Lost amid Trump's many stunning compliments for his Russian counterpart in Helsinki was his refusal to vigorously defend a key geopolitical power play undertaken by his own administration: trying to wean Europe off Russian natural gas.
As part of his “energy dominance” agenda, Trump is seeking to increase U.S. oil and gas production to make the United States a net energy exporter. His administration is eyeing Europe, among other regions, as a potential market for American liquefied natural gas, or LNG.
Part of the impetus for selling fuel to Europe, a policy shared by both the Obama and Trump administrations, is to stifle the influence of Russia in the region. Historically, Russia has been a major source of energy for Europe and, at times, Putin has used the threat of cutting off supplies to impose his will.
For years, the United States and some Eastern European countries criticized officials in Berlin for pursuing the construction of a new natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. Both Republican senators and Trump's own State Department have threatened U.S. sanctions targeting the project, called Nord Stream 2.
When standing alongside Putin at the press conference, however, Trump was surprisingly muted when it came to the pipeline.
“I think that we will be completing when you talk about the pipeline. I'm not sure, necessarily, that it's in the best interests of Germany or not, but that was a decision that they made,” Trump said. “So we're going to be selling LNG, and we'll have to be competing with the pipeline and I think will compete successfully, although there is a little advantage locationally.”
Trump added: “So I just wish them luck.”
Those comments stand in contrast to Trump's tough talk days earlier when Putin was not in the room. During a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week, Trump bashed Germany for “being captive to Russia” because of the natural gas imports.
It is a refrain Trump has returned to when choosing to criticize Merkel. “Germany hooks up a pipeline into Russia, where Germany is going to be paying billions of dollars for energy into Russia,” Trump said in April. “And I’m saying, ‘What’s going on with that?’ "
Trump's recent remark to Merkel about the pipeline, which came amid a tirade against NATO allies for not spending enough on the alliance, probably was meant more as a criticism of Europe than of Russia.
“It looked as if Trump is looking for ammunition against Germany,” said Ulrich Speck, a German foreign policy expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “If he would have been serious on pushing against Nord Stream, he would probably have brought this up much more forcefully with Putin.”
As a caveat, Speck added: “It's hard to know what is going on in his mind.”
Right now, much of the natural gas that reaches Western Europe travels by pipeline laid through Eastern European countries such as Ukraine, which fears losing some $2 billion annually in transit fees from Russia if Nord Stream 2 goes online in addition to leverage it holds over its formidable neighbor by hosting its pipeline.
Edoardo Saravalle, an energy and economics researcher at the Center for a New American Security, said that while Nord Stream 2 is not an “immediate threat” to the United States or the European Union, “the pipeline could serve as a latent threat over the alliance and the E.U., one more card Russia could play in a moment of tension,” he said.
For Ukraine, Russia's energy bullying is more than just a threat. Russia has cut off Ukraine’s gas supplies several times in a bid to draw the former Soviet republic away from the West, including in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea.
A "somewhat bigger issue" than Nord Stream 2, according to David Victor, a professor of international relations at the University of California at San Diego, "is that the extra revenues [are] flowing back to Russia" while the Russian state engages in mischief.
The new pipeline would follow the path of the original Nord Stream, built in 2011 directly between Russian and Germany beneath the Baltic Sea. The new pipeline would double the capacity of Russian gas to reach through that underwater route that goes around Eastern Europe.
Under Trump and President Obama, the United States is looking to ship natural gas to Europe to help supplant fuel from Russia. Just last year, the United States shipped its first tanker full of liquefied natural gas from Louisiana to Poland.
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