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Decoding The Skripal Affair: Part 2 – Europe between Washington and Nord Stream 2

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March 27, 2018 – Fort Russ –

By Eduard Popov, translated by Jafe Arnold –

Continued from part 1

Nord Stream 2, Germany, and a Western alliance against Russia

There will be many losers from the Skripal affair in Europe. But perhaps the biggest losses will be incurred by Germany, who is both the economic leader of the European Union and the most authoritative critic of Trump’s protectionist trade policy. Going after Nord Stream 2 would be a serious blow to Germany’s economic interests and could unleash a whole chain of explosive events.

Before this latest anti-Russia campaign kicked off over the “Skripal case”, the future of Nord Stream 2 looked relatively cloudless. The efforts of pro-American Poland, the Baltic states, and Denmark to torpedo the project were clearly insufficient to bend the will of Nord Stream 2’s main beneficiary, Germany. But now the situation looks increasingly disturbing for both Russian interests and German business.

The absolute unity proclaimed by certain actors in the West today is not tangible. Although Germany did join in on the expulsion of Russian diplomats, Berlin is far from convinced that there is any “Russian trace” in the Skripal poisoning. The document distributed by Theresa May on March 22-23 in Brussels during a meeting of EU heads of states and governments did not, in the words of German Chancellor Steffen Seibert himself, contain any direct evidence of Russian responsibility. On this issue, Berlin’s position looks more conciliatory and careful than that of Poland and the Baltic border states.

Sure, the Merkel government does not rule out that new circumstances could warrant new sanctions. But I believe that nothing of the sort should be expected from Germany. As the famous German expert Alexander Rahr has argued, behind the facade of European unity, there are increasingly visible “European splitters.”

The question of launching the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is in the air. Its main opponents are Ukraine, which receives $3 billion a year for transiting Russian gas (in addition to outright theft and blackmailing), Poland, which wants to see itself as the new European gas hub, and American shale gas exporters. These opponents have, armed with the “Skripal poisoning”, put forth new arguments against Nord Stream 2 of a non-economic character. Henceforth, the pressure put on the newly formed Bundestag coalition to abandon the project will only increase. Meanwhile, the Kiev regime now has renewed pretexts to blackmail Russia by, for example, holding up Russian gas in European storages with the compliance of Kiev’s American and European partners.

In one of my recent articles, I suggested that attempts to rally a united Western bloc against Russia are not likely to succeed this time around. Now I do not have such an optimistic view. This does not mean that the battle for Europe is lost, but that there are real grounds for alarm – not panic, even if things do reach the point of a real, not figurative war between Russia and the collective West. As I have been warning for some time now, the chances of this war are only increasing.

Will Russia respond?

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President Putin once made a big mistake by offering the Americans a shoulder on September 11th, 2001. Instead of gratefulness, in return Russia was met with NATO Troops in Afghanistan, a military base in Kyrgyzstan, and a temporary base in Russia’s own Ulyanovsk. Then, following the bloody terrorist attack in 2014 in Volgograd, Western leaders and the US President were demonstratively absent from the Olympics in Sochi.

According to Putin’s words in the new documentary, World Order 2018, the Americans apparently deceived him in February 2014 as well when they asked him to persuade Yanukovych not to use troops to disperse the Euromaidan. I hope that these conscious mistakes are enough to make the Russian leadership reconsider the nature of Russia’s relations with the United States and act accordingly.

Tactical changes, no doubt, will follow. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, promised a “mirror response” to the expulsion of Russian diplomats from the US, and even before this official announcement, Peskov stated: “In any case, the principle of reciprocity will be in force.” As things stand now, Russia could expel an equal number of American and European diplomats and the US Consulate General in Vladivostok, for example, could be closed.

Russia and Europe vs. Washington

Russia’s basic interests in Europe boil down to two key points: (1) Europe is still the most attractive market for Russian energy; and (2) Europe is a source of advanced industrial and energy technology. The second aspect has already lost some relevance since Russia can now buy such technology from developing East and South-East Asian countries. But the question of finding an alternative to the European market for Russian energy is much more complex.

Blackmailing Russia over the construction of Nord Stream 2, however, would be a double-edged sword. Russia is just as interested in stable profits from gas exports as is Europe, or at least Europe’s leading economies, in low-cost Russian gas. Only the US, for economic and geopolitical reasons, is interested in the collapse of Russian-European gas cooperation. Hence why, even today, the question of Nord Stream 2 is by no means predetermined.

The New Cold War with the West might bring unexpected dividends to Russia. Economically, Russia could be forced to focus more intensely on import substitution and developing its own production (especially machine-building). Politically, the pro-Western lobbies in the Russian establishment could be marginalized and even suffer political death. The ideological expression of these lobbies – liberalism – is only widely represented in these small strata among the elite. A new clash with the West would be a chance for a patriotic revolution in Russia.

The only truly serious threat posed by the ongoing Russia-West conflict is not economic, but military-political, and concerns the growing threat of a direct clash between Russia and NATO in a hot war. Such a clash, in my opinion, has a high chance of happening, although the scale and location is not yet clear. Will Syria, Donbass, or Transnistria be the battlefields? A no less important question is whether nuclear weapons will be used in such a conflict. In any case, Europe should be seriously concerned. At the end of the day, this is a question of whether Europe and Russia can engage in mutually beneficial cooperation, or if the former will continue to bow to Washington. 

 

Eduard Popov is a Rostov State University graduate with a PhD in history and philosophy. In 2008, he founded the Center for Ukrainian Studies of the Southern Federal University of Russia, and from 2009-2013, he was the founding head of the Black Sea-Caspian Center of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, an analytical institute of the Presidential Administration of Russia. In June 2014, Popov headed the establishment of the Representative Office of the Donetsk People’s Republic in Rostov-on-Don and actively participated in humanitarian aid efforts in Donbass. In addition to being Fort Russ’ guest analyst since June, 2016, Popov is currently the leading research fellow of the Institute of the Russian Abroad and the founding director of the Europe Center for Public and Information Cooperation. 

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