(CNSNews.com) – President Trump’s explosive criticism of Germany on the first day of the NATO summit tapped into deep unease in eastern Europe about Moscow’s use of natural gas as a political tool in its disputes with countries once in its orbit.
It also ran counter to critics’ predictions that during his visit to Europe Trump would say what President Vladimir Putin wants to hear, to the detriment of Western-leaning nations formerly under Soviet sway, such as Ukraine.
Instead, he attacked one of the Kremlin’s most cherished geo-economic projects, just days before a summit with Putin scheduled for Monday.
Those forecasts were further confounded when Trump signed up to a summit declaration condemning “Russia’s illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea, which we do not and will not recognize,” and demanding that it withdraw forces it has in pro-Moscow separatist regions in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.
Germany early this year approved permits for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline which will, like the existing Nord Stream system, channel Russian natural gas to Germany along the Baltic Sea bed, bypassing a transit pipeline running through Ukraine.
Alluding to the project, Trump told NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, “I think it’s very sad when Germany makes a massive oil and gas deal with Russia – where you [NATO] are supposed to be guarding against Russia, and Germany goes out and pays billions and billions of dollars a year to Russia.”
The issue was still on Trump’s mind early Thursday, when in a tweet he said, “Germany just started paying Russia, the country they want protection from, Billions of Dollars for their Energy needs coming out of a new pipeline from Russia.”
The U.S., which long urged European partners to minimize their energy dependence on Russia, opposes Nord Stream.
So too do some NATO allies in eastern Europe, notably Poland and the Baltic states, as well as formerly Soviet states not yet admitted to the alliance, notably Ukraine and Georgia.
They fear it will increase Europe’s reliance on Russia and provide it with additional leverage, while increasing the vulnerability of eastern European countries.
In its disputes with Ukraine, Russia has at times over the past 12 years cut off or threatened to cut off gas supplies. Countries further west along the supply chain have applied pressure to resolve the problems.
Should Russian gas no longer flow through Ukraine, however, Russia would be able to withhold gas from Ukraine at will. With their own supplies unaffected, powerful nations further to the west would be less inclined to get involved in the disputes.
At the same time, Ukraine would lose the badly-needed transit revenue it now earns from the pipeline passing through the country.
“Nord Stream 2 is one of the elements of energy weapons used by Russia against the world,” Ukraine’s parliamentary chairman, Andriy Parubiy, was quoted as saying at an event hosted by the American Foreign Policy Council last month.
On a visit to Poland early this year, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. and Poland saw Nord Stream 2 “as undermining Europe’s overall energy security and stability and providing Russia yet another tool to politicize energy as a political tool.”
He voiced support for a proposed pipeline that would transmit gas from Norway to Poland, helping to free Poland from its own dependency on Russian gas.
Poland’s state-run gas company recently signed agreements with two U.S. companies to buy liquefied natural gas from the U.S.
In Brussels on Wednesday, Polish President Andrzej Duda said that diversifying energy supplies was “now one of the most important goals for the European Union,” Polish Radio reported.
In his remarks to Stoltenberg, Trump said Germany’s reliance on Russian energy supplies made it “a captive of Russia.”
Even before the original Nord Stream project came on line in 2011, Germany’s reliance on Russia for its energy needs was seen by critics as a reason for German reluctance to support initiatives strongly opposed by Moscow, such as NATO enlargement.
At a NATO summit in 2008, President George W. Bush supported granting “membership action plans” paving the way for George and Ukraine eventually to join the alliance, but the summit failed to reach consensus, largely because the Germans and some others were wary of antagonizing Russia.
Ten years later, NATO on Wednesday reaffirmed its now decade-old stance that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO” at some future, unspecified date.
U.S. legislation signed into law by the president last August authorizes the federal government to impose sanctions on European companies involved in Nord Stream 2.
The legislation declares it is U.S. policy to “continue to oppose the Nord Stream 2 pipeline” and to “prioritize the export of United States energy resources in order to create American jobs, help United States allies and partners, and strengthen United States foreign policy.”
The administration has yet to take action on that provision of the Countering Adversarial Nations Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which targets Russia as well as Iran and North Korea,
In March, 39 senators from both parties urged the administration in a letter to “utilize all of the tools at its disposal” to prevent the construction of the pipeline, which they said “will make American allies and partners in Europe more susceptible to Moscow’s coercion and malign influence.”
“The best way to guarantee Europe’s long term economic health and independence is to enable and support investment in a variety of energy sources, suppliers, and routes to meet Europe’s needs,” they wrote.
Several days after the letter was sent, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a briefing that companies involved in the construction and financing of the pipeline “could expose themselves to sanctions” under CAATSA.
“We believe that the Nord Stream 2 project would undermine Europe’s overall energy security and stability,” she said. “It would provide Russia another tool to pressure European countries, especially countries such as Ukraine.”