WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had an awkward exchange with a reporter Monday at the White House over the future of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

The discord at a press conference during Scholz’s first visit to the White House was brief and civil. But it also represented a rare public show of genuine friction in a relationship that serves as a cornerstone of European security.

The Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany was finished in September of last year, but it has yet to transport any actual gas.

Biden said Monday that Nord Stream 2 would be scrapped if Russia launches a military invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow’s troop movements strongly suggest is imminent. But Scholz refused to say the same.

“If Russia invades — that means tanks or troops crossing the border of Ukraine, again, then there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2,” Biden said at a joint press conference with Scholz. “We will bring an end to it.”

“But how will you do that exactly, since the project and control of the project is within Germany’s control?” asked Andrea Shalal of Reuters, who had posed the original question to Biden about Nord Stream.

“We will, I promise you, we’ll be able to do it,” Biden replied.

When the same question was put to Scholz, however, the German leader gave a very different answer.

“We have intensively prepared everything to be ready with the necessary sanctions if there is a military aggression against Ukraine,” he said, without mentioning Nord Stream. “It is part of the process that we do not spell out everything in public, because Russia should understand that there might be even more to come.”

“Will you commit today to turning off and pulling the plug on Nord Stream 2?” asked Shalal.

But Scholz would not. “As I already said, we are acting together. We are absolutely united and we will not be taking different steps,” he replied, ignoring Shalal’s question.

Workers are seen at the construction site of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, near the town of Kingisepp, Leningrad region, Russia, June 5, 2019.
Anton Vaganov | Reuters

Biden deeply opposes the massive gas pipeline project and Washington has for years lobbied Berlin not to increase its energy dependence on Russia.

Germany, however, views the pipeline as an essential delivery system for natural gas that Germany already buys from Russia, Europe’s number one supplier of both crude oil and natural gas.

The disconnect between Biden and Scholz offered a public glimpse at just one of the issues that have made it difficult so far for NATO allies to agree on the severity of sanctions that will be imposed on Moscow should Putin send the more than 100,000 troops he has amassed on the Russian-Ukrainian border into Ukraine’s territory.

The varying degrees of energy dependence on Russia among individual NATO members has been a major sticking point during the past month as the alliance has quietly sought to get on the same page when it comes to potential retaliation against Moscow if it invades Ukraine, which is not a member of NATO.

The exchange at the White House was also a reminder of how severely a Russian invasion could rattle global energy markets.

Specifically, analysts and investors fear that if NATO imposes punishing sanctions on Russia, then Russian President Vladimir Putin could decide to respond by cutting off oil and gas sales to NATO countries during the depths of winter.

Scholz’s visit to the White House was his first since succeeding scientist-stateswoman Angela Merkel nearly two months ago. But it comes at a time when Europe and the United States are grappling with the greatest threat to peace in Europe since the lead up to the Cold War.

For months, the U.S. and its Western allies have watched a stunning buildup of Kremlin forces along Ukraine’s border with Russia and Belarus.

The increased military presence mimics Russian moves ahead of its 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea, a peninsula on the Black Sea, which sparked international uproar and triggered sanctions against Moscow.

But this time, U.S. military analysts fear Russia could be planning a much more devastating invasion, up to and including an assault on the capital city of Kyiv, which is home to nearly 3 million civilians.

Amid the Kremlin’s deployment, the U.S. and European allies have repeatedly issued threats to impose swift and severe economic consequences if Putin orders an attack.

The Kremlin claims the troop movements are merely a military exercise, and spokesmen for Putin deny that Russia is preparing for an attack against Ukraine. 

Scholz’s visit comes as 2,000 U.S.-based troops deploy to Europe and another 1,000 U.S. service members already in the region move further east into Romania.

Last month, the Pentagon put 8,500 military personnel on “heightened alert” to deploy orders should NATO activate a response force.