BERLIN -- Germany's foreign minister on Wednesday defended proceeding with a new undersea gas pipeline from Russia that faces strong opposition from the U.S. and eastern Europe, arguing that scrapping it could have adverse geopolitical consequences.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas' comments came as the German government sidestepped questions over a leaked letter indicating that it offered to help facilitate the import of U.S. liquefied natural gas if Washington dropped the threat of sanctions over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
The leak prompted lawmakers to summon Finance Minister Olaf Scholz from a meeting about coronavirus measures to attend a debate in parliament about Russia.
Scholz allegedly wrote a letter to then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in August saying Germany was “willing to considerably increase its financial support for LNG infrastructure and import capacities by up to 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion)” if, in return, the United States “allows the unhindered construction and operation of Nord Stream 2.”
The letter was published this week by the group Environmental Action Germany and matches reports by Germany weekly Die Zeit last September that Berlin was seeking to fend off U.S. opposition to the pipeline by offering to boost imports of U.S. gas.
German government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer declined to comment on the letter, saying any correspondence on the issue was confidential. She said Berlin is “in contact with the U.S. government” about sanctions and the threat of sanctions. Those measures have delayed completion of the pipeline.
Demmer added, however, that the government had “acted in a coordinated way” over the issue in the past — suggesting that other ministries and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been involved in the discussion.
Scholz didn’t speak in parliament but Maas -- a member of his center-left Social Democrats -- accused the opposition Greens of playing for “sanctimonious spectacle” by forcing his appearance over “an event that has been public since last September.”
Maas also strongly defended sticking by the pipeline project.
“Anyone who fundamentally questions Nord Stream 2 -- and you can certainly advocate that opinion -- must also consider, at least geostrategically, what consequences that will have and what that means for Europe’s abilities to influence Russia,” Maas said.
A “complete economic isolation” of Russia, together with a “decoupling” from China, would push those two countries ever closer together, “and I don’t think that should be the strategy of the West,” he said. “So I am against tearing down all bridges to Russia in this context.”
Scholz is running to succeed Merkel in September's national election. His party, the junior partner in her coalition government, has been outspoken in its support for Nord Stream 2 even as some other parties have edged away from the project in light of Germany's strained ties with Russia over the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, the alleged killing in Berlin of a Georgian by a Russian government hitman, and the conflict in Ukraine.
Maas said that sanctions against Russia “must hit the right people” — those who are responsible for repression — “and not employees of nearly 150 European companies, most of them from Germany.” Nord Stream 2 is owned by Russian state company Gazprom, with investment from several European companies.
Separately, comments by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier drawing a link between Nord Stream 2 and Germany's debt over World War II have raised hackles in Ukraine and Poland.
Both countries, which object to the pipeline because it bypasses them, noted that their countries were also victims of the Nazis, and just as deserving as Russia of such consideration.
Steinmeier had told daily Rheinische Post that Germany needed to keep in mind its eventful history with Russia. “There were phases of fruitful partnership, but even more times of terrible bloodshed,” he said, citing the 20 million people who died in the Soviet Union during World War II.
“That doesn't justify mistakes in Russian policy today, but we mustn't lose sight of the bigger picture,” said Steinmeier.
German news agency dpa on Wednesday quoted a letter from Ukraine’s ambassador to Berlin, Andrij Melnyk, saying Steinmeier’s comments in an interview last week “hit us Ukrainians deep in the heart.”
Melnyk accused the German president, whose role is largely ceremonial, of ignoring the fact that millions of the Nazis' Soviet victims were Ukrainians.
Polish deputy foreign minister Pawel Jablonski argued that “Nord Stream 2 is the worst form of compensation.”
He said that completion of the pipeline would effectively put Ukraine at Russia's mercy and the European Union “should never agree to continuing this project, especially in the wake of what is happening to Mr. Navalny.”
Vanessa Gera in Warsaw contributed to this report.