Robert HARNEIS -TDO- (FRANCE)- The Russian pipelaying ship Akademik Cherskiy has reached the Baltic after an epic journey of 81 days, half way round the world. It left its home port of Nakhodka in the Russian Far East on 10 February. Its safe arrival is vital for the completion of the sanctions blocked Nordstream2 gas pipeline that links Russia and Germany under the Baltic. No available pipelaying vessel owner dared defy Washington and risk financial sanctions to complete the job, after the Swiss Allseas abandoned its contract with 6% of the project left uncompleted. The sanctions were imposed just in time to block completion at the end of 2019. The Russian government purchased the ship in 2016 with just such US obstruction in mind.

It was not until it cleared the very narrow Oresund straits that separate Sweden and Denmark – only 4 kilometers wide at its narrowest point - that the Cherskiy revealed its destination as the most southerly Russian Baltic port of Kaliningrad. Both countries are close partners of the United States. Denmark is a member of NATO and has stretched legal objections to the project to the limit, causing delay and rerouting. There was always a chance of NATO seizing the vessel for sanctions busting as happened to the Iranian tanker Grace 1 at the Straits of Gibraltar in July 2019.

The Russian vessel avoided the Suez Canal and the Straits of Gibraltar by taking the longer route round the southern tip of Africa thus extending its journey by two weeks but avoiding the obvious risk of interference by US allies. The Cherskiy has at all times been escorted by Russian naval vessels on its journey. An indication that the Russian government feared foul play to stop the vessel reaching the Baltic.

The US objects to NS2 on various grounds. First it is acting in support of the anti-Russian Baltic States and Poland that would have preferred Nord Stream to cross its territory on its way to Germany, giving political leverage and considerable transit revenue. It is also anxious to maintain gas pipelines in use through its close ally Ukraine to prop up the country’s ailing finances.

Blocking the pipeline would have been a good way of forcing Europe to take more expensive US LNG gas by tanker. Germany is at the moment dutifully building LNG port facilities to appease Washington. Whether any US gas will ever be landed there is another matter. Ironically the new facilities could just as easily take much cheaper Russian LNG gas. But nobody is talking about that at the moment.

Washington’s objection to the whole North Stream project and any other Russian gas links with the EU are part of the long-standing, wider, multi-faceted strategy of keeping Russia and Europe from forming an economic partnership and thus ultimately overshadowing the previously dominant US.

Finally NS2 has been a useful tool in President Trump’s campaign to get himself re-elected in November. A tough line on Russia plays well to his support base.

However this aggressive interference in European affairs has a cost. In June 2017, Germany and Austria criticized the United States Senate over first sanctions against Russia that targeted NS2, stating that the United States was threatening Europe's energy supplies. In a joint statement Austria's Chancellor Christian Kern and Germany's Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said that "Europe's energy supply is a matter for Europe, and not for the United States of America." They also said: "To threaten companies from Germany, Austria and other European states with penalties on the U.S. market if they participate in natural gas projects such as Nord Stream 2 with Russia or finance them introduces a completely new and very negative quality into European-American relations."

Germany has been at pains to avoid confrontation with the US throughout the construction period of NS2. It may be a coincidence that it was April 30, on the day that the Cherskiy passed through Oresund straits where a ship seizure would have been easy, that Germany at last and reluctantly declared the Lebanese militia and political party Hezbollah illegal and raided the homes of members on its territory.

The Cherskiy will now carry out a refit in Kaliningrad, to make it ready for work on the pipeline, which with only one ship working should be complete by the autumn before the bad weather sets in

An irony of the present situation is that the current rock bottom demand and price for oil and gas have temporarily removed any urgency in the situation from a Russo-German point of view. So long as the coronavirus crisis continues, Germany doesn’t much need the gas and Russia is not keen to sell it at such low prices.

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