20 years under Putin: a timeline

The controversial Nord Stream II pipeline, which is reportedly expected to be finished by the end of August, has caused deep divisions along political and ideological fault lines in the West. While discussions on the issue mostly focus on the geopolitical or business side of the project, how the pipeline plays into the Kremlin’s strategy of informational-psychological influence has remained largely neglected. As such, Nord Stream II could be seen as a political win for Moscow.

 

November 8, 2011: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev (center) at the opening ceremony of the Nord Stream I pipeline. Photo: kremlin.ru

 

On 21 July, the White House reached a deal with Germany that will allow the completion of the Nord Stream II gas pipeline—an ambitious joint project of Russia’s Gazprom and Germany’s Wintershall and Uniper, as well as Royal Dutch Shell (Britain/The Netherlands), Engie (France), and OMV (Austria). The $11 billion project, run by Nord Stream AG and dubbed “Putin’s pet project,” triggered conflicting reactions in Europe. While German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed the recent agreement as a “good step,” foreign ministers of Ukraine and Poland stated that it “significantly deepened” the security crisis in Europe, and the European Commission spokesperson emphasized that Nord Stream II was “not of common EU interest.”

Following in the footsteps of its predecessor, Nord Stream I, the Nord Stream II project caused a great stir in the West, exacerbating existing tensions and divisions. Its rationale—to construct two more pipelines alongside Nord Stream I’s two existing strings to deliver more Russian gas to Europe, bypassing Ukraine—was clearly geopolitical and destined to further schisms among the transatlantic partners. Critics identified at least three issues: First, the project threatened Europe’s energy security by increasing its reliance on Russian gas. Second, it would undermine Ukraine, who served as a major gas corridor, collecting transit fees, and whose aspirations for integrating with the EU and breaking out from Russia’s influence zone have caused numerous gas disputes since 2005. Some East European members of the EU were particularly concerned with Nord Stream II, given Russia’s increasingly aggressive international behavior. Last, environmentalists complained that the German authorities’ decision to greenlight the pipeline construction was “unlawful,” as the climate change consequences of the project were ignored. 

While discussions on geopolitics and the business side of Nord Stream II have taken center stage, another dimension of the project has been largely overlooked: how the pipeline plays into the Kremlin’s strategy of wielding informational-psychological influence. In this type of discourse, which accentuates divisions, discontent, and disruption, that might be another major win for the Kremlin. In the worldview of the Russian political elite, information, psychological warfare, and international politics increasingly conflate with perception to become “the main battlefield.” Failing to acknowledge this view puts the West at a disadvantage. 

Russian state-backed actors seek to wield informational-psychological influence through “a set of measures to influence the intellectual… and emotional sphere of the psyche and subconscious of… targets, aimed at the formation in them of predictable opinions and views… as well as behavioural reactions… carried out by propaganda and agitation, disinformation, demonstrative and demonstrational actions.” The end goals here are political destabilisation, discord, and division. In recent years, there has been much interest in the West in Russia’s influence operations, but not enough attention to demonstrative acts as tools of influence. Nord Stream II, for example, while being a lucrative energy project for the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom, can also be seen as a demonstrative act aimed to influence the intellectual and emotional atmosphere in the West, causing divisions and political destabilisation.

In Germany, Russia’s lobbying for the Nord Stream II project (informational-psychological meddling) became a source of endless controversy. Some policymakers, like Merkel, who viewed the project as an “economic endeavour,” supported it based on the philosophical conviction that business should be separate from politics. Others, perhaps nostalgic for the Soviet-era Ostpolitik, saw Nord Stream II as an opportunity to continue cooperation with Russia even as its relations with the West deteriorate. Both views were sincere but predictable, which made their holders vulnerable to manipulation by Russian state actors. To garner support among the German political elite, the Kremlin offered strong economic incentives for participation in the project. Moscow managed to bring in former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder as chairman of the board for the Nord Stream AG. Local politicians and residents in the region of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where the pipeline lands in Germany, also stood to benefit from the project and became vocal supporters. Their siding with Nord Stream II put them at odds with critics—the Greens and the Free Democratic Party—who argued that the project compromised German geopolitical, environmental, and ethical positions.

The current deal between the United States and Germany is yet another example of the West’s neglect for the informational-psychological dimension, the role of communications in international relations and conflict management, which plays into Moscow’s hands.

These divisions along political and ideological fault lines were exacerbated at critical points, for instance, when Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was transferred to Germany for medical treatment following his poisoning with a nerve agent. As evidence of Russia’s use of a chemical weapon emerged, Greens leader Annalena Baerbock demanded a stop to the pipeline that was “splitting Europe.” Meanwhile, Axel Vogt, mayor of Lubmin, Germany’s major transport and industry hub that hosts Nord Stream II landfall facilities, took Russia’s side and called for the Navalny case to be separated from Nord Stream II, “especially as the facts are not yet clear enough to place the blame on the Russian government.” This incident revealed the lack of moral unity in Germany’s stance on the Kremlin’s blatant disregard for international law and use of chemical weapons against civilians. It also showcased that Russia prevailed over Germany in the informational-psychological dimension.

Sowing discord and causing divisions in the transatlantic community has thus become another political win for Moscow. But Brussels and Washington, in their attempts to stop Nord Stream II, underestimated the Kremlin’s goals and chose strategies that undermined their efforts—focusing on criticisms of the Nord Stream II’s adverse effects on Europe’s geopolitical and energy security. Brussels sought to curtail risks stemming from Nord Stream II by adopting, in 2019, an amendment to its 2009 Gas Directive, which extended EU rules to pipelines to and from third countries. Overall, though, the EU took a tame position toward Nord Stream II, neither supporting the project nor actively trying to stop it, which ultimately made it look weak.

Washington under the Trump administration was more actively involved in efforts to derail Nord Stream II, seeking to overturn it through U.S. sanctions based on the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, the Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Act, and the Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Clarification Act. In the summer of 2020, a group of Trump-supporting senators threatened port operators in the Baltic Sea with “crushing legal and economic sanctions” if they kept servicing Russian ships that work on the pipeline project. This behavior, along with Trump’s anti-German and anti-European rhetoric on NATO defense spending, only alienated Germany (and other European countries), as it was seen as an undue intervention into German domestic affairs. 

President Joe Biden renewed U.S. solidarity with European allies and branded Nord Stream II as a “bad deal,” but again focused on the political side of the project while ignoring the informational-psychological dimension that had already created corrosive dynamics within the transatlantic community. In fact, U.S. pressure did the opposite of what it meant to achieve—instead of unity, it has driven Germany and the EU to a defensive position by making “the pipeline a matter of national sovereignty” and intruding into Europe’s regulatory space.

The current deal between the United States and Germany is yet another example of the West’s neglect for the informational-psychological dimension, the role of communications in international relations and conflict management, which plays into Moscow’s hands. The White House rightfully acknowledged that the decision to complete Nord Stream II belonged with Germany, but the deal effectively sidelined the concerns of Eastern European members of the EU, leaving a lasting sense of divergence and inviting further hostility.

It would be more effective to design a grand bargain that streamlines disagreements among allies and communicates a message of unity in the face of Russian aggression. This omission is a much bigger problem in the West’s strategy to counter Russia, where “a holistic approach to communication based on values and interests” has “often been met with a lack of interest and acceptance.” This strategic gap will continue to be everyone’s problem in the years to come.

 

* Vera Michlin-Shapir is an expert on Russian foreign and defence policies, as well as Russian politics and media. She worked at the Israeli National Security Council, Prime Minister’s Office, 2010–2016. 

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