In May this year, the Biden administration rescinded the 2019 sanctions the US Congress had placed on Nord Stream 2 – a second pipeline under the Baltic Sea that takes gas from Russia to Germany. This is a significant reversal. During his confirmation hearings in January, Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, insisted he was “determined to do whatever we can to prevent [its] completion”.
The dependency of many European countries on Russian gas and oil exports has long troubled American presidents. But the German decision in 2005 to collaborate with Moscow on the first Nord Stream pipeline exacerbated Washington’s frustrations. Once the pipeline was completed, Russian gas could flow into Germany without transiting through Ukraine. For Kiev, which sees transit services as a matter of its security, this was a disaster. Poland, fearing any kind of geostrategic manoeuvring that weakens the states between it and Russia, was also incredulous – the then Polish defence minister, Radek Sikorski, compared Nord Stream 2 to the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 that carved up Poland, including parts of present-day Ukraine. Insensitive to these geopolitical considerations, Angela Merkel doubled down during her third term by committing Germany to Nord Stream 2. Now, the Biden administration has decided confrontation with Berlin is a luxury it cannot afford, even though, just weeks before the decision to rescind sanctions, Russian troops had amassed on Ukraine’s border.
For Biden, this is world where almost every decision must be oriented towards strategic competition with China, and the place of German-Russian relations at the heart of Europe now seems no exception.
The importance of German-Russian relations to the present geopolitical conflict between the United States and China is analogous to what happened in the late 19th century, when the Middle Kingdom was in sharp decline. That was a world where the British empire had naval pre-eminence, Russia had expanded across Eurasia into Manchuria, and Germany aspired to be a world power. After Japan’s victory in 1895 in the First Sino-Japanese War, Russia, Germany and France intervened to force Tokyo to yield some of its territorial spoils in north-east China. Russia gained the Liaodong Peninsula and a warm-water Pacific port at Port Arthur. Germany secured concessions in the Shandong Peninsula on the other side of the Bohai Sea.
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Fearful of this continental alliance in the Far East, Britain sought an ally in Japan. Although the 1902 Anglo-Japanese alliance prevented France from coming to Russia’s aid when, in 1904, Japan attacked the Russian Pacific Fleet at Port Arthur, it did not end the prospect of a Russia-German axis. Indeed, during the course of the Russo-Japanese war, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II agreed a secret treaty, with Wilhelm telling Nicholas that it could be prelude for “a United States of Europe”.
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Writing in 1904, in an essay entitled “The Geographical Pivot of History”, the British geographer Halford Mackinder saw a world transformed by the transcontinental railways that the Russians and Germans were building to the Pacific. Mackinder believed that in the event of a Russia-German permanent axis, this reordering offered the possibility of what he called “the empire of the world”.
This new order never materialised. The winner of the imperial contest over China was Japan. After destroying the Russian navy in May 1905, Japan took Shandong from Germany in November 1914. After the First World War, Britain had to defend its position in China in relation to the maritime powers of Japan and the United States, not the Soviet Union and Germany.
But in his essay, Mackinder also imagined a future world where China remade Eurasia while enjoying the great advantage over Russia of a coastline replete with natural harbours. Today, China is indeed the rising power, building high-speed railways across Eurasia under its Belt and Road Initiative. Russia in this new Eurasia has a vast market for its oil and gas and Germany is part of the Belt and Road in all but name, with an ever expanding freight railway network running from China to Germany’s coastal and inland ports.
In attempting to peel Germany away from Beijing, Biden has treated eastern European concern about Nord Stream 2 as collateral damage. In explaining his Nord Stream reversal, he said that maintaining sanctions would be “counter-productive in terms of our European relations”. But there can be no common relations with the EU where Russia is concerned. Predictably, the Polish government is furious with the sanctions decision.
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Moreover, there is little evidence Germany is open to the compromise offered. Merkel persisted with Nord Stream because she has never seen reason to make geopolitical trade-offs around German commercial interests. Merkel’s welcoming gift to Biden when he became president was to have pushed the EU to complete the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China. Ratification of the treaty is now suspended, and the Greens’ candidate for Chancellor, Annalena Baerbock, says she wants a tougher China policy on human rights. But Baerbock would be in no position to decouple the German economy from China’s Eurasian Silk Road. The person still most likely to be the next Chancellor, Armin Laschet, is the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, host in Düsseldorf to Chinese tech firm’s Huawei’s European headquarters. Nor are the geographies of Nord Stream and the Belt and Road separable: the German port of Mukran, used by the Russians to construct Nord Stream, is the terminus of a new railway route that runs from central China though Russia and across the Baltic Sea, bypassing Poland.
The China foreign ministry’s readout on a call between Merkel and Xi Jinping this April said that the Chinese premier “hopes that the EU will make correct judgement independently and truly achieve strategic autonomy”. There can be no such independence. It is now the European countries that must navigate the big powers’ strategic rivalries. The problem for the Biden administration is that Mackinder had a point about the advantages that the geography of Eurasia gives China, not least in relation to Russia and Germany.
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