(CN) — European politics are heading toward a moment of reckoning and it all has to do with a 764-mile natural gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea that may or may not ever get used.
The Nord Stream 2 pipeline is one of the European Union's most politically charged and explosive topics, forcing Europe to deal with clashing economic, environmental, social and political problems — all of them wrapped in very real concerns over Russia and a potential the gas line could escalate the conflict in Ukraine.
The pipeline, running between a remote bay on the border between Estonia and Russia and a coastal town in eastern Germany, is only about 90 miles from completion. It complements its twin sister, Nord Stream 1, a previous — and also controversial — gas line in the Baltic Sea that started pumping gas from Russia to Germany in 2012.
Together, the two lines will be capable of delivering about 110 billion cubic meters of gas a year to Europe, which represents nearly a quarter of the roughly 470 billion cubic meters the EU consumes a year.
The $11.5 billion project is a joint venture between Gazprom, the state-controlled Russian gas giant, and several European energy corporations — France's Engie, Austria’s OMV, Royal Dutch Shell, the British and Dutch giant and Germany's Uniper and Wintershall DEA.
In theory, Russian gas could start flowing through Nord Stream 2 later this year and in turn open what some fear will be a Pandora's box because the pipeline could unshackle Russia and give it new operating room to exert itself in Europe, especially in Ukraine.
To understand how a pipeline in the Baltic Sea could potentially lead to conflict in Ukraine and why it is causing so much political turmoil not just in Europe but also in the United States, a step back in history is in order.
Oil and gas production in the Soviet Union first developed at large scale in Ukraine because it possessed fossil fuel deposits. As Ukraine's limited resources were exhausted, new gas fields were discovered farther east and eventually in Siberia.
Nonetheless, Ukraine grew to become the center of Soviet Union's oil and gas production because it was there where the U.S.S.R concentrated heavy industries that needed cheap gas to be competitive.
By the 1960s, the origins of today's Nord Stream controversy can be seen starting.
With the discovery of massive oil and gas fields in the U.S.S.R, Western Europe saw a new opportunity. Countries like West Germany, France and Italy both wanted that energy for their own use and also profited mightily by supplying the Soviet Union with the steel and technologies it needed to extract, pump and export gas and oil to Western Europe.
By the early 1980s, the collaboration between Western European businesses and banks and the Soviet Union culminated with a plan to build a Trans-Siberian pipeline — the Urengoy-Pomary-Uzhgorod project — with its terminus in Ukraine. From Ukraine, Siberian gas was to be pumped into Western Europe.
Besides the economic benefits, Western European policymakers also viewed dependency on oil from the Middle East's OPEC nations as perilous, especially following the 1973 oil embargo.
Many Europeans also argued that doing business with the Soviets was a way to ease tensions — an approach known in German as Wandel durch Annäherung, or “change through rapprochement,” and championed by Social Democratic German Chancellor Willy Brandt, who famously kneeled in December 1970 in a gesture of reconciliation and penance at a Warsaw Ghetto Uprising monument dedicated to the victims of Nazism.
But the United States looked upon Western Europe's cooperation with the U.S.S.R. on gas projects with alarm. In 1962, the U.S. Senate held secret hearings on the matter.