(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The long-threatened U.S. sanctions against Nord Stream 2, Russia’s $10.5 billion natural gas pipeline to Germany, will finally take effect next week, but their timing and design can only slow down the project’s now-certain completion. Even so, Ukraine, the primary injured party from the new pipeline, is grateful for small favors from Washington.
The sanctions — crafted by Senators Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, and Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat — have been attached to the 2020 National Defense Appropriations Act, which already has been approved by Congress; President Donald Trump has promised to sign it. The State and Treasury Departments will have 60 days to present to Congress a list of vessels involved in the construction of Nord Stream 2 and another Russian pipeline, TurkStream, and of people and firms that provided these ships. Those people and entities will have 30 days to wind down their business or they will be barred from entry to the U.S. and could have their assets frozen.
The sanctions come too late to hurt TurkStream, which runs under the Black Sea to the western area of Turkey. The underwater part of the pipeline is complete and even filled with Russian natural gas. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said the pipeline would be operational in early January.
Nord Stream 2, a twin pipeline running under the Baltic Sea that allows Russia to avoid shipping gas overland through Ukraine, is another matter. Gazprom, the monopoly exporter of Russian pipeline gas, originally intended to complete it by the end of the year, and still had a chance to do in late October, when the Danish government gave permission to lay pipe in its waters. But inclement weather has played havoc with the construction, and earlier this week, the project’s operating company promised completion “in the coming months.” In late November, Dmitri Kozak, Russia’s deputy prime minister in charge of energy, said Nord Stream 2 would begin operation “in mid-2020.”
Even with the effective 90-day grace period allowed by the U.S. sanctions, the last 168 kilometers of each of the two strings of pipe may not be laid by the time the punitive measures kick in. It’s unlikely that Allseas, the Swiss-based contractor now working on Nord Stream 2, will defy the U.S. restrictions if it’s not done in time. Then, Gazprom will need to use the only pipe-laying vessel it owns, the Academician Chersky, to finish the job — a slow and iffy scenario, even if Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says Nord Stream 2 won’t be halted.
Congress could have been much harsher with its sanctions, though. It could have hit Nord Stream 2’s financial investors, all major European energy companies: Engie SA, Uniper SE, OMV AG, Wintershall Dea GmbH and Royal Dutch Shell Plc. It could have sanctioned Russian debt. It could have made it impossible to import equipment for the construction of Russian pipelines and do repairs and maintenance on them. All of these measures have been considered at various times, but struck down in order to avoid a major confrontation with the European Union and an upheaval in financial markets.
As things stand, the punitive measures have the appearance of a vindictive gesture, a nuisance move that won’t change what comes next. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grand plan of supplying gas both to Europe bypassing Ukraine and to China through the just-opened Power of Siberia pipeline can no longer be scuppered.
The likely Nord Stream 2 delay may even be beneficial for Russia, in a way. Competition from Middle Eastern and U.S. liquefied natural gas and warm weather have driven down the price of Russian pipeline gas in Europe. In the three months through September, the average gas price, $169.8 per 1,000 cubic meters, was 18% lower than in the preceding three months and 32% lower than a year before. The last time Gazprom faced such prices was in 2004. Increasing supplies in such a market situation would send prices tumbling even further.
No matter how carefully the U.S. sanctions are crafted to spare European allies, Germany is still irritated. On Thursday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tweeted in response to the U.S. measures that “the European energy policy will be decided in Europe, not in the U.S. We fully reject external interference and extraterritorial sanctions.” Theoretically, the European Union could even retaliate by raising duties on American LNG.
But the U.S. sanctions, belated, weak and irritating to the German government as they are, still aren’t completely pointless. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office thanked U.S. Congress for them on Thursday, and while Ukraine routinely thanks Western governments for sanctioning Russia, this time there’s a specific reason for the gratitude. Ukraine and Russia are locked in a dispute over the future of Russian gas supplies through Ukraine’s pipeline system. The current contract runs out at the end of the year, and Ukraine wants a long-term agreement to replace it while Russia doesn’t want to commit itself. The possibility of a protracted delay to Nord Stream 2 strengthens the Ukrainian position because it makes Russia nervous, and time is running out for the EU-brokered negotiations if supplies of Russian gas to Europe are to continue without interruption.
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Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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