May 24, 2021

Diane Francis


It was refreshing when Joe Biden was asked whether he thought Vladimir Putin was a “killer” and he said, “um hum, I do”. Then, when asked what he thought of Putin’s pet project, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany, he said bluntly “I think it’s a bad deal for Europe”. So why one must ask, has he refused to impose all the severe sanctions he inherited from Congress to shut down Putin’s pipeline? Why let Putin off the hook for the Dominion Pipeline hack when his fingerprints were all over it? Why turn around the warship in the Black Sea after Putin escalated by amassing troops and warships on all of Ukraine’s borders?


Biden is dealing with a ruthless despot, not an intransigent Republican or wayward Democrat who can be bought off with a bridge project in Kentucky or Mississippi or summit. Putin has the upper hand, knows it, and that’s a danger to the world.


It’s obvious looking at the map that Putin’s two proposed pipelines are weapons, not infrastructure, and wind their way like a pincer movement into Europe to serve three strategic military purposes:

1. to make Europe more dependent on Russian gas to give the Kremlin economic and political leverage;

2. to bypass Ukraine’s pipeline so that it can be deprived of gas to pave the way for further invasion; and

3. to provide additional cash flows to feed Putin’s massive military machine and his continuing hybrid war around the world.

To think otherwise is to forget the lessons of history. Biden’s recent decision to waive some of the sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline may become a Neville Chamberlain moment unless corrected.


Spokesmen for Biden argue that sanctions have only been waived — one against Nord Stream AG (owned by Gazprom) and another against its CEO who is a German citizen and friend of Putin’s — and can be reinstated at any time. They also point out that the sanctions will proceed against the Russian-led construction effort that’s been racing away to lay underwater the remaining 100 kilometers of pipeline to Germany. (There should also be sanctions against the smaller Turk Stream pipeline in the south, now dubbed the Balkan Stream, but there aren’t any. It is owned by Gazprom and also racing its way through Central Europe.)


So the state of play so far is that while Nord Stream’s owner and CEO are off the hook, construction will be stopped. But give Putin an inch and he’ll take that last 100 kilometers. Here’s how: the sanctions will be ignored until the line is virtually landed on German soil. Then German laws will override the process and a fight over licensing to make it operational will begin. Its Green party will try to stop it, but, as an executive with Ukraine’s energy conglomerate Naftogaz told me, the Russians will wait until winter and suddenly announce that there’s been a rupture in its pipelines feeding the Ukrainian system and that it may take months to repair, if ever.

That will force Germany to hook up Nord Stream 2 and if they don’t or cannot, then what? Will the Germans send in troops? Or NATO? Or will they simply dispatch diplomats to the Kremlin with briefcases protesting the stoppage? Or litigate Gazprom? Russia has halted shipments before and a few years ago pulled this stunt by claiming that its lines couldn’t deliver Turkmenistan gas to Europe because of problems, which were never “fixed”, and Russian gas permanently displaced Turkmen gas.


Russia’s Garry Kasparov, chess master and the only political foe of Putin’s who hasn’t been killed or nearly killed, criticized Biden:


“It’s the height of naivete at best, and reckless disregard for the lessons of history at worst, to parse sanctions or soften the bargaining position when it comes to Putin. The excuse by State Department officialdom is that by lifting sanctions on the company and its CEO, but keeping them on the ships, appeases Germany somewhat and will eventually do the job. But appeasing Germany is also wrong-headed. It has defied and upset the European Parliament and European Commission and its neighbors who oppose Nord Stream 2. And the Berlin-Moscow pipeline deal is insensitive, creepily reminiscent of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939 where Russia and Germany made a deal to carve up Poland and the Baltics and we all know how that turned out. “


The fallout is terrible already. Congress is upset and so are European countries. Poland’s Prime Minister has said that Nord Stream 2’s completion will result in Russian troops reaching the Polish border. A recent poll in Ukraine showed that half its populace believes this means the country will be fully invaded by Russia and one-third want to immigrate. Ukraine is, by the way, the largest country in Europe and the size of Germany and France combined.


The ramifications for NATO are serious. The Balkan line runs through Bulgaria, an EU and NATO member, and its economy and politics have been deeply infiltrated by Russian interests, raising security concerns. In December 2020, Russian aircraft repeatedly used the airspace of NATO’s Bulgaria to deliver military equipment to Serbia, according to a joint investigation by RFE/RL’s Bulgarian and Balkan services. Likewise, the Russians will begin to fly over and deploy ships in the Baltic Sea area once Nord Stream 2 is finished in NATO territory, to “protect” the undersea pipeline infrastructure.


Biden’s blunder has ruined any chance that his summit with Russia will achieve anything. He wants a stable and predictable relationship while Putin wants an unstable and unpredictable one. Biden’s pipeline back-down has weakened himself at home and abroad. He has refused to fully impose sanctions that he was legally required to impose — ironically ignoring the only bipartisan position achieved in Washington in decades. And he has undermined allies.


Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky didn’t hide his disappointment with Biden’s decision this week and said that he feared that Russia can pressure the U.S. to waive all sanctions, allowing the completion of the pipeline. “The risk is very high that Russia will pressure the U.S. into lifting the Nord Stream 2 sanctions,” said Zelensky. “It’s a big game. The U. S. can do it if they are doing it in exchange for something very serious. And I have to be honest, I’m anxious about this situation.”

Biden’s instincts are usually right on, but I’m afraid this time he’s listened to the counsel of two Europhile advisors — Secretary of State Antony Blinken and climate change guru John Kerry. Both are more comfortable in the salons of Paris than at a ballpark or boardroom in America and both have the ear of a President that should know better by now. Kerry wants to appease the Germans because of their climate change support (although importing fossil fuels from Russia is hardly fighting the climate change fight). And Blinken’s bias remains, as he argued in an undergraduate thesis in 1987, that exerting diplomatic pressure on the Soviet Union during the Siberian pipeline crisis was less important than maintaining strong relations with Europe.


So there you have it. Policies rooted in wishful thinking, conflicted consiglieres, questionable interpretations of history, and complete ignorance about the motives and nature of the foe we face. What’s indisputable is that Putin never negotiates. He never concedes. He kills and conquers without hesitation. He never changes. And he intends to restore the Soviet Union and to destroy the United States, the European Union, democracy, and capitalism, not necessarily in that order.