The state of the Nord Stream project is a good symbol of the critical danger that the war in Ukraine poses to the world, particularly Europe, and the pace at which the crisis is escalating.
Before the war, the programme was one of the most important of its kind globally. First, there was Nord Stream 1, a 1,200-kilometre gas pipeline that stretches from the west of Russia to north-eastern Germany. Then there was Nord Stream 2, a second pipeline that also goes through the Baltic Sea and into Germany. Construction finished last September, but it has never been, and now probably never will be, put to use.
At the outbreak of the Ukraine war German Chancellor Olaf Scholz who many Russia hawks feared would be too emollient towards the Kremlin, announced the scrapping of Nord Stream 2. On Friday, an even more dramatic decision was taken by Gazprom, Russia’s majority state-owned energy company, after it announced that Nord Stream 1 would be switched off indefinitely.
It will be interpreted by many as a further escalation at an already critical point. It was not the only one that day. It came mere hours after G7 countries agreed a price cap on Russian energy.
Everything must be done to stop this new wave of tensions escalating. Nord Stream might appear over, but its legacy is not. Some analysts postulate that Russia and the West are at war in an economic sense. This does not have to be the case, and there is still room for diplomacy. It must be seized, most importantly for the sake of Ukrainians, who are enduring terrible suffering, whether physically or through the mental trauma of war and being forced to flee home. Around 7 million Ukrainian refugees have been registered across Europe.
It must also be seized for the economic, political and security wellbeing of Europe. Across the continent energy bills are set to soar to potentially catastrophic levels, particularly as winter approaches, with the poorest set to suffer the most. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has nonetheless declared that energy troubles are a small price to pay if it means averting a “fully fledged world war”. Many European households may not see their incredibly high bills that way.
Western governments are scrambling for solutions. France has announced that it will re-start 32 dormant nuclear power stations and Germany is firing up previously mothballed coal-fired plants, adding to fears that the conflict is unravelling climate goals. In May, the US presidential climate envoy, John Kerry, said that if the conflict drags on, international targets to limit global warming to below 1.5C compared to pre-industrial levels will become harder to meet.
Russia, too, would gain from a diplomatic solution. Western sanctions are hurting its economy and the prospects of its young people. Accidents and miscalculations could endanger the lives of Russians close to the fighting, and for both nations and even the wider continent fighting at the Zaporizhzhia power plant risks a nuclear disaster.
From the battlefield to beyond, the war has given plenty of dramatic headlines. What is happening with Nord Stream 1 could well turn out to be one of the most consequential. While it might seem hard to picture in the thick of the crisis, this could be a moment to kickstart a genuine diplomatic process to end the conflict. A swift conclusion is key. It would stop terrible violence and suffering, secure international food supplies and stabilise the global economy more generally.
Or, the indefinite suspension of Nord Stream 1 could be the moment things start to get even worse, the most terrible scenario being escalation into a conflict that drags in other states. Disruption to the pipeline is traumatic. But nothing is more traumatic than war, and however bitter feelings might be after Friday’s announcement, securing peace must still remain the priority. Only a diplomatic resolution can do that.