It’s a question that swirled through Europe and Washington Friday, amid news Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party had elected Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to replace Chancellor Angela Merkel as its leader.
Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer is generally seen to support Ms. Merkel and the CDU’s don’t-rock-the boat posture on foreign policy.
But she made international headlines ahead of party’s succession vote — a vote that many believe paves the way for her to eventually succeed Ms. Merkel as chancellor — by suggesting Germany might be wise to reconsider its years-old embrace of Russian oil and gas activity in the heart of Europe.
Moscow’s ongoing provocations in Ukraine during recent weeks have exposed the political sensitivity around Western European support for things such as the Russian government-owned Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer said in a televised debate at the start of the week.
At issue, specifically, are Moscow’s actions in the Kerch Strait, a narrow waterway that links the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea and separates the Crimean Peninsula, which the Kremlin annexed from Ukraine in 2014, from the Russian mainland.
Tension over the area has soared since Russian forces fired on and seized Ukrainian vessels and sailors there on Nov. 25.
In response, the Trump administration has called on Western European leaders to take a stand against expanding Russian influence elsewhere on the continent. Most notably, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert has suggested European Union nations consider boycotting Nord Stream 2 — a new pipeline that analysts say will vastly increase the dependence of countries like Germany on Russian oil and gas.
“European countries have to ask themselves: Is Nord Stream 2 something that they want to continue with, because it helps the Russian government?” Ms. Nauert told reporters last week. “Is that the kind of support that they want to provide the Russian government with?”
On Friday, Mr. Trump announced that he was nominating Ms. Nauert to become U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer, meanwhile, has so far rejected calls for an all-out withdrawal of German support for Nord Stream 2. However, according to a Financial Times report this week, she has said the EU might consider reducing the amount of gas it currently allows to flow through the pipeline from Russia to Western Europe.
This may sound subtle. But Trump administration foreign policy officials are reading it as a potential breakthrough.
“We raise Nord Stream 2 with the Germans on every occasion,” said one senior state department official, who argued the recent Russian aggression in Ukraine’s Kerch Strait has prompted a rethink in Germany over the pipeline.
“When you have a naked act of aggression like that, I think it resonates in German public opinion,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity with reporters traveling in Europe with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week.
“We’ve seen some indications in our recent conversations with German officials that they’ve absorbed that message more plainly after Kerch,” the official added. “It’s harder for them to just say [Nord Stream 2] is a commercial project.”
What remains to be seen is how the issue will play out going forward in Germany.
At a minimum, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer’s ascension as head of the CDU — a party that has for the past 18 years been led by Ms. Merkel — sets in motion a high-stakes internal political battle over whether the nation will yield to months of Trump administration pressure on Nord Stream 2.
The first shots of the battle could be heard even before Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer’s was voted in to succeed Ms. Merkel on Friday.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, a member of the Social Democratic Party — a junior political partner of the ruling CDU — said Nord Stream 2 is a commercial project that will proceed even if German companies involved in the project pull out.
Unclear is whether the foreign minister and the incoming CDU leader see eye to eye on the matter. Either way, regional experts say, Nord Stream 2 is becoming one of the most difficult issues on Germany’s political landscape.
“[It] embodies the contradictions of German foreign policy at a time of rising geopolitical tension,” according to Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe.
“The pipeline begins under the Baltic Sea, comes onshore in Germany, bypassing Ukraine and Poland, and ends at the Austrian border,” Ms. Stelzenmüller wrote in an analysis circulated by the think tank this week.
“It is being built by the Kremlin-backed gas group Gazprom, and co-financed by a consortium of German, French, Anglo-Dutch, and Austrian oil and gas companies,” she wrote. “But politically it is fully owned by Berlin. As such, it is a test of whether Germany is willing and able to live up to its claim to be a responsible leader in Europe.”
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