Europe’s relations with Russia are at their lowest point in decades. At the same time, the Continent’s buying more Russian natural gas than ever. Europe vowed to free itself from the Russian stranglehold on its energy supply, after gas shipments headed west were twice disrupted. Now a plan to double Russian gas shipments to Germany, the biggest buyer, through a new pipeline is dividing European leaders and becoming a growing worry for the U.S. There are fears the links will enhance Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ability to use natural gas to squeeze critics and reward allies.
Europe last year purchased record volumes of gas, worth $38 billion, from Russia’s Gazprom PJSC, in part to make up for depleted fields in the U.K. and the Netherlands. Natural gas provides about 22 percent of Europe’s energy mix; about a third of that comes from Russia. Construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline under the Baltic Sea to Germany will begin this year, led by Gazprom and partly financed by European energy companies. A group of 39 U.S. senators wrote to President Donald Trump asking him to block the project, saying it would make American allies “more susceptible to Moscow’s coercion and malign influence.” Poland, Slovakia and other countries that host existing pipelines are also opposed, warning that the plan will tighten Russia’s hold over the region by giving it the capacity to bypass countries at will, including Ukraine. Russia has been locked in conflict with Ukraine since 2014, when a pro-Russian president there was forced from power and Russia seized the country’s Crimean Peninsula. The aggression triggered U.S. and European sanctions against Russia. More recently, the U.K. said it would seek to secure gas from other sources after blaming Russia for the nerve-agent poisoning of a former spy in England in March. The Kremlin has denied involvement.