Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is a “dangerous geopolitical weapon,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told the visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a press conference in Kyiv on August 22.
Merkel was in Moscow two days earlier to meet with President Vladimir Putin and Germany has backed the completion of the pipeline, which will be finished this week, despite the protestations of Ukraine and several other EU members. Merkel has insisted the pipeline is a “commercial” project, but it will allow Russia gas transits to bypass Ukraine completely, costing the latter up to $2bn a year.
The row over the pipeline has sullied relations between Kyiv and Berlin, which has otherwise been a staunch ally, supporting Ukraine in its fight with Russia.
"We view this project exclusively through the prism of security and consider it a dangerous geopolitical weapon of the Kremlin," Zelenskiy said as cited by AFP.
He added that the main risks after its completion will be "borne by Ukraine" but that the pipeline will also be dangerous "for all of Europe". The pipeline "will only play into the hands of the Russian Federation", he said.
Merkel said Berlin agrees with Washington that "gas must not be used as a geopolitical weapon. It will come down to if there is an extension to the transit contract via Ukraine – the sooner the better," she said, referring to the expiry of Moscow's agreement with Kyiv in 2024.
"We feel a special responsibility" and "understand the big concerns that President Zelenskiy expressed," she said. "We take them very seriously."
Zelenskiy said he and Merkel had discussed a possible extension to the current gas transit deal but said that nothing concrete has been put on the table and complained that he had heard only "very general things."
Merkel tried to reassure Zelenskiy that the pipeline couldn’t be used as a weapon, as Washington has threatened new sanctions if it is used in this way. She added that these commitments were "binding on future German governments", as she is set to leave office next month after 16 years in power.
Frustration in the waiting room
Zelenskiy has become increasingly frustrated with the lukewarm support offered by Ukraine’s international partners. At the start of this year he launched a diplomatic offensive to put pressure on Ukraine’s international partners into committing to the country’s support.
Since its turn to the West, Ukraine has been left in limbo. While it has cut off relations with Russia and seen its trade with its eastern neighbour shrink, it has never been offered membership of the EU or Nato by its new friends in the West. Indeed, it is widely assumed that Ukraine will never be offered membership in either club, as Western diplomats understand this would be a “red line” to Moscow and could provoke a strong reaction by the Kremlin, including the possible invasion of Ukraine, and certainly a scaling up of the current military-fuelled destabilisation of the country. Putin was preparing the ground for this scenario with an essay he wrote in July that argued that Russia and Ukraine were “one people”, which caused a storm of comment at the time.
During a tour of Western capitals Zelenskiy asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron point blank to give Ukraine a timetable for the application for both EU and Nato membership, but received no reply from either.
“European policy towards Ukraine should be 100% clear,” Zelenskiy said in an interview with the French daily Le Figaro in April just before meeting Macron in talks that were joined by Merkel via video conference. His country, he said, “cannot stay in the EU and Nato waiting room indefinitely”.
“European policy towards Ukraine should be 100% clear. If the European Union and the (French) president really treat us as members of the European family, then they should act consistently. The time has come to make decisions,” Zelenskiy told the French daily.
He did the same after talking to US President Joe Biden for the first time and caused another kerfuffle with a tweet that said Biden had “confirmed” to Zelenskiy that Ukraine could join Nato. As that tweet went viral Biden had to delay his press conference by an hour before coming out to the lectern and making it clear that no such promise had been made.
“Nato leaders confirmed that [Ukraine] will become a member of the Alliance & the MAP is an integral part of the membership process,” Zelenskiy tweeted on June 14 in the afternoon, referring to the MAP (membership application process) guidelines for membership, as Nato leaders met in Brussels for a summit. Ukraine “deserves due appreciation of its role in ensuring Euro-Atlantic security,” he added.
However, Biden explicitly shot the idea down in a humiliating rebuttal. Ukraine’s status “depends on whether they meet the criteria. The fact is they have to meet the criteria to join MAP,” Biden told reporters shortly after Zelenskiy’s tweet was published. “School’s out on that question, it remains to be seen,” Biden added. “They have more to do.”
Biden said that Ukraine had to solve its corruption problems before things like Nato membership could be considered. Fighting corruption was not a criterion for any of the other former Eastern Block countries when they made their applications to join Nato.
Betrayed by Germany
The meeting between Merkel and Zelenskiy is particularly poignant, as Ukraine feels betrayed by Germany’s decision to go ahead with the permission for Russia to complete the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that will allow Russian gas deliveries to completely bypass Ukraine, cutting it off from a badly needed $2bn in transit fees. Ukraine has already lost $1bn of fees to the TurkStream gas pipeline that connects Russian gas fields to Turkey and Southeast Europe that went online at the end of last year and has received much less attention.
Russian energy major Gazprom has increased the utilisation of the TurkStream gas pipeline 2.2-fold since its commissioning, particularly for European consumers by 2.5-fold, the company said in January. And in January Serbia started receiving natural gas through Bulgaria into its section of the extension of Gazprom's TurkStream pipeline for gas transit to Europe dubbed Balkan Stream.
With Nord Stream due to be completed on August 23, just as Ukraine celebrates its 30 years of independence, Ukraine is staring at the prospect of losing its gas transit business completely in 2024 when the new transit deal that was signed in December 2019 expires.
It appears Merkel has been trying to broker a deal where Germany will start to receive the bulk of its gas from Nord Stream 2 but that after the current transit deal expires in 2024 Russia will continue to send some gas via Ukraine’s Druzhba pipeline system.
The stiking point, as Putin highlighted in his press conference with her a few days earlier, Russia wants guaranteed commitments on off take from the EU before it is willing to commit itself to another take-or-pay tranist deal with Ukraine. And with good reason. Under the terms of the current deal Gazprom has to pay transit fees even if it transit less than the agreed 40bcm a year – which happened in 2019 and Gazprom paid up. With teh EU’s Green Deal due to kick in from 2022 it is likely that demand for gas will start to fall and Gazprom doesn't want to commit itself to a transit deal with fixed volumes of gas to transit if it cant be sure of those volumes being bought by customers in Europe.
Merkel is not in a position to guarantee those supplies nor sign long-term gas supply deals with Russia. However, the talks are on going. Merkel left Kyiv the same day as she met with Zelenskiy and didn't stay for the Crimea platform summit that started the next day nor the independence celebrations. Notably German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas will also not attend, but Merkel is sending Peter Altmaier, who heads the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, and will continue the talks on energy on the sidelines of the celebrations this week with his Ukrainian and US counterparts.
The two leaders will have also discussed the prospects for bringing an end to the fighting in Donbas and returning the Crimea to Ukraine.
The Minsk II protocols that Merkel negotiated with Putin have failed to end the conflict and the deadlines in the deal have all been missed, while most of the conditions laid out in the document have failed to be met.
Here too, Zelenskiy has pushed back, saying it was a bad deal negotiated by his predecessor former President Petro Poroshenko and that he wants a fresh agreement, but the Kremlin has refused to budge. Putin reiterated during his press conference with Merkel in Moscow on August 19 that there was no alternative to the Minsk II deal, a deal that favours Russia but which would be political suicide for any Ukrainian president that tried to implement it in full.
However, as bne IntelliNews has suggested, it is conceivable that a new pan-European security deal between Russia and the rest of Europe could bring the conflict in Ukraine to an end, but the prospects for returning the Crimea to Ukraine after Russia’s 2014 annexation remain very unlikely.
As part of his campaign to put pressure on the West into helping to force Russia to return the Crimea, Kyiv has launched the Crimea Platform Summit that kicks off on August 23 with 44 nations attending that puts the issue back in the spotlight.
The Crimea Platform is a multi-level framework for devising actions that would raise the costs of Russia’s occupation and contradict Moscow’s thesis about the irreversibility of its hold on the peninsula. The summit event is set for August 23, back to back with (but distinct from) the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s national independence on August 24, in Kyiv, in the presence of world leaders. The United States government became the first to endorse the Crimea Platform initiative and proselytise for it, without awaiting the outcome of the Joseph Biden administration’s Ukraine policy review.
Ukraine aims to sharpen the focus of international attention on to Russia’s occupation of the peninsula and broaden the scope of countermeasures to the occupation, the Jamestown Foundation reports. Kyiv seeks international support in order to:
Russia initially took the position that “it would not rule out participating” in Platform meetings in the future. According to the foreign ministry’s spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, Russia could participate provided that the agenda includes the resumption of water and electricity supplies from mainland Ukraine to Crimea and the unblocking of transportation routes to the peninsula. Ukraine, however, takes the position that water, electricity and transportation issues can only be discussed after Russia’s de-occupation of Crimea.
While Merkel is still pushing for a solution to the Donbas fighting via the Steinmeier formula, she has put the Crimea issue on the back burner for the meantime, although she reiterated clearly that Germany considers Crimea to be Ukrainian during her press conference with Putin on August 19.
The former German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, suggested in 2015 a formula that would introduce special temporary local self-government rule in some areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions during local elections in Donbas that becomes a permanent basis, and would break the process into smaller, achievable, steps.
As Zelenskiy's frustration mounts Kyiv has been increasingly turning to Beijing for support. While the Chinese have avoided getting ensnared in the geopolitical tussle between Kyiv, Washington, Brussels and Moscow, it has been ramping up its economic investments and trade with Ukraine.
China is now Ukraine’s biggest trade partner, selling an increasing amount of goods, but more importantly for Ukraine, slowly opening up access to its huge consumer markets, especially for agricultural goods.
Beijing has already cashed in some of those chips when it forced Ukraine to withdraw from an international protest against China’s treatment of the Uighur by threatening to withhold coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine supplies and also leaned on Kyiv to abstain from the sanctions on Belarus. On the flip side, China has promised to invest billions of dollars into developing Ukrainian infrastructure – investment aid that is routine for EU members, but which is inaccessible to Ukraine while it remains in the perennial waiting room.