The chief executive of Ukrainian state energy giant Naftogaz says it is absurd for Nord Stream 2 not to be among the top priorities of international talks with the Kremlin, repeating his call for further sanctions on the gas pipeline to deter another Russian incursion.
His comments come shortly after a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council on Wednesday. It was the second high-level meeting this week between Western officials and Russia after high-profile talks between the U.S. and Kremlin officials on Monday. A further meeting is taking place at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Vienna Thursday.
Talks are taking to try to defuse a crisis triggered by the mass gathering of Russian troops near Ukraine, although the way forward remains unclear, and Moscow has warned the situation is “very dangerous.”
Speaking to CNBC’s Hadley Gamble in Kyiv, Ukraine on Thursday, Naftogaz CEO Yuriy Vitrenko said he had been surprised to see that Nord Stream 2 did not appear to be a central part of the discussions.
“It is really difficult to understand how come it can be unnoticed or it bears no consequences? That is something that should come first, so first they should sanction Nord Stream 2. They should show again their firm stance to Putin,” Vitrenko said.
“And, for example, if somebody wants to discuss some further actions if there is further aggression on the Russian side, they should be talking about Nord Stream 1. So, I’m not saying that Nord Stream 2 is the only thing that should be on the agenda, but it should come first just to show that the West is serious.”
Vitrenko said a package of additional sanctions should then be prepared if Russia is to invade Ukraine.
The Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is not yet operational, is designed to deliver Russian gas directly to Germany via the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine and Poland. The $11 billion project is owned by Russia’s state-backed energy giant Gazprom and seeks to double the existing capacity of Nord Stream 1.
Critics argue the pipeline is not compatible with European climate goals, deepens the region’s dependence on Russian energy exports and will most likely strengthen Russian President Vladimir Putin’s economic and political influence over the region.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, leading the U.S. delegation at the various talks this week, told reporters on Wednesday that Russia’s behavior toward Ukraine would play a key role in the fate of the gas pipeline.
“From our perspective, it’s very hard to see gas flowing through the pipeline or for it to become operational if Russia renews its aggression on Ukraine,” Sherman said shortly after the NATO-Russia Council.
However, German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht has cautioned against drawing a link between Nord Stream 2 and the heightened tensions between Russia and its neighbor of Ukraine.
“We need to solve this conflict, and we need to solve it in talks — that’s the opportunity that we have at the moment, and we should use it rather than draw a link to projects that have no connection to this conflict,” Lambrecht told the German broadcaster RBB on Thursday, Reuters reported.
Russia incursion into Ukraine ‘rather likely’
Ukraine, a former Soviet Republic that is something of a frontier between Russia and the rest of Europe, has ambitions to join the EU and potentially even become a member of the Western military alliance of NATO.
Russia is vehemently opposed to this prospect. The Kremlin has demanded the U.S. prevent a further eastward expansion of NATO and must not allow former Soviet states to join the alliance.
Kyiv’s relations with Russia plummeted in 2014 after Moscow annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine and supported pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Thursday reaffirmed the group’s “open door policy” and the right for each country to choose its own security arrangements. He said both Russia and NATO were prepared to resume talks following a “very serious and direct exchange” on the situation in and around Ukraine.
Vitrenko told CNBC on Thursday that a Russian incursion into Ukraine appeared “rather likely”, before adding that he was still hopeful the West would stand firm against any possible act of aggression.
“I’m not in a position to teach the U.S. government how to do again its international negotiations,” Vitrenko said when asked whether American officials should be taking a tougher line with their Russian counterparts.
“My personal experience in dealing with Putin is that you can only make him do the right thing if you are prepared to confront Russia,” he added. “So, they understand only strong positions in negotiations, so unless you are ready to show that you have a strong position [and] you prepare in advance, you have no chance to win against Putin.”
— CNBC’s Holly Ellyatt contributed to this report.