Russia Told U.S. It Won't Abuse Nord Stream 2. NATO's Baltic Allies Don't Buy It

Top diplomats in NATO's Baltic member states remain unconvinced by German-U.S. guarantees that Russia will not be allowed to weaponize natural gas via the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, due to begin delivering gas to Germany via the Baltic Sea in the coming months.

Newsweek spoke with top ministers in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania about the project, which is currently awaiting approval from German regulators before it can begin operations.

With an energy crisis seizing Europe, Russia has positioned itself as the European Union's savior.

But for the Baltic states along Russia's frontier, Nord Stream 2—the second pipeline of the Nord Stream project which doubles the network's overall capacity—is a nakedly geopolitical project intended to undermine EU and NATO security, give Russia more freedom to act in Ukraine, and hand Moscow valuable leverage over its European adversaries.

Germany and the U.S. issued a joint statement in July vowing that Moscow would not be allowed to leverage Nord Stream 2 against the interests of European nations. If it tries, Berlin and Washington, D.C. have threatened sanctions and other measures.

But in the Baltic states there is little hope that the Kremlin will play by the rules.

"There is no reason to be complacent after all the reassurances we have heard from the United States or Germany," Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs told Newsweek. "You can make whatever political statement you like or you can make whatever commitment you like. But there is no legal implication for the Russian Federation.

"It is a bit too early to judge if the commitments or the statements...announced by Germany and the United States will be implemented."

Lithuanian Foreign Affairs Vice Minister Mantas Adomėnas told Newsweek: "There's nothing to dissuade us that Russia is not going to use it as a geopolitical instrument, and so far I have seen no credible mechanisms which would ensure that's not the case."

Estonian Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets, too, told Newsweek the pipeline is "a geopolitical project," not primarily a commercial venture.

"Of course this U.S.-German agreement is of importance," she added. "If there is any manipulation activities by the gas supplier, then these measures will be used. And then of course it is very important that any measures will be implemented effectively and conveyed convincingly."

Asked whether the project would undermine EU and NATO security, Liimets replied: "I truly hope that it will not, and that the security measures, that the cautious measures, that have been taken are proper."

Russian officials have repeatedly dismissed international concerns, framing Nord Stream 2 as a purely commercial project they hope will go some way to thawing chilly ties between Moscow and Europe.

Russia and the EU remain at odds over Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in 2014, plus its subsequent support for separatists in the east of Ukraine who remain at war with Kyiv. The Kremlin's attacks on dissidents, cyber attacks, disinformation and election meddling abroad have all sharpened anger in Europe.

America's Failed Sanctions

The Baltics and their fellow Nord Stream skeptics were disappointed in May when President Joe Biden's administration lifted sanctions on companies involved in the construction or insuring of the new pipeline. The move was an acknowledgment the U.S. had no more cards to play.

"It's almost completely finished," Biden told reporters in May. "To go ahead and impose sanctions now, I think is counterproductive in terms of our European relations."

Ukraine in particular was furious. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in August: "Not to notice that this is a dangerous weapon, not only for Ukraine but for the whole of Europe, is wrong."

Ukraine currently serves as a vital route for Russian natural gas to reach the EU. This transit agreement is due to lapse in 2024. Kyiv and its partners fear Russia will cut Ukraine out, denying the government billions in transit fees and reducing Ukraine's strategic importance to its European backers.

Russia has said it will consider extending the agreement with Ukraine, but only if it is sufficiently profitable. President Vladimir Putin recently complained that the aging pipeline running through Ukraine could "burst" at any moment.

"What's done is done," Adomėnas said. "But we have to look at the future... If Nord Stream 2 is used as a weapon against Ukraine—if the transit of natural gas through Ukraine is stopped by Russia—then I think sanctions should come back in force, even in greater force than they were before they were lifted."

"That's the only credible threat that may dissuade the Russians not to go ahead with the plan," Adomėnas added. "I think it's pretty clear that the plan is to exclude Ukraine from the circuit."

The Americans may have failed to stop the deal, but it was Germany that pushed it over the line.

"Both U.S. administrations—the Trump administration and the Biden administration—tried to stop it," Rinkēvičs said. "I don't want to get into the kind of political debate as to who did what, or who did not do enough."

"I think that the trouble was that some of our European partners opted to go ahead," Rinkēvičs added.

"I remember that back in 2016, 2017, 2018, there was a lot of discussion within the EU. We were saying that this was a project that goes against EU energy policy... And there were countries that were saying: 'No, this is nothing to do with the EU.'"

"I think that was a big weakness of the European Union, and showed that some countries take their short- and medium-term interests more into account than the long-term European interest," Rinkēvičs said. "We were at that point, unfortunately, in a situation where for many reasons the ability to have a genuine transatlantic dialogue was really difficult."

"There is no one side to be blamed."

A European Split

The debate has split the EU. For the Baltic states, Germany's push for the new pipeline runs counter to collective security and Europe's goal to be carbon neutral by 2050.

"This project does not contribute to the objectives of the EU Energy Union," Liimets said.

"This investment is, from our perspective, a geopolitical project, not an economic one. And from the European perspective, this does not diversify our energy resources because there are different infrastructure connections already between Europe and the Russian Federation."

"We very much hope that once the pipeline is ready and working, that it does not diminish energy security in our region, and also that it will not undermine energy security of other countries, our partners like Ukraine, and also that energy supply through Ukraine continues after 2024."

Rinkēvičs suggested Nord Stream 2 is the exact kind of project that leading EU nations like Germany should be moving away from, not risking collective security to complete.

"I can't imagine how we can declare the cutting of emissions and the green energy policy on one hand, and on the other hand continue building pipelines or continue exporting gas."

"We are not even close to reaching those targets," Rinkēvičs said. "But on the other hand we want to continue business as usual when it comes to energy."

"In my opinion this is not a sustainable policy, and the moment of truth is going to come by the end of this decade."

Adomėnas also pointed the finger at Berlin for the internal EU tensions: "This is very clearly a project that goes against the interests of a score of EU countries to satisfy the business interests of one."

"Certainly there are more things that unite us and that we have in common, but I think it's very important to reach a systematic decision on Nord Stream 2 at the EU level because it should not become a precedent," he warned.

"It weakens the EU as a whole—instead of diversifying it becomes more dependent on an untransparent supplier which has geopolitical interests at heart."

Nord Stream 2 boat off German coast
A German flag flies from a boat as a vessel lays pipes for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline onto the seabed of the Baltic Sea on August 16, 2018 near Lubmin, Germany. NATO's Baltic member states remain unconvinced by German-U.S. guarantees that Russia will not be allowed to weaponize natural gas via the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Sean Gallup/Getty Images