Trump’s Russian affair spills over and upsets Europe

8 July 2017. Hamburg, Germany. German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel in conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit. (Photo: Bundesregierung/Kugler).

The turmoil in the American political system, caused by President Donald Trump’s Russian affair is having spillovers in Europe. Of course, it’s not the first time that Trump and his out of control political ‘inspirations’ instigate trouble for the Old Continent and the rest of the world. This time however, the US Congress prepares new aggressive legislation against Russia, in a distinct step to counter Trump’s pro-Russian openings. In this way, the conflict between Trump and the Congress about the Russian connection, is now seriously threatening Europe’s political symmetry. Let’s try to read between the news headlines.

Unfortunately, this week, the new sanctions against Moscow which the American legislators in the Senate and the House of Representatives are preparing, are bound to seriously harm the economic relations between the EU and Russia and more precisely the Berlin – Moscow energy links. Brussels and Moscow relations are not currently at their best. Western Europeans have never accepted and will not swallow the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by the Russians. To be reminded, on 18 March 2014, in the peak of the Ukrainian civil war, the Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to incorporate the Ukrainian province of Crimea in the Russian Federation.

Precarious equilibrium

Some months before this aggressive move, Moscow plotted the capture of this Ukrainian soil by a Russian army, which bore no insignia at all. Ostentatiously, they were Crimean ‘patriots’ who wanted their county to join ‘mother Russia’. At least this is what the Kremlin had said at the time. The historical truth is though that until 1954 Crimea was a Russian province. The then Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev though suddenly decided to make Crimea a ‘gift’, to the then ‘sister’ socialist republic of Ukraine. At that time, this transfer didn’t mean much, because Russia along with Ukraine and the other socialist republics belonged the USSR, under the iron grip of Moscow.

Still, what Putin did in 2014 was a unilateral redrafting of the European map, and as such couldn’t be accepted by the two major Western European powers, Germany and France. From that moment onwards, the EU, in close consultation with the US, both imposed similar trade and other kind of sanctions on Russia and on some Russian citizens, directly implicated in the annexation of Crimea.

However, those punitive measures never questioned the huge supplies of Russian natural gas to Germany and other EU member states. In many respects those supplies are indispensable for the smooth functioning of many EU economies and despite the efforts to diversify their energy supply sources they are still dependent on Russian natural gas, especially in winter.

Scratching old wounds

Conversely now, Republican and Democrat legislators together have prepared new rules to effectively oppose President Trump’s openings to Russia, by punishing Moscow with too harsh sanctions. They have agreed to pass the new law with such a majority, as to make it impossible for the President to veto it.

The new rules among other things will punish the German firms which are currently building a second gas pipeline, transferring Russian natural gas to Germany and then to central Europe. In general, whoever collaborates with Russia will be targeted by the US authorities. When the details of the new American legislation became known, Berlin reacted strongly, threatening with retaliatory countermeasures. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel didn’t hide her frustration about that.

Brussels and Berlin

Brussels’ reaction though was more moderate. For one thing, this North Stream 2 gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea, jointly owned by German firms and the Russian giant Gazprom has attracted criticism even within the EU, including France. At least theoretically the European Union is supposed to do whatever it takes to diversify its natural gas supplies away from Russia, to other producers. Nevertheless, Berlin doesn’t seem to bother much about that. The issue has been haunting the Franco-German relations for a long time.

Under this light, a Commission Press release spoke of “unintended consequences” from the new Senate legislation. According to Reuters, the Commission also said that “We understand that the Russia/Iran sanctions bill is driven primarily by domestic considerations.” According to the same source “EU diplomats are concerned that a German-U.S. row over the North Stream 2 pipeline being built by Russia’s state-owned Gazprom could complicate efforts in Brussels to forge an EU consensus on negotiating with Russia over the project”.

To be noted, initially, the new trade and other punitive measures were intended against Iran. Then North Korea was added to the outcasts to be punished. The Republican and Democrat legislators, though, who oppose Trump’s Putin openings, found the opportunity this week to include Russia in the bill, despite strong opposition from the President.

Unintentional catastrophe

Evidently the American legislators are now threatening, very likely unintentionally, to deeply disturb Europe and give new dimensions to an old divisive issue. The Northern Stream 2 gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea is a flagrant case of Germany being caught paying no attention to basic EU policy priorities. Berlin, instead of diversifying its supplies of natural gas away from Russia, now builds a second pipeline together with Gazprom to transport more Russian gas to Western Europe.

In short, the spillovers of the multifaceted issue of the relations between Russia and Trump’s team – both back in the electoral period of 2016 as well as now in government – is seriously disturbing the rest of the world. If the Congress decides that the new and harsher sanctions meant for Iran are also to be applied to Russia, the whole world will feel the heat. No need to say that Moscow has already threatened with retaliatory measures against the US and has said that this leads the relations between the two countries to uncharted waters.

 

 

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