View of pipe systems and shut-off devices at the gas receiving station of the Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea pipeline.  | Stefan Sauer/picture alliance via Getty Images

Nord Stream 2 is looming over escalating Russian-Ukraine tensions.

Russia has gathered troops along the Ukrainian border, Washington and Moscow engaged in a week of high-stakes negotiations, and NATO and European allies are trying to avoid a conflict that seems more likely by the day.

In this frightening morass, there’s one low-key wild card: a long-running energy infrastructure project that some consider an economic project, others consider a geopolitical tool of Russia, and that is a combination of all of those and more.

The project in question is Nord Stream 2, an $11 billion Russian-owned pipeline that has Washington in a difficult position with some of its European allies, divided other European countries among themselves, and weakened Ukraine.

When it’s up and running, Nord Stream 2 will bring natural gas from Russia to Europe. It is laid alongside Nord Stream 1, which flows from Russia along the Baltic Sea and directly into Germany. Experts said the pipeline will not dramatically increase Russian natural gas imports to Europe, but it could reroute it — meaning more natural gas will flow directly to Germany and potentially bypass other existing pipelines that run through other European countries. Most significantly, Ukraine.

The United States sees the pipeline as a Russian geopolitical tool to undermine Europe’s energy and national security. Ukraine definitely sees it this way too and wants the pipeline stopped. Once Nord Stream 2 is online, Russia will no longer need to pay transit fees to send gas through Ukraine, and both Russia and Europe have less need to rely on the pipeline that runs through Ukraine. “The thinking is that as long as that remains a critical transit corridor for Russian supplies to get to market, Russia maybe is less likely to...

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