The old adage which says that capitalists would sell their enemies the rope by which to hang them is variously attributed to Marx, Lenin and Stalin. It may be apocryphal, but it never rang truer than in the extraordinary saga of the Nord Stream pipelines.
The Nord Stream Trap, published in France this month by Marion Van Renterghem, says the pipelines were the result of a pre-meditated strategy by Vladimir Putin to anaesthetise Europe in the run-up to his full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The acquiescence of European leaders in the construction of two pipelines was, she writes, one of the biggest strategic errors of the 21st century.
“I wanted to investigate the folly of German and European dependence on Russia,” Van Renterghem says. Like a drug dealer, Putin fed Europe’s addiction. “He wove a vast network of pipelines, a veritable spider’s web.”
Until Nord Stream 1 came online in 2011, 80 per cent of Russian gas sales to Europe transited Ukraine. “Putin’s plan was to circumvent Ukraine so that he could erase it from the map without European customers being affected,” Van Renterghem explains.
The two Nord Stream pipelines cross the floor of the Baltic Sea, from near St Petersburg to northern Germany. Both were blown up by saboteurs on September 26th, 2022. The attack was purely symbolic, since Putin had shut down Nord Stream 1 the previous month, and Nord Stream 2 never entered service.
Poland, Russia, the UK, Ukraine and the US have all been accused of attacking the pipeline, without definitive proof. We may never know who did it.
Incredibly, the Brotherhood pipeline network through Ukraine continues to carry Russian gas to Europe, even as Russians and Ukrainians kill each other in their tens of thousands.
Putin made Gazprom, the Russian state-owned company with the world’s largest gas reserves and a turnover of US $80 billion in 2020, a de facto annex of the Kremlin.
Putin targeted the weaknesses of western politicians, a skill he honed as a KGB agent, to secure their support for Nord Stream. In 2001, he invited then chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his fourth wife Doris to Moscow for a fairy tale sleigh ride, pulled through snow by magnificent horses. The two men stayed up talking and drinking vodka until dawn. Putin had been stationed with the KGB in Dresden and speaks fluent German. He helped the Schroeders adopt two children from St Petersburg.
Schroeder was appointed chairman of the Nord Stream company one month after he left office in November 2005. “This smells bad,” Green politician Reinhard Bütikofor commented. According to German and Russian media, Schroeder received an annual salary of €300,000 plus a €500,000 bonus. Schroeder and Putin hatched plans for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline at Schroeder’s 70th birthday party in St Petersburg in 2014.
Schroeder convinced German and Scandinavian social democrats of the merits of Nord Stream. His acolytes in the SPD rose to high office. Sigmar Gabriel became minister of the economy and a vice-chancellor. Frank-Walter Steinmeier served twice as foreign minister and is now president of Germany.
In her best-selling book Putin’s People, How the KGB Took Back Russia and then Took on the West, British journalist Catherine Belton writes that she was shocked by the number of former members of the east German secret police Stasi involved in the energy sector. Matthias Warnig, the managing director of Nord Stream, was a Stasi agent who served with Putin in Dresden.
Putin “exploited the corruption of some, the ideology or pragmatism of others, the cowardice of many and the naivete of all”, Van Renterghem writes.
German social democrats saw themselves continuing the tradition of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, which from the early 1970s sought to normalise relations with the Soviet bloc. They believed the slogan, Wandel durch Handel (change through trade), which held that economic interaction would reform dictators.
Angela Merkel’s 2005-2021 rule coincided exactly with the construction of the Nord Stream pipelines. A Christian Democrat who grew up in Communist east Germany, Merkel did not share the SPD’s illusions about reforming Putin or Russia.
But under pressure from the Green party, she was forced to renounce nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster, and coal-fired power plants to fight climate change. She saw Russian gas as a bridge until renewable energy sources were developed. Nord Stream was “alternativlos” — unavoidable — Merkel said to justify her support for the project.
Putin’s war on Chechnya, his anti-western tirade at the security conference in Munich in 2007, the 2008 invasion of Georgia, Russian use of chemical weapons in Syria and the seizure of Crimea and part of Donbas in 2014 should have alerted European leaders to Putin’s true character and the peril of engaging with him. But they were too drunk on cheap gas from Siberia to pay attention.
“Putin thought, ‘the pipelines are finished. The West is weak. The US is turning away from Europe’,” Van Renterghem concludes. “But he hit a snag. [Volodymyr] Zelenskiy, who no one had taken seriously, told [Joe] Biden, ‘I don’t need a taxi. I need weapons.’ The US woke up. Europe united. Nothing happened as Putin foresaw.”