In early September, Russia announced an indefinite stoppage of gas deliveries to Germany via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline system, causing economic turmoil. Research findings on patterns in German and Russian policy and ongoing trends shed light on these events and their probable future impact. Despite denials from Moscow, this is a Russian attempt to influence German policy on sanctions and Ukraine. This attempt is unlikely to succeed for now. However, future developments – notably major shifts on the Ukrainian battlefield, changes in German public sentiments, and specific dynamics within the Kremlin – could cause German policy to become more susceptible to Russia’s demands.
In early September, Russian state-controlled gas corporation Gazprom announced that Nord Stream 1 would be shut down indefinitely. Economic turmoil followed the stoppage of the pipeline connecting Russia and Germany: Price indicators of gas in Europe peaked at over five times the level of the previous year, while the Euro’s exchange rate to the US Dollar slumped to a low not seen for twenty years.
Russian officials claimed that technical difficulties stemming from Western sanctions prevented the use of Nord Stream 1, citing that crucial turbines manufactured by Siemens Energy were leaking and potentially dangerous. Putin himself echoed this characterization in a phone call with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on 13 September.
However, two factors jointly evince that the delivery stoppage is politically motivated. First, there’s abundant research on Russia’s long track record when it comes to using energy exports to blackmail and bribe states into compliance.
Second, the timing of reductions in gas flows indicates that Russia seeks to pressure Western states, and especially Germany, into decreasing support for Ukraine and easing sanctions. The Russian share in German gas consumption had been 37 percent in May, declined to 26 in June, to 10 in July, and to 9 in August. Tellingly, these reductions have all followed the incremental expansion of EU sanctions against Russia and increases in aid to support Ukraine.
For example, on 26 July, EU energy ministers approved a plan to reduce gas consumption by 15 percent, and sanctions that the EU had instated right after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine were renewed. On the same day, deliveries through Nord Stream 1 notably decreased. One day later, Gazprom announced Nord Stream 1 would only deliver a record low supply level of 20 percent of capacity, causing another spike in the gas price.
At the face of it, there are reasons to assume Germany would be susceptible to change course on Russia to get gas flowing again, and they might well motivate Russian policymakers. After all, Nord Stream 1 has historically been tolerated, if not proactively supported by parties all across the political spectrum in Germany. The Greens have variously spoken out against the pipeline, but they also shared power with Schröder’s SPD when the project was brought under way in earnest in 2005. Under the various Merkel administrations between 2005 and 2021, CDU/CSU, FDP, and SPD continued supporting the pipeline.
For about nearly two decades, all German administrations have promoted gas trade with Russia. This was particularly evident with regard to Nord Stream 2. This extension of the existing pipeline system was reached in 2015, only one year after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the start of its semi-covert war in Donbas. Despite the stalling of the Minsk Process and significant pressure from allies, particularly from the United States, Germany held on to the project, finalizing construction on 10 September 2021.
Indeed, as research on German policy in the months preceding the invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022 shows, Germany only abandoned the Nord Stream 2 project when doing so was supported by both German public opinion and Germany’s allies. After months of ambiguous rhetoric around the topic, Nord Stream 2 was halted two days before the invasion, and this only after Russia had just overtly violated the Minsk agreements, when German sentiments suddenly became critical of Berlin’s policy, and when pressure by EU and NATO allies on Germany peaked.
Will Germany Change Course?
Nonetheless, at least four indicators suggest that the Russian invasion has fundamentally changed how Berlin approaches the issue of gas imports and that Russian attempts at strong-arming Germany into lessening its support for sanctions and Ukraine are likely to fail.
First and foremost, German leaders display no sign of considering concessions toward Russia. For example, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock stated end of August, just around the stoppage, that it is important to maintain current sanctions for the long run.
Second, since the start of the invasion, German approaches toward Ukraine and Russia are even more anchored within the EU and NATO, creating path dependencies that steady Berlin’s course. Indeed, Germany had taken the lead in creating and maintaining EU sanctions against Russia after its initial aggression against Ukraine in 2014. The Nord Stream pipelines had long been the one area in which German policy significantly diverged from preferences of major EU and NATO allies. With German policy now in line, it is unlikely to revert again.
Third, societal views currently push German policy toward resilience rather than concessions. Before and after the invasion, German policy toward Russia has been highly sensitive to sentiments among the German electorate and it stands to reason that this still applies. Currently, a majority opposes the lifting of sanctions toward Russia, although there is a notable West-East divide. In a Forsa poll in early September, 66 percent of West German respondents supported the maintenance of sanctions (42 in the East). Only 14 of West German respondents supported lifting the sanctions altogether (35 in the East). Only 35 percent of West German respondents stated they would be willing to reinstate Nord Stream 2 to compensate for gas shortages (65 in the East). Notably, West Germans outnumber East Germans by a factor of about four.
Lastly, Germany has already started to decouple from Russian gas. German gas storage capacities are nearly full (currently over 85 percent, significantly more than a year ago). Terminals for the import of liquified natural gas are being built. High gas prices have caused consumers to be more frugal. And France recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Germany, declaring its intent to supply gas to Germany if need be. As Russia has tried to use energy manipulations to put pressure on other Western European countries, there is a shared interest in building resilience and alternatives to Russian gas supplies. Amidst the formation of the new German National Security Strategy, PRIF researchers have called to include paths that systematically reduce weaponizable interdependences such as the gas trade with Russia.
While the current trends are undergirded by various path dependencies and are likely to continue in the near future, certain developments could redirect ongoing trajectories.
First, as German public opinion has proven decisive for Berlin’s Russia policy, continuously high energy prices could well turn public opinion and thereby affect future German policy.
Second, with Ukraine recently recapturing swaths of territory, and Russian officials as well as state-controlled media admitting defeat in Kharkiv Oblast, the politics around the Russo-Ukrainian war keep shifting. While continued Ukrainian advances would lessen the force of arguments calling for ensuring Ukraine’s national survival, they would strengthen if Russia were to turn the tide and again threaten more Ukrainian territory. Thus, battlefield developments could turn German public opinion, and, conceivably, German support for sanctions and Ukraine’s fighting efforts.
Third, due to the arcane, complex, and secretive nature of Russian elite decision-making and the general tendency of personalistic regimes to be unpredictable, there are a number of possible developments in the Russian leadership that could drastically alter Russia’s policy regarding Nord Stream 1 in either direction.
On the one hand, historically, Russian policy has consistently tried to maintain a reputation as a reliable gas supplier in Western Europe, and it cannot be ruled out that Moscow will revert course to compensate for the devastating long-term damage of sanctions to the Russian economy. The EU has long been the most important buyer of Russian energy, generating an income stream that has long been crucial for the regime in Moscow to maintain popular support, coopt elites, and maintain its formidable security and military apparatus.
Notably, Russian policymakers have thus far consistently maintained that the stoppage is not political in nature. While the narrative has failed to convince, abstaining from overt blackmail affords the Kremlin the option to resume gas deliveries without admitting that it tried and failed at gaining wide-ranging concessions.
However, some evidence from Russian elites suggest that Putin seems to be willing and ready for an elongated war of attrition with the West, probably counting on help from non-Western states, especially China. Regardless of how such a confrontation would actually develop, it cannot be ruled out that Putin and those around him hold this belief and stick to it, as the initial invasion has clearly shown that Russian intelligence services’ assessments have been flawed and it is unclear if they have since improved. Furthermore, ever since the mid-2000s, the Russian regime has displayed an increasing willingness to accept costs and risks in pursuit of its goals.
For now, various factors stabilize German policy toward Ukraine and Russia. Trends in public opinion, decoupling and saving efforts, and the embeddedness of German policy in EU and NATO structures render German policy resilient toward Russian gas manipulations. However, this trend could well change due to continuously high energy prices, changing fortunes on the battlefield, and shifting Russian policy. Policymakers would therefore be well-advised to double down on efforts to ensure solidarity in how Germany deals with energy prices and seek to transform the Russo-Ukrainian conflict into a less violent and volatile state while maintaining support for Ukraine’s legitimate goals and grievances.