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How Germany’s Nord Stream 2 move matches up with Biden’s promise

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Feb. 22 that he would halt authorization of Nord Stream 2 for the time being. (Video: Reuters)

Two weeks ago, President Biden made a major foreign policy promise that “there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2” natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany if Russia sent troops into Ukraine. But even at the time, it wasn’t clear how that would take place — or how much Germany was onboard, given that its leaders repeatedly declined to explicitly echo Biden’s declaration.

On Tuesday, Germany set about helping Biden deliver on the promise. It halted authorization of the pipeline, which marks the most significant response to date to what the West and the White House are now calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But what the halt means moving forward — and particularly whether the project is brought to “an end,” as Biden promised — is less clear.

What German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has done is to withhold a key document that is required to finish the pipeline: a report on the impact it would have on Germany’s energy security.

Many hailed the move. Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer declared that “nordstream 2 is now dead.”

Others stress the reality is less definitive, even though the move remains significant. While the pipeline cannot move forward as Germany withholds the report, the project is, more technically, just suspended. If Biden’s comments implied permanence, this comes up shy of that, for now.

“This decision does not mean that the certification is indefinitely canceled, and it may be continued at a later stage,” said Kim Talus, an expert on European energy at Tulane University. “So in this sense, it’s not a point of no return.”

Stefan Meister, an expert on Russia and Eastern Europe at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said that whether “the project is closed, that is not 100 percent clear from the German perspective.”

What is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and how does it relate to the Ukraine crisis?

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas was asked on CNN whether she viewed Germany’s decision as a temporary one, and she declined to answer directly.

“It is a good question,” Kallas said, adding: “Certainly, saying no to Nord Stream 2 is a very strong message from Germany.”

Even Scholz pointed in this direction, saying Germany’s Economic Ministry would “reassess” the situation in light of new developments.

This step “may sound technical, but it’s a necessary administrative step without which the certification of the pipeline cannot happen now,” he said.

Even as the project is more accurately suspended than brought to an end, it would be difficult to pull back from the suspension. Germany could technically reverse course at any moment, but doing so as Russia continues to invade would cause an uproar in the West.

In the same way, leaving the project suspended rather than fully ending it could provide leverage. The West has been reluctant to impose sanctions before an invasion, believing it would reduce its leverage over Russia. Leaving the pipeline on the table to be continued at a later date would seem to give Russia some reason to avoid pressing forward.

“Like always, Scholz keeps options open, if Russia acts positively,” Meister said. “I do not think that is a point of no return, even if it will be difficult because Russia will act more aggressively.”

Indeed, from the very beginning, critics of the pipeline have warned about how much leverage it would give Russia over Germany, specifically, as well as much of Europe. To the extent Germany and Europe become more reliant on Russian natural gas, they would logically be less likely to stand up to Russia. Germany’s reliance on Russian natural gas has been seen as a major hurdle to a united Western response.

Russia’s response to Germany’s announcement Tuesday only affirmed that reality. Former Russian president and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev said halting the pipeline would cause energy prices to soar in Europe.

“Welcome to the brave new world,” Medvedev said in a tweet.

Whether that’s the case remains to be seen — as is whether the decision has any practical impact on what happens from here. Meister, for one, said Nord Stream 2 is more symbolic than anything, “but practically of secondary importance.”

For Biden, it will surely be hailed as his making good on a key promise. If you look closely at what Biden said, though, his comments were a little unclear on the permanence of halting the pipeline, saying both that “there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2” and that “we will bring an end to it” — implying some degree of finality — as well as merely that it would not “go forward” if Russia invaded. The White House’s comment Tuesday morning, notably, trended in the latter direction, with press secretary Jen Psaki stating that the promise was that the pipeline “does not move forward.”

The temporary nature of the pause left pipeline critics such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) saying it was a good first step but calling for further steps by the U.S. government — up to and including sanctions on the companies involved. Biden and Democrats have resisted imposing sanctions on those companies, though, and Germany’s move would at least seem to buy time.

To this point, Biden has been content to let Germany take the lead, rather than looking as if he was forcing an ally’s hand. On Tuesday, that ally set about moving in the direction Biden said it would. If the pipeline is truly brought to an end, Biden can say he accomplished it through diplomacy rather than using blunt economic instruments. But we’ve not seen the final word on all that.