For five years now, it’s been axiomatic among many Democrats and their media allies, amplified by battalions of pundits, that Republicans possess an unhealthy, possibly treasonous relationship with Russia. Due to documented Kremlin interference in our 2016 election that helped put Donald Trump in the White House, many Democrats came to believe that Trump was himself some sort of Russian agent. In the more extreme form of this conspiracy theory, which is commonly encountered online, the GOP itself is an essentially Russian entity, which Vladimir Putin controls via undefined puppetry. No Republican happening is too small to be deemed Moscow-related on left-leaning social media.
It therefore comes as a profound shock today to see Axios report that the Biden White House plans to scrap State Department sanctions on Nord Stream 2, the Kremlin pipeline project being built under the Baltic Sea to ship vast amounts of Russian natural gas to Germany. Nord Stream 2 is the quintessential example of Putin’s pipeline power politics, an effort to divide the West to Russia’s advantage. Berlin’s political class, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, considers Nord Stream 2 to be a necessity for Germany’s economy, while NATO allies located to Berlin’s east, led by Poland and the Baltic states, view the project as a Russian strategic weapon aimed at fragmenting the Atlantic Alliance and weakening its collective defense.
Concerns about Nord Stream 2’s geopolitical implications led the Trump administration to oppose it, declaring its implacable opposition to the project, while implementing sanctions against it in an effort to prevent its completion. Joe Biden was on record opposing Nord Stream 2 too, as vice president, as candidate, and now as president himself. His State Department denounced it as “a bad deal” and just two months ago appeared ready to keep sanctions against Nord Stream 2 in place. Opposition to this Russian power grab has strong bipartisan support in Congress, and a few weeks ago, the Biden White House was signaling that it was serious about shutting Nord Stream 2 down, in an effort to reassure U.S. allies who were growing worried about getting sold out by Washington.
Now, according to Axios, that feared appeasement of the Kremlin is happening. Per today’s report by the respected journalist Jonathan Swan, the White House plans to waive sanctions on the firm behind Nord Stream 2:
The State Department will also acknowledge the corporate entity in charge of the project – Nord Stream 2 AG and its CEO, the Putin crony and former East German intelligence officer Matthias Warnig — are engaged in sanctionable activity. However, the State Department will waive the applications of those sanctions, citing U.S. national interests.
Morever, in a split-the-baby formulation that Axios properly deems “bizarre,” the White House “will be sanctioning ships involved in the building of Nord Stream 2 but refusing to sanction the actual company in charge of the project.” Given this astonishing about-face by the Biden administration, a sell-out of our eastern NATO allies and embattled Ukraine too – contrary to many reassuring statements proffered by Team Biden over the four months since the inauguration – we need to ask just what the hell is going on here.
This stunning decision appears to be about Germany, since shutting down Nord Stream 2 now, after a decade of development and within a year of its completion, cannot be done without appreciable damage to the German economy, not to mention political damage to Chancellor Merkel, whom Biden considers a friend. Indeed, making nice with Berlin after President Trump repeatedly trash-talked Merkel for her softness towards Putin plus Germany’s perennial inability to meet NATO’s notionally required spending of two percent of GDP on defense, has been a main feature of the Biden administration’s European policy.
The problem is, his obnoxious bluster aside, Trump was substantially correct in his scathing comments about Germany. Berlin’s political elite, across party lines, really is deeply enmeshed with the Kremlin financially, while the Bundeswehr has become a joke inside NATO after a quarter-century of underfunding, something which Merkel has done nothing serious to turn around, despite a decade of promises to do exactly that. NATO’s eastern members doubt that Germany would race to their aid in the event of Russian aggression, and such doubts are well founded.
Then there’s the problem of Nord Stream 2 itself, whose company is majority-owned by Gazprom, the Russian state energy giant. Functionally, Nord Stream 2 equals the Kremlin, and everybody knows this. Its CEO, Herr Warnig, was a career officer of the Stasi, East Germany’s notorious secret police, spending several years in its elite foreign intelligence arm, the HVA. Warnig, who has a Russian wife, is close friends with Putin, indeed he’s the Kremlin leader’s German bestie. The two met in the 1980s when the Russian was serving in the KGB’s Dresden office, though details of their early encounters, under the auspices of East Bloc intelligence, are intentionally obscure. What’s not in doubt is that Warnig moved to Russia in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed to make his fortune, and his did so in large part due to his connections to Putin.
The reaction of GOP-friendly social media to reports of Biden’s astonishing sellout to Putin has been quick and harsh. Many are the comments suggesting that this is exactly the sort of “collusion” with the Kremlin that Democrats spent four years trying to pin on Trump, unsuccessfully. It is indeed one of the paradoxes of the Trump presidency that while his public pronouncements were often alarmingly pro-Russian, his policies were distinctly less so in practice. It’s no exaggeration to state that if President Trump had dared to give a pass to Nord Stream 2 like this, he would have been impeached by furious Democrats – again.
Not to mention that the timing of this decision is suspect. Germany has federal elections coming in just four months, and polls show that the Greens are expected to do unprecedentedly well, indeed, they appear likely to be kingmakers after the votes are counted. This is important because the Greens are the only major German party that takes issue with Putin’s regime and its bad human rights record. Indeed, the Greens have promised to kill Nord Stream 2 after the September elections. Biden’s decision to go easy on the Kremlin here, before German elections, constitutes a needless gift to Putin.
Let’s not dwell on the fact that the overall optics here are terrible too. The Biden administration hands Moscow a major geostrategic gift, after assuring everyone that it planned to do the opposite, little more than a week after hackers from the DarkSide criminal gang, apparently based in or near Russia, take down a good chunk of Eastern U.S. gas pipelines with a ransomware cyberattack. Such criminal antics got the DarkSide $90 million in bitcoin before they shut down, and treated Washington to a major black eye, given the ease with which the hackers damaged a vital sector of the American economy. “You shut down our pipeline, we’ll let you open yours” is not the sort of message the Biden administration should be sending the Kremlin.
Republicans are having a field day with the Team Biden turnabout on Nord Stream 2. After years of liberal journalists sniffing out every connection between Team Trump and Russia, real or imagined, no matter how obscure, it’s to be expected that people have questions about what’s going on here. Allegations by GOP lawmakers that Hunter Biden in 2014 took $3.5 million from Yelena Baturina, a top Russian oligarch and the widow of longtime Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, will now reappear, because that’s how we live now.
The truth is likely more mundane. The Biden administration is comprised heavily of Obama retreads, the people who got Russia wrong through two terms, appeasing Putin repeatedly, culminating in the 2016 debacle that gave us President Trump. It was to be hoped that they had learned their painful lesson, that the Kremlin plays hardball and only responds to strength, but perhaps that’s not the case. Let’s not forget how they mocked Mitt Romney in 2012 for suggesting, presciently, that Russia represented a bigger national security threat than Al-Qa’ida.
The best case here is that today’s Axios scoop reflects an Oval Office trial balloon, and after media blowback, the White House will return to its senses about Putin, maintaining pressure regarding Nord Stream 2. If that’s not the case, we can expect increasing divisions inside NATO over Russia, including rising doubts among some of our key allies regarding the Biden administration’s ability to match pleasing words with difficult deeds. Reset 2.0 is a terrible idea that the Kremlin will exploit to its advantage on many fronts, just as it did with the previous Reset.