In my latest piece for RT (here), I discuss the near completion of the North Stream 2 pipeline, which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says should be operational ‘within days’. Given the efforts that the Americans have put into stopping North Stream 2, as well as the fierce opposition from Ukraine and various Eastern European member states of the EU, the completion of the pipeline is quite a victory for Russia. That said, as I note in the article, it was a victory founded on very specific conditions – namely the strong economic arguments in favour and the weakness of the geopolitical arguments against. Those conditions won’t always be repeated. Still, as I conclude, the outcome means that ‘there will undoubtedly be smiles in Moscow and much gnashing of teeth in Washington and Kiev.’
For the past couple of years, Donald Trump’s enemies have been waiting with bated breath for the moment when Special Counsel Robert Mueller issues what they are confident will be a damning report revealing the multiple terrible sins committed by Trump in his role as a Kremlin agent. Of late, though, there have been hints that they’re likely to be disappointed. Most recently, ABC correspondent Jonathan Karl warned that,
People who are closest to what Mueller has been doing, interacting with the special counsel, caution me that this report is almost certain to be anti-climatic. … We have seen nothing from Mueller on the central question of, was there any coordination, collusion, with the Russians in the effort to meddle in the election? Or was there even any knowledge on the part of the president or anybody in his campaign with [sic] what the Russians were doing, there’s been no indication of that.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Despite the best efforts of a major part of the American press corps, nobody has yet managed to come up with any concrete evidence of collusion. This, however, has not dampened the spirits of the serried ranks of true believers who remain convinced that proof of Trump’s guilt has never been closer. Indeed, even as Mr Karl was cautioning against such expectations, American political commentators ramped up the rhetoric to a whole new level. The excuse was Trump’s response to the revelation that the FBI had investigated him for being a Russian agent after he fired FBI director James Comey. Asked whether he worked for Russia, Trump called the idea ‘insulting’. It was, he said, ‘the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked’. But, commentators noted, this response wasn’t strictly speaking a denial. ‘What more proof of Trump’s guilt is needed?’, they pronounced, ‘He doesn’t even deny it.’
And so it was that in the past week, commentary passed on from mere accusations that Trump is a Russian spy to statements of near certainty that this is the case. Reading the Globe and Mail over my toast and marmalade this morning, I came across a typical example of this genre by Jared Yates Sexton, a professor at Georgia Southern University, with the title ‘No longer a wild conspiracy theory: the possibility of Trump as Russian agent.’ Mr Sexton declares:
For too long we’ve given Mr Trump and his associates the benefit of the doubt and the cover of incredulousness. For too long we’ve been in denial of the real possibility. …. The possibility that the President of the United States is working for Russia is now real … We simply cannot afford to look away any longer.
I have to say that I don’t know who Mr Sexton is addressing here, who these mysterious people are, who apparently have been giving Trump ‘the benefit of the doubt’ and have been in ‘denial’ about the possibility that he’s a Russian agent. As far as I can tell, the problem hasn’t been one of denial at all – it’s not like there’s exactly been a shortage of politicians and political commentators accusing Trump of being a Russian spy during the past couple of years. But maybe Sexton hasn’t been watching CNN or reading the Washington Post, and has somehow missed all this stuff.
The Washington Post has been banging the ‘Trump is a Russian agent’ drum incessantly, and was at it again this week, with an article by that well-known bastion of common sense and accurate analysis, Max Boot, entitled ‘Here are 18 reasons Trump could be a Russian agent’. Boot’s article doesn’t actually provide any evidence concretely linking Trump with the Russian intelligence agencies, but that’s pretty much par for the course. Boot ends with the words:
Now that we’ve listed 18 reasons Trump could be a Russian assets, let’s look at the exculpatory evidence:
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I can’t think of anything that would exonerate Trump aside from the difficulty of grapsing what once would have seemed unimaginable: that a president of the United States could actually have been compromised by a hostile foreign power. … If Trump isn’t actually a Russian agent, he is doing a pretty good imitation of one.
So what does a ‘pretty good imitation’ of a Russian agent look like in real life? To answer that we have to find examples of the Trump adminstration’s policies towards Russia, and fortunately the international press has just provided us with a good example. The German paper Bild am Sonntag reported on Sunday that the American ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, sent letters to companies participating in the North Stream 2 gas pipeline project in which he told them that, ‘We emphasize that companies involved in Russian energy exports are taking part in something that could prompt a significant risk of sanctions.’ A spokesman for Grenell subsequently clarified the Ambassador’s letter by saying that it was not a threat, just a ‘clear message of US policy’, though I have to say that the distinction is lost on me. Grenell’s letter didn’t come out of the blue. The United States has long been doing all it can to sabotage North Stream 2. And Trump himself is fully signed up to the policy. At a meeting with the presidents of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia last year, the US president declared his opposition to North Stream 2, declaring:
Germany hooks up a pipeline into Russia, where Germany is going to be paying billions of dollars for energy into Russia. And I’m saying, ‘What’s going on with that? How come Germany is paying vast amounts of money to Russia when they hook up a pipeline?’ That’s not right.
This is indeed a ‘pretty good imitation’ of a Russian agent. There’s no doubt about it – Trump is working for the Russians. Why else would he doing his damnedest to destroy one of the Russian Federation’s most valuable international trade projects? Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t to me. If Donald Trump is indeed a Russian agent, I have to conclude that he’s got to be the worst secret agent ever.
‘Стоим на краю пропасти. Надо идти вперед.’ (Apocryphal statement attributed to Leonid Brezhnev)
Russian-Western relations appeared to plummet even further into the abyss yesterday with the coordinated decision of around 20 Western countries to expel Russian diplomats as a response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in England. Leading the way was the United States, which is expelling 60 Russians. The next largest contingent of expelled Russians is in Ukraine, which announced that 13 Russians must leave the country. (I find it odd that Ukraine should take this act in response to something which happened in the UK, but not to what it regularly calls ‘Russian aggression’ on its own territory, but so be it.) Third on the list was Canada which is chucking out 4 Russians and refusing to accredit another 3 who had been due to arrive. Germany, meanwhile, is expelling 4 diplomats. Overall, about 100 Russians are getting their marching orders.
This is quite unprecedented. Diplomatic expulsions are normally a response to something which directly affects one’s own country. I can’t think of a precedent for a country throwing out diplomats for something unconnected to it. Perhaps such a precedent exists, but I doubt that there has ever been a mass expulsion across so many countries as this. It is a quite extraordinary act of diplomatic disapproval.
That said, it is largely symbolic. It will make it harder for Russian embassies to do what they were previously doing (which in some cases undoubtedly involves espionage), but in due course new personnel will arrive and get to work, and things will get back to the way they were before. Western diplomats will be expelled from Russia in response, temporarily messing up the work of the embassies in question, but likewise things will eventually get back to normal. People will be irritated. Mutual distrust will be stronger than ever. Attitudes will harden. It will have a decidedly negative effect. But real, concrete interests won’t suffer too much.
In this way, the refusal of the United Kingdom (and also of its allies) to take more radical measures against Russia is quite striking. It appears that the West isn’t too interested in hurting its own bottom line. And in that regard, Russia got some very good news today. Germany has granted all the permits required for the construction of the German segment of the North Stream 2 gas pipeline. A spokesman for the pipeline project stated that he was confident that the other countries involved – Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Russia – would similarly grant the required permits in ‘the coming month’.
Yesterday Germany expelled four Russian diplomats. But today it gave the go-ahead for North Stream 2 – a symbolic slap on Russia’s wrist, followed by a extremely valuable decision in Russia’s favour. If I was Russian, I’d be far more pleased by the latter than annoyed by the former. Perhaps, when it comes to what really matters, things aren’t quite as bad as they seem. The West is willing to stamp its foot and shake its fist, but it isn’t willing to put its money where its mouth is. Real progress on real issues may be possible after all, and we can move back from the abyss and forward in another direction.
One of the declared purposes of this blog is to analyze irrational decision making processes in foreign policy. Rationality can be defined in many ways, but one is in terms of coherence of aims and means. Setting yourself an objective and then pursuing a policy which undermines that objective is not what most people would consider rational. Take, for instance, the goal of energy security. As I wrote in my Dictionary of International Security, this ‘implies guaranteed access to a reliable source of energy at a reasonable price.’ Opposing measures to improve such access, and preferring instead to preserve an unreliable source of energy supply, would not be a rational means of reaching that goal.
Yet this appears to be the European Union’s (EU) preferred method. For years a significant proportion of the natural gas Europe consumes has been bought from Russia and delivered via a pipeline running through Ukraine. This has proven not to be a ‘reliable source of energy.’ Continuous disputes between Russia and Ukraine over price and non-payment of debts, alleged siphoning off of gas, and so on, coupled with political tensions between the two countries, have resulted in Russia cutting off supplies to Ukraine on several occasions, threatening the supply of gas to the EU. A rational EU energy security policy would, therefore, not merely seek a cheap alternative source outside Russia (if that is possible), but also endeavour to bypass Ukraine so that any gas which is bought from Russia is not at risk of similar disruptions.
Given this, the North Stream pipeline which links Russia directly with Germany is entirely in keeping with the objective of European energy security. So too was the idea of South Stream, which would have delivered gas to Europe via the Black Sea and Bulgaria. But far from supporting these initiatives, the EU resolutely opposed them, and in the case of South Stream it eventually succeeded in forcing Russia to abandon the project. Now it is preparing to oppose a second North Stream pipeline.
Last week, as the Russian newspaper Kommersant reports:
Russia’s gas giant Gazprom signed a binding shareholders’ agreement with European energy companies for the construction of the Nord Stream-2 pipeline from Russia to Germany. … Gazprom will own a controlling stake, while Germany’s E.ON and BASF/Wintershall, Austria’s OMV and Royal Dutch Shell will receive 10 percent each, while France’s Engie will receive 9 percent. … The largest power companies in the UK, France, Germany and Austria signed the project, whose implementation will minimize the transit of gas through Ukraine … However, the agreement is contrary to the position of Brussels; according to Vice-President of the European Commission Maroš Šefčovič , there is no need for any gas pipelines bypassing Ukraine.
‘I hope those companies [who signed the deal with Gazprom] understand their responsibility for the overall security of supply for the whole of Europe, not only for parts of it’, Mr Šefčovič said. Polish president Andrzej Duda also opposed the deal, which he says ‘completely neglects Polish interests.’ ‘The insecurity in this context stems from the egoism of some nations and their complete disregard for the interest of other nations,’ Duda said. ‘That makes it hard to believe in Europe’s unity.’
I find Duda’s statement a little hard to understand. At present, while some gas comes from Russia via Poland, the Ukrainian route goes through Slovakia. Diverting gas from Ukraine to North Stream-2 doesn’t mean less money for Poland, or even a less secure supply. Likewise, the EU’s position as a whole doesn’t make much sense. The EU says that it would prefer to continue using Ukraine, but upgrading the pipeline there would require huge investments and given the turmoil in that country nobody is prepared to spend the money required.
The only explanation I can come up with for the EU’s position is that this is actually a matter of geopolitics. Russia is the current ‘bête-noire’, which must be isolated. Projects which strengthen Russia are therefore a bad thing per se. Ukraine, by contrast, must be supported. According to one account, ‘Brussels is worried that cash-strapped Ukraine would be hard hit if it lost crucial income from transit fees in the events of Russia shifting its gas to other routes.’ Propping up Ukraine, it seems, is considered more important than having a cheap and reliable source of energy. Thus, if Šefčovič and Duda have their way, under the guise of ‘energy security’, Europeans will end up paying more for their gas. Whatever else it may be, this isn’t a rational energy policy.