AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 39/2008

'Russia's Energy Weapon' German-US Tensions Grow Over Baltic Pipeline

A US diplomat has denounced the controversial Baltic natural gas pipeline as “a special arrangement between Germany and Russia.” His remarks have ruffled feathers in Berlin and highlighted growing US-German tensions over relations with Russia.


A gas flare in Russia.
REUTERS

A gas flare in Russia.

Michael Wood, 61, is an athletic man. He has an impressively low golf handicap of 12. The former corporate executive has often gone mountain biking with US President George W. Bush, a connection that may have helped him acquire his current position. Wood has been the US ambassador to Sweden for the past two years.

He is not, however, very well versed in the art of diplomacy. At the end of the week before last, the Swedish daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet published an op-ed article by the ambassador that set down some unmistakable ground rules. According to Wood, when the Swedish government evaluates the proposed Baltic natural gas pipeline project over the coming months, it should examine more than just environmental aspects. He wrote that the pipeline represents “a special arrangement between Germany and Russia” that “bypasses the Baltic States and Poland,” which are “potential customers.” Wood calls for the EU to speak “with a single voice to counteract the power of Russia’s energy weapon.”

The article alarmed the German government. Rüdiger von Fritsch, head of economic affairs at the German Foreign Ministry, promptly called up the American embassy in Berlin and demanded an explanation. Von Fritsch said the German government was “annoyed” by this highly “unusual” approach.

On the other end of the line, Deputy Chief of Mission John Koenig said that he was surprised by the ambassador’s statements. He underscored that the US position remains unchanged: Washington will issue no comment on the private pipeline deal. Koenig suggested that the article may have been insufficiently screened in Washington -- a PR mishap, so to speak.

The two experienced diplomats agreed to avoid a “public scuffle.” However, von Fritsch made one condition: Nothing like the Wood article must be allowed to happen again.

Nevertheless, the incident has created an air of suspicion. “The Americans are no longer pursuing their opposition to the pipeline under the table, but publicly,” complained Eggert Voscherau, who represents German chemical giant BASF on the advisory board of the pipeline operator Nord Stream. Martin Schulz, the leader of the Social Democrat parliamentary group in the European Parliament, even sees the Wood article as a “helpful” indicator of “what the Americans aim to do, namely destabilize Europe.”

By contrast, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his team are afraid that the American slip-up has let the cat out of the bag on how the US actually views the issue. Sources inside the German Foreign Ministry say that for months US diplomats have been working behind the scenes to undermine the proposed 1,200-kilometer (745-mile) underwater pipeline between the Russian port of Vyborg and Greifswald, Germany. They say that the Americans fear the pipeline will increase Western Europe’s dependency on Russian gas and make it more vulnerable to blackmail.

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The dispute over the undersea pipeline threatens to divide the US and Europe, just as the Georgian crisis has done. Last Thursday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke about US relations to Russia at an event hosted by the German Marshall Fund in the lavish ballroom of Washington’s Renaissance Mayflower Hotel. At times her address sounded like a return to the days of the Cold War. She said that Russia’s actions follow a worsening pattern of behavior. Rice referred to “Russia’s intimidation of its sovereign neighbors” and its “arms sales to states and groups that threaten international security.” In addition she criticized “its use of oil and gas as a political weapon.”

During the luncheon held after the speech, Utah Republican Senator Bob Bennett echoed Rice’s sentiments. “Russia is becoming an oil or a gas state,” said the economics expert. Bennett maintains that Germany is so dependent on Russian gas that this gives Moscow more political elbow room, for example, in Georgia. He says that Europeans have to do something about this “with pipelines that come from other countries to Europe.”

When it comes to Russia, politicians in Washington generally view Germany with suspicion. They accuse the Germans of being so dependent on Russian gas that they don’t dare speak their mind to the Russian strongman, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. But the Baltic States, Poland and the Scandinavians are also uneasy about the pipeline. They are afraid that Moscow and Berlin have made a special deal. However, such objections have their limits. Countries like France, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands would also be supplied by the pipeline.

In Germany, where members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) are normally fairly critical of Russia, the conservatives see little reason for sharing the skepticism of the Americans this time around. “The Baltic Sea pipeline would not lead to a one-sided dependency on Russia, which would in fact be dangerous,” says CDU foreign policy spokesman Eckart von Klaeden. “After all, the enormous Russian investments have to be paid off.”

Chancellor Merkel, who had already warned of the dependency on Russian gas before taking office, now supports the project without reservations. She recently traveled to Sweden, just as Foreign Minister Steinmeier has done, to clarify the German position on the pipeline. She called it a “European strategic project.” The chancellor said that Sweden has a right to implement environmental licensing procedures, but nothing more.

That is exactly what the Swedes will do. “This will be the most stringent environmental assessment,” says a Berlin diplomat, “that a pipeline has ever been subjected to.”

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