Why Joe Biden was forced to accept the energy relationship of Russia and Germany

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In May of this year, the Biden administration repealed the 2019 sanctions that the U.S. Congress had imposed on Nord Stream 2 – a second pipeline under the Baltic Sea that carries gas from Russia to Germany. This is a significant reversal. During his confirmation hearings in January, Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken insisted he was “determined to do everything in our power to prevent [its] completion”.

The dependence of many European countries on Russian gas and oil exports has long worried US presidents. But the German decision in 2005 to collaborate with Moscow on the first Nord Stream gas pipeline has exacerbated Washington’s frustrations. Once the pipeline is completed, Russian gas could enter Germany without passing through Ukraine. For Kiev, which sees transit services as a security issue, it was a disaster. Poland, fearing any sort of geostrategic maneuver that would weaken states between itself and Russia, was also incredulous – the then Polish Minister of Defense, Radek Sikorski, compared Nord Stream 2 to the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact which carved up Poland, including parts of present-day Ukraine. Insensitive to these geopolitical considerations, Angela Merkel doubled in her third term by engaging Germany in Nord Stream 2. Now, the Biden administration has decided that the confrontation with Berlin is a luxury it cannot afford, even so, just a few weeks before the decision to lift the sanctions. , Russian troops had gathered on the Ukrainian border.

For Biden, this is a world where almost all decisions must be oriented towards strategic competition with China, and the place of German-Russian relations at the heart of Europe now seems to be no exception.

The importance of German-Russian relations in the current geopolitical conflict between the United States and China is analogous to what happened at the end of the 19th century, when the Middle Empire was in sharp decline. It was a world where the British Empire had naval preeminence, Russia had spread across Eurasia to Manchuria, and Germany aspired to be a world power. After Japan’s victory in 1895 in the First Sino-Japanese War, Russia, Germany and France intervened to force Tokyo to cede some of its territorial booty in northeast China. Russia won the Liaodong Peninsula and a warm Pacific water port at Port Arthur. Germany has secured concessions in the Shandong Peninsula across the Bohai Sea.

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Fearing this continental alliance in the Far East, Great Britain sought an ally in Japan. Although the Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902 prevented France from coming to the aid of Russia when, in 1904, Japan attacked the Russian Pacific Fleet at Port Arthur, it did not end the prospect of ‘a Russo-German axis. Indeed, during the Russo-Japanese War, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II made a secret treaty, Wilhelm telling Nicholas that it could be the prelude to “the United States of Europe.”

Writing in 1904, in an essay titled “The Geographical Pivot of History,” British geographer Halford Mackinder saw a world transformed by the transcontinental railways the Russians and Germans were building to the Pacific. Mackinder believed that in the event of a permanent Russo-German axis, this reorganization offered the possibility of what he called “the empire of the world”.

This new order never materialized. The winner of the imperial competition on China was Japan. After destroying the Russian Navy in May 1905, Japan captured Shandong from Germany in November 1914. After World War I, Britain had to defend its position in China against the maritime powers of the United Kingdom. Japan and the United States, not the Soviet Union and Germany.

But in his essay, Mackinder also imagined a future world where China remakes Eurasia while enjoying the great advantage over Russia of a coastline full of natural ports. Today, China is indeed the rising power, building high-speed railways across Eurasia as part of its Belt and Road initiative. Russia, in this new Eurasia, has a large market for its oil and gas and Germany is part of the Belt and Road, save its name, with an ever-expanding freight rail network stretching from China to coastal and inland ports of Germany.

In attempting to detach Germany from Beijing, Biden has treated Eastern European concerns about Nord Stream 2 as collateral damage. Explaining his reversal of Nord Stream, he declared that the maintenance of the sanctions would be “counterproductive with regard to our European relations”. But there can be no common relations with the EU when it comes to Russia. Predictably, the Polish government is furious with the sanctions decision.

[See also: Joe Biden’s big week: the US perspective on the G7, NATO and Vladimir Putin]

In addition, there is little evidence that Germany is open to the proposed compromise. Merkel persisted with Nord Stream because she never saw any reason to make geopolitical compromises around German trade interests. Merkel’s welcome gift to Biden when he became president was to push the EU to complete the comprehensive investment deal with China. Ratification of the treaty is now on hold and Greens candidate for chancellor Annalena Baerbock has said she wants a stricter Chinese human rights policy. But Baerbock would not be able to decouple the German economy from China’s Eurasian Silk Road. The person most likely to be the next Chancellor, Armin Laschet, is the Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, host in Düsseldorf of the European headquarters of Chinese tech company Huawei. The geographies of Nord Stream and the Belt and Road are also not separable: the German port of Mukran, used by the Russians to build Nord Stream, is the terminus of a new railway line that runs from the center of the China to Russia and across the Baltic Sea, bypassing Poland.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s reading of an appeal between Merkel and Xi Jinping in April said the Chinese premier “hopes the EU will independently make a correct judgment and truly achieve strategic autonomy.” There can be no such independence. It is now the European countries which must navigate the strategic rivalries of the great powers. The problem for the Biden administration is that Mackinder had a point on the advantages Eurasia’s geography gives China, especially over Russia and Germany.

[See also: Geneva summit 2021: Joe Biden’s meeting with Vladimir Putin was an exercise in disowning Donald Trump]



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