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Biden’s big Nord Stream 2 pledge poses major test after unfulfilled promises

President Biden said during a Feb. 7 news conference that the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project will end in the event of Russian aggression in Ukraine. (Video: The Washington Post)

Monday was a potentially pivotal day for President Biden’s foreign policy. He made a big pledge — one that sets up a major new test for a president who has been unable to keep some of his biggest foreign policy promises.

In the summer, it was Biden vowing that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would bear no resemblance to Vietnam — and then it did, in many respects. The president had also said it was “highly unlikely” the Taliban would retake power, which it wound up doing in very short order.

Now, it’s a major assurance Biden just offered about Russia’s potential invasion of Ukraine — that if it presses forward, the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany will be shut down.

Biden made ironclad promises on that front during a news conference Monday with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz — and was specific about the trigger.

“If Russia invades — that means tanks or troops crossing the border of Ukraine again — then there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2,” Biden said. “We will bring an end to it.”

He added later that “the notion that Nord Stream 2 would go forward with an invasion by the Russians — it’s just not going to happen.”

The specificity of the threat and the fulsomeness of the promised retaliation are significant, to the extent they are backed up. Germany’s reliance upon Russian energy has proved a major hurdle to a united Western response, and getting it to seemingly sign off on such a hard line would be a huge development in the effort to deter Russia.

But what precisely Germany has signed off on isn’t so clear. As notable as Biden’s assurances was the lack of explicit backup from the man next to him. Scholz, who has the power to effectively shut down Nord Stream 2, has steadfastly refused to make that same threat, as part of an approach of “strategic ambiguity.”

Scholz on Monday merely said repeatedly that the United States and Germany were united in their potential response to a Russian invasion — leaving the impression they were on the same page on Nord Stream 2.

“You can be sure that there won’t be any measures in which we have a differing approach,” Scholz said. He added, while switching to speaking English, that “the necessary steps will be done by all of us together.”

Scholz was pressed at the news conference and during interviews with CNN and The Washington Post on the fact that he would not say the same words as Biden, and he continued to speak in generalities about a united response. At one point in the news conference, when a journalist suggested to Scholz that saying it himself might win back the trust of his American allies, Biden cut in.

“There’s no need to win back trust,” Biden said. “He has the complete trust of the United States.”

This dance has been going on for a while. State Department spokesman Ned Price two weeks ago previewed Biden’s Nord Stream 2 promise, telling NPR: “I want to be very clear. If Russia invades Ukraine, one way or another, Nord Stream 2 will not move forward.”

At the time, though, Germany’s leaders were still eschewing such direct promises. Its ambassador to the United States, Emily Haber, said merely that “nothing will be off the table, including Nord Stream 2” — with the trigger being “if Russia uses energy as a weapon or if there is another violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.”

Certainly, despite Germany’s unwillingness to make the same explicit promise, Biden having said it while next to the German chancellor makes it more significant — and suggests Germany’s assent. (Notably, Biden made the promise not in his opening remarks but during a Q&A — though it’s possible he knew the subject would come up.)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) added Tuesday that Scholz had, in a meeting with senators, “confirmed what President Biden said” about shutting down Nord Stream 2.

Regardless of how much Germany has bought in, it reflects a huge test for Biden. U.S. intelligence has warned for weeks that a Russian invasion is something approaching imminent, though not everyone agrees. Now Biden is promising something that is largely outside his control as retaliation. That means he could soon be put in a position of delivering on his word.

The trigger for such a response is also sensitive: Russia needs only send a small number of troops across the Ukraine border.

On the flip side, if an invasion is averted, it’s likely this promise will be remembered as a key moment. Germany has made no secret of its reluctance to go along with such explicit threats. It has also declined to join NATO allies in sending weapons to Ukraine. Creating at least the appearance of its assent is a significant diplomatic moment. Only time will tell whether it’s successful as a deterrent and, if not, as a promise.