatic presence around the globe.
Despite his renewed commitment to multilateralism in declaring “America’s back!”, and beyond Republican opposition, Biden himself has been unusually unwonted in naming new ambassadors, naming consul or granting promotions to a decidedly dejected diplomatic corps. According to the American Foreign Service Association, key ambassadorial posts to countries such as Australia, China, Canada, India, Israel, Afghanistan, Mexico and Iraq are vacant.
As for the United States’ diplomatic standing in Europe? The situation is dire. At present, a record 26 ambassadorial posts remain ‘Vacant’. The list should alarm Biden as much as it does Europe. Vacancies now exist in Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, European Union, Finland, France & Monaco, Holy See, Hungary, Iceland, Luxemburg, Malta, NATO, Norway, OSCE, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain & Andorra, Sweden, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United Nations – Geneva, and, United Nations – Vienna. Biden’s commitment to multilateralism is being crippled by his own failure to quickly nominate and confirm Ambassadors. If he has a plan, nobody knows it.
Single U.S. Senator Thwarting Biden’s Diplomatic Appointments – And It’s About Nord Stream 2
Returning to his domestic political woes, Biden’s latest ‘Big Swing’ deal with Merkel to allow the Russian Nord Stream 2 project to come to fruition has pitted him against arch-conservative foe, and future Presidential hopeful, Republican United States Senator Ted Cruz. To be fair, both Cruz’s fellow Republican Party members and the Democratic majority voice frustration with Cruz for stopping ambassadors from being confirmed. However, under Senate Rules, a single Senator can bring the process to a halt, and he has. The result? Biden’s international engagement plans are floundering.
Why is Cruz doing this? Nord Stream 2.
Career diplomats spend years carefully nurturing their careers to gain advancement to reach the point where Senate confirmation is necessary. Like political appointees to the diplomatic corps, beyond the voluminous stacks of disclosures, production of proofs, FBI background checks, national security vetting and more, getting to the point of a Senate hearing is the last step before a high-level promotion or ambassadorial confirmation is made. Thanks to Cruz, the cantankerous Senator from hard-nosed Texas, his ‘hold’ on dozens of promotions and appointments means everything has ground to a halt. Because of his vehement opposition to Russia’s new gas pipeline, and famous dislike of both Putin and Russia, Biden cannot remedy the Department of State’s woes without Cruz’s cooperation. It almost seems that Biden has gone out of his way to create a confrontation with Cruz that he knows from his more than four decades in the Senate, Cruz can easily win through basic parliamentary procedure.
This would be a difficult situation in usual times between a Democratic President and a Republican Senator. But, given Biden’s attempt to solve his problems with Germany by withdrawing Nord Stream 2 sanctions, he has now created a daunting and durable obstacle to with one of his key priorities – multilateralism and diplomacy.
Cruz has not shown any interest in budging from his position until he is assured Nord Stream 2 is stopped. Given the division in the Senate, and Democratic opposition to Russia’s Nord Stream 2 completion, Biden now suffers from a self-inflicted wound. The question is, will it be fatal to his domestic and international agenda?
Deal Lacks Practical Implementation
While Biden had hoped to restore the United States’ relationship with Germany by this grand gesture he was quickly re-introduced to reality. At the joint press conference following their agreement Merkel was quite plain spoken in her position, “The agreement with the U.S. government does not cement the differences, but it does not overcome all differences either.”
Merkel did not exactly enunciate the celebratory language of unity one hopes for after gambling so much to woo a long-suffering ally. Instead, the United States and German seem to speak in terms more accustomed to a separated couple in marriage counselling.
Biden and Merkel’s Plans Offend the President’s Closest Supporters
When articulating their agreement it immediately became abundantly clear that Biden’s and Merkel’s plan is unworkable. First, a key Senate ally, long-time Biden friend and a senior member of a principle committee that will be required for Biden’s plan to be successful, United States Senator Tim Kaine (a Virginia Democrat who was notably a Party leader as Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Vice Presidential running mate), is adamantly opposed to Biden’s concession to Russia and Germany. “I’m not happy about it,” said Kaine, a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees. “I’m not happy about it in terms of the Russia politics, and I’m not happy about it in terms of climate change.”
Ah, climate change! Biden has created yet another formidable obstacle in his agenda – to reduce climate change emissions. Russia’s dismal history of environmental destruction as well as haunting human and animal displacement in their exploitation of land to exploit cheap energy resources runs contrary to Biden’s agenda. Kaine, in his limited remarks, just signaled for environmental activists to become more active. Biden has created new enemies from his once stalwart friends.
In arriving at the assumption that Russia’s Nord Stream 2 project will be completed regardless of the United States official position, Biden has both seemed to concede Putin will prevail without any sustained effort to oppose him after only a few months in office, all while alienating yet another key Democrat – United States Senator. Senator Jeanne Shaheen. Shaheen, Biden’s fellow Democratic Party colleague from New Hampshire who Co-Authored the sanctions regime against Russia, said she was “… skeptical that [Biden’s concession to Russia and Germany] will be sufficient when the key player at the table – Russia – refuses to play by the rules.” In angering pivotal political allies like Senators Kaine and Shaheen, members of his own Democratic Party, from separate regions of the country, Biden is wearing his welcome thin on Capitol Hill. Beyond Nord Stream 2, he needs them to get the rest of his infrastructure, labour reforms, social programmes and international relations agenda passed.
If alienating a Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Co-Sponsor of the Russian Sanctions Bill wasn’t enough for Biden, his deal with Merkel further infuriated yet another key Senator, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, United States Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland,. “Once [the Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline] is up, the vulnerabilities are going to be there”, said Cardin. “I’ve always felt that we should’ve stopped it. But now we’re at the point where it’s going to be very difficult to prevent its use.”
Diplomat.ie reported on the environmental devastation that accompanies Russia’s energy sector in our special report, Russia’s Gazprom Manipulating Prices to Punish Europe for Sanctions & Nord Stream II Delays.
Biden’s about-face with Nord Stream 2 has expended significant political capital he needed at home to ensure his stalled domestic agenda goes forward. His international agenda is also imperiled. Regaining the trust and confidence of those in his own Democratic Party by skirting them and ignoring their guidance and will, and further antagonising Republican Party opponents for being ‘soft on Russia’, will make his difficult job exponentially more difficult, and unnecessarily so.
The realities of governing are beginning to sink-in while mid-term elections loom in the near future. With only 1 year and 3 months until mid-term elections, Biden has accomplished little on which the Democratic Party can run persuasively and now his ‘Big Swing’ has made any further accomplishments more doubtful. Unless Biden gets his agenda passed, which given his angering key allies make more unlikely, Republicans could regain control of the Senate, gain seats in the House and doom Biden’s agenda and re-election hopes altogether.
With the ‘Big Swing’ on Nord Stream 2, Biden not only failed to patch-up relations with Germany, signaled further instability in relations with other European nations, caused concerns about his judgment in his own party and stymied his plans to rebuild the Department of State and diplomatic engagement abroad. Time will tell if it is a fatal folly or a near-mortal wound. Either way, its not good for Biden.
A Divided Europe – Just as Putin Desired
Beyond domestic realities, Biden’s Nord Stream 2 plan with Germany faces serious opposition in Europe. The European Union has consistently been against it.
The Baltic States have been some of Europe’s most vocal critics of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 project. His Excellency Mr. Jonatan Vseviov, Estonia’s Ambassador to the United States has repeatedly highlighted that all evidence points to Russia using Nord Stream 2 as yet another tool to divide the European Union internally and the European Union and United States internationally. “For a nation that is dependent upon Western unity, including EU unity, this is an incredibly difficult position to be in,” said Ambassador Vseviov. “We would like it to go away, frankly speaking.” For their part, Lithuania also highlighted its opposition to the pipeline’s completion, “[We] regard sanctions as the most effective tool in countering [Russian] behavior.”
Europe is not unaware of Russia’s desire to divide Europe. Despite repeated sanctions by the European Union and others against Russia for their brutal and lethal occupation of parts of Ukraine’s Eastern Donbas and attempting to annex Crimea, Russia is undeterred. In July 2021, Pyotor Tolstoy, Deputy Speaker of Russia’s Parliament and head of the Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), as well as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), called for “… hanging the leaders of the Ukrainian revolution from the lamp posts. [Ukraine] is part of our greater Russia”. With such unabashed hostility and outright threats of extrajudicial executions of the democratically elected members of the Ukrainian Government being called for by a senior Russian parliamentarian (one who sits in her midst in PACE), Europe has good reason to fear Russia and her disdain for her independent European neighbours. This is especially so for Russia’s European neighbours that were forcefully within Russia’s colonial and repressive communist grasp in the past.
Biden’s lifting of sanctions has understandably had a cooling effect on transatlantic relations.
Biden’s Plan Built on Shifting Sands
Despite the Russian narrative that Nord Stream 2 is about affordable European energy security, European Union Members understand that it is about their Member States’ national security. In this dynamic, Germany stands at odds with most of Europe. Unlike Germany, Europe’s consensus is that once Nord Stream 2 is pumping gas, and Ukraine is economically damaged (another key Russian goal), neither Washington, D.C. nor Berlin will have any control over Russia’s conduct, or misconduct as Russia is demonstrating, in seeking to hold Europe hostage.
Biden and Merkel believe, wrongly, that all this can be blunted by Berlin appointing a ‘Special Envoy’ to assist Ukraine in negotiating an extension of its current gas transit deal with Russia beyond its 2024 expiration, they can bring Ukraine on-board. There is little evidence that such is a practical solution. One of Russia’s enunciated goals has been to bypass Ukraine, depriving it of a reliable stream of gas revenue all while Russian forces have invaded Ukraine, attempted to annex Crimea and occupy both it and parts of Eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. Russia’s monstrously large deployment of combat ready troops to Ukraine’s border in the last two months (most of which remains despite Russia propaganda that the exercise ended), betrays any such notions.
Biden and Merkel’s mantra that with inherent surplus transit capacity provided by Nord Stream 2, Russia would extend the current gas transit deal, is plainly counterintuitive. Gazprom is a Russian State entity. Beyond the ridiculous economics of paying Ukraine for gas transit capacity Russia does not intend to use, Gazprom would assuredly be wielded by Putin as an instrument of State power to further Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine. No greater demonstration of Karl von Clauschwitz’s axiom “War is an extension of Government policy by other means” could be more evident.
Gazprom will assuredly seek to harm Ukraine economically because its owner, the Russian State, seeks to harm Ukraine militarily. This much is obvious even to the simple minded.
There is also the issue of divided loyalties that cannot be dismissed. Merkel was a protégé of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Schröder is Chairman of the Board of Nord Stream 2. Germany wants cheap gas. Germany’s desire to see Nord Stream 2’s success is parochial, not withstanding that it places the entirety of Europe at risk. Germany is fond of invoking the idea of Europe as a sorority of unity. Their stance on Nord Stream 2 betrays that idea.
Biden is mistaken if he believes that Germany’s offer to create and administer a $1 billion ‘Green Fund’ initiative for Ukraine to mediate its energy transition beyond fossil fuels would be enticing to Ukraine at a time when Ukraine continues to fight for its survival against a constant Russian threat. Indeed, the paltry $175 million initial investment announced by Germany shows how little the reality of the situation has sunk-in for either Berlin or Washington, D.C. that Ukraine stands to lose billions-of-dollars should the gas transit agreement with Russia end. It will undoubtedly end with the opening of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Germany’s offer to further offset harm to Ukraine and Europe with the creation of a €60 million fund to protect against cyber attacks by Russia enters into the realm of the surreal.
Consider how on one hand, Merkel and Germany argue that Russia can be relied upon to provide cheap gas without threatening Europe or seeking to further damage Ukraine’s independence. Then, without blinking, Merkel proposes an impressive €60 million fund specifically to protect against Russia’s ongoing aggression against Europe and Ukraine. The juxtaposition of the two realities reveals their perversity.
Russia is, and continues to be, a threat as evidenced by the very need for the cyber security fund proposed by Germany. That much is obvious.
Placing Europe’s energy security into the hands of the Russian State that has proven itself happy to commit assassinations, murders and engage in subterfuge, espionage and use prohibited chemical weapons against Europe and Europeans, and attack its safety daily with cyber attacks, runs contrary to Europe’s security assuredness, its values and its reason for being.
Germany Exercises Muscular Influence on European Union
Nowhere does it appear more perverse in this sorted affair than in the halls of European power itself. The European Commission, whom President Ursula von der Leyen has pointedly made clear opposes the completion of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline, is allowing Germany’s national interest to dictate energy policy and security for the other 27 member States of the European Union. Germany’s insistence on seeing Nord Stream 2 completed, and Biden’s acquiescence to the demand, will place all of Europe precariously reliant on Russia’s good will and conduct – something they have repeatedly failed to demonstrate as a value.
Meanwhile, the European Commission’s Spokesperson for Climate & Energy Policy seemed resigned to the growing inevitability of Russian-German bilateral interests prevailing over Europe’s collective interests and values, “As you know, as we have said before, Nord Stream is not a project of common European interest. The Commission’s objective has always been to ensure that Nord Stream 2, if built, should operate in a transparent and non-discriminatory way, with the appropriate degree of regulatory oversight and in line with international and EU energy law.”
In a remarkably unconvincing assertion that failed to assure the other 27 Member States of the European Union that they still had any say in their own energy security, which now fast-tracked to be placed in the hands of Europe’s arch-foe, Vladimir Putin, the European Commission Spokesperson for Climate & Energy Policy said, “Implementing the EU’s energy policy is a matter for the EU and its member states.” If that were so, Europe would have stopped Germany from dragging them all into the Nord Stream 2 fiasco and making Germany’s energy policy the de facto European energy policy.
Conflicts of Interest Abound in Germany
Although Merkel continues to claim that Germany will not see Ukraine harmed by the Nord Stream 2 project, saying “Ukraine remains a transit country and that energy cannot be used to put Ukraine in a difficult situation,” the reality remains that Nord Stream 2 going online will render Ukraine redundant, or at best, insignificant for Russian gas transit to Europe. Not only will capacity make Ukraine far less necessary to Gazprom energy transit, but as with all market economics, the heavily increased capacity of Nord Stream 2 will significantly devalue existing transit lines, meaning Ukraine will be hurt substantially even for what little it might transit through its existing pipelines.
While Germany is bound to abide by the Third Energy Package in regards to Nord Stream 2, few believe the European Commission regulator will object to partial compliance with European Union gas regulations, thereby allowing Russia and Germany to skirt full compliance. If Russian compliance were a standard, their history of environmental devastation, pollution and knowingly obscuring grotesquely large leaks that Europe was only made aware of by pollution detected by satellite, then nobody in Europe would be doing business with Gazprom.
Europe, Germany in particular, has often demonstrated a lack of willpower when standing-up to Russia as evidenced by their re-admission to PACE while still occupying parts of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Russia still refuses to pay the more than €80,000,000 in interest still outstanding for withholding their payments to PACE. Russian compliance is always implemented only as it suits Russia.
Biden, through his deal with Merkel, not only failed to mend the rift between Washington, D.C. and Berlin, but managed to alienate domestic and international allies in one fell swoop. We can only watch as Biden’s agenda stalls because of his ‘Big Swing’. We can hope he recovers, but the math is becoming increasingly difficult.