Russia and Germany’s SPD: Energy ties that bind

Respect! This week the US Senate voted to fortify US sanctions against Russia. The new amendments on the Iran sanctions bill would require the President to seek congressional approval before lifting any of the Russia sanctions. Trump’s elbow room on Russia is closing. This is a big deal. Not only because it was a bipartisan agreement between Republicans and Democrats, but also because Republicans went against the wishes of the US administration.

Additionally, the Senate went even further, expanding the sanction measures against those supplying arms to Syria and those conducting cyberattacks. Most prominently for Europe, the US Senate launched a broadside against Gazprom’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a project that would bypass Ukraine as a transit country and expand Russian gas supplies directly to Germany.  The Senate clearly stated its opposition to the gas line “given its detrimental impacts on the European Union’s energy security” and put in a provision that would allow the administration to sanction EU companies involved in any Russian export pipeline (read: Nord Stream 2).

This is a milestone development. It strengthens US resolve on the Russia sanctions and should somewhat ease European worries about Trump going soft on Russia. And it puts further pressure on Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that the majority of EU Member States and the European Commission oppose for obvious geopolitical reasons.

Yet, the tone from Berlin is hysterical. Foreign Minister Gabriel has sharply criticised the proposal. Chancellor Merkel is backing Gabriel on this, albeit via a statement from her press spokesperson. And German Economy Minister Zypries has even speculatively floated the idea of countermeasures against the US in this regard. They consider the US Senate act an offense to the German energy companies in bed with Gazprom and claim the US is shamelessly promoting its own energy interests given its potential for shale gas exports to Europe

What nonsense!

The arguments don’t stand up to any scrutiny. First, US gas export infrastructure ain’t sufficient to make any relevant dent in the EU’s gas imports from Russia any time soon. And second, Asian markets would economically be more profitable for US gas exporters. Europe’s energy security isn’t strengthened by increasing dependence on Russia via yet another pipeline.

What’s actually at play is a kind of Schroederisation of the election campaign.

Gerhard Schroeder, the Socialist former Chancellor of Germany, successfully used anti-American rhetoric in his opposition to the Iraq War to win re-election in 2002.

Having crashed down in the opinion polls, the SPD is desperately clutching at straws, hoping that strong rhetoric against the US will bring them back some dynamic. Chancellor Merkel is aware of that threat and tried to pre-empt it with her speech in Trudering, where she highlighted that Europe can no longer rely on the US. But she too is aware of the pitfalls of going overboard. Hence, why her statement came from the press spokesperson.

The Socialist criticism of the US Senate is comical. It puts the SPD in the same camp as Trump, since his administration had been against these Senate amendments as well. So the SPD is actually supporting Trump now on Russia. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

In a declaration against the US Senate amendments, German Foreign Minister Gabriel and the Austrian Chancellor Kern state that “we decide upon who delivers us energy according to the rules of openness and market competition”, and that geopolitical interests shouldn’t interfere with economic interests. If that’s the case then what’s up with the EU sanctions regime? Aren’t geopolitical interests at play here that interfere with economic interests? Should the sanctions now also be sacrificed on the altar of economic interests?

This whole episode clearly shows again the deep ties that bind the German Socialists to the Russian regime and its energy exports. Gerhard Schroeder, now on the payroll of Gazprom as one of its chief lobbyists, is obviously doing a good job inside his party.

The SPD is known to pursue a traditional Russia policy of Wandel durch Annäherung (‘change through rapprochement’), stating that Russia can be changed through close ties. The problem is that it’s not Russia that’s changing, it’s the SPD akin to Nietzsche who said “when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you”.

Putin and his regime are masters at network diplomacy, penetrating deep into all kinds of social, economic and political structures. The intermingling of economic, political and private ties, as so highlighted by Gerhard Schroeder is dangerous. It pits personal against national/European interests. Even the Notorious B.I.G. understood this point, when he said in his 10 rap commandments that rule 7 is crucial but “so underrated: keep your family and business completely separated”.

EU Member States opposing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline need to come out swinging in favour of the US Senate, lobby the US Congress and administration in favour of the legislation, and criticise Germany for its position. Pressure on Germany needs to increase in order to deep-six the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.