BERLIN — Out of President Trump’s speech at the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, it probably won’t be the script that will be remembered by diplomats but, rather, world leaders' laughter, caught on camera and shared in viral videos.
One of them captured the amused reactions of the German delegation as Trump said: “Germany will become totally dependent on Russian energy if it does not immediately change course. Here in the Western Hemisphere, we are committed to maintaining our independence from the encroachment of expansionist foreign powers.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas could be seen smirking alongside his colleagues.
It wasn’t the first time Trump had lashed out at Germany over its gas imports from Russia.
During a NATO summit in July, he took aim at the Germans for the same reason, specifically singling out a planned 800-mile pipeline beneath the Baltic Sea called Nord Stream 2. “Germany, as far as I’m concerned, is captive to Russia because it’s getting so much of its energy from Russia,” Trump told NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, also speaking on camera at the time. “We have to talk about the billions and billions of dollars that’s being paid to the country we’re supposed to be protecting you against.”
Germany is indeed Russia’s biggest export market in Europe for gas, with a dependency that may grow further once Nord Stream 2 is finished. The pipeline would roughly double Russia’s export volume via the Baltic Sea route.
Consecutive German governments have defended the plans, saying the offshore pipeline between Russia and Germany would cut energy costs and establish a reliable supply route.
But nations such as Poland and Ukraine fear that Russia may be diversifying its gas routes into Europe to exploit its grid for political reasons. In June 2014, amid the fallout over the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula months earlier, Russia cut off Ukraine’s gas supplies for weeks in what Kiev called a blackmail attempt.
Poland, Ukraine and other nations east of Germany hope that Trump’s criticisms will help them make their case.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged for the first time in April that Nord Stream 2 was not driven by business interests alone but also by political motivations. While she has appeared to be opening up to criticism from Central and Eastern Europe in recent months, Merkel has not attempted to stop the plans.
Even if she changed course, it would be far from certain that the Social Democrats — her key coalition partners, who have a long record of favoring stronger ties to Russia — would agree.
The Social Democrats and other Merkel allies have publicly speculated about another possible reason for Trump’s unexpected interjection: the United States' own business interests. U.S. gas producers have long been seeking new export markets for liquefied natural gas but have found it difficult to enter the European market, where cheaper Russian gas has been easily available.
Trump’s attacks haven’t changed that calculus. After his July remarks, Merkel responded that she may be in a better position to judge her country’s dependence than the current U.S. president.
“I’ve experienced myself a part of Germany controlled by the Soviet Union, and I’m very happy today that we are united in freedom,” she said at the time.
On Tuesday, after yet another Trump warning, her top diplomats had only a smirk to offer.