Either mainline Russian gas or stick up for Ukraine, Boris Johnson tells Europe

European nations must choose between “mainlining” Russian gas and defending peace in Ukraine, Boris Johnson said on Monday amid escalating tensions with the Kremlin.

The Prime Minister’s message, contained in his pre-written Mansion House speech, appeared especially aimed at Germany, which has championed the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, has pushed ahead with the gas pipeline between Russia and Europe, despite US and UK opposition, but will soon be leaving office.

The intervention came as Russian troops continued to gather near Ukraine, prompting fears of an imminent invasion, and tensions over migration escalated at the Polish-Belarus border.

A flurry of calls between European leaders about the stand-offs took place on Monday, with Ukraine claiming that nearly 100,000 Russian troops have gathered at its border.

Emmanuel Macron, the French President, told Vladimir Putin in a call that France would “defend the territorial integrity of Ukraine”.

Mr Johnson said in a press conference on Monday that he would stand “shoulder-to-shoulder” with European allies against Russian aggression.

The Nord Stream 2 pipeline

Nord Stream 2

However, in his speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, Mr Johnson also included a coded warning to European leaders over Nord Stream 2.

He said: “When we say that we support the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine that is not because we want to be adversarial to Russia, or that we want in some way strategically to encircle or undermine that great country.

“And never let it be forgotten, in this season of remembrance, that it was Russian blood that enabled us to defeat Nazism.

“It is because we have a commitment to democracy and freedom that is shared now across the vast mass of the European continent. And when our Polish friends asked for our help to deal with a contrived crisis on their border with Belarus, we were quick to respond.

“And we hope that our friends may recognise that a choice is shortly coming between mainlining ever more Russian hydrocarbons in giant new pipelines, and sticking up for Ukraine and championing the cause of peace and stability, let me put it that way.”

Angela Merkel, pictured with Joe Biden, has pushed ahead with the gas pipeline between Russia and Europe, despite US and UK opposition

Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

That last comment was interpreted as a message about Nord Stream 2, which would run from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea and is being proposed by Gazprom, a Russian energy company.

The pipeline, which has been planned for more than a decade, retains the backing of the German leadership but has been criticised by political leaders in the US and the UK.

Critics say it could undermine Ukraine, which remains gripped in civil war, because it currently gets transit fees from existing pipelines which run through the country and could be circumvented.

There are also concerns that the pipeline would increase European reliance on gas from Russia, the prices of which Mr Putin has shown he is willing to manipulate for geopolitical purposes.

Ms Merkel is due to stand down as German Chancellor once coalition talks among German political parties have reached an agreement and a new administration is formed. Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat, is widely expected to succeed her.

The change in leadership theoretically opens the door to a change in policy on Russian gas, though that remains unclear. Meanwhile, Nord Stream 2 is yet to get its final sign off.

Some European political leaders other than in Germany have been lukewarm about the pipeline in the past. 

Germany will have final sign-off on the project, meaning Mr Johnson’s message could be interpreted as a call for other European nations to apply pressure on Berlin. 

‘Solidarity with our friends in Poland’

Mr Johnson’s reference to tensions at the Polish-Border being “contrived” referred to the thousands of migrants that remain camped on at the Belarus side for a second week.

Polish politicians, and now the Prime Minister, have suggested the stand-off is being orchestrated by Mr Putin and Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko. 

Mr Macron’s warning to Mr Putin on Monday, the hardest line a Western leader has taken in the latest stand-off, reflects the level of concern about the Russian military build-up by Ukraine.

Ms Merkel also spoke with Mr Lukashenko of Belarus for about an hour about the border crisis, according to Belarusian state media.

At a Downing Street press conference on coronavirus the Prime Minister, when asked about the border tensions, expressed “solidarity with our friends in Poland”.

He added: "We would encourage everyone to work for peace and stability in the European region. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our friends across the whole region – Estonia, Poland.”

Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, will visit Poland this week in a trip that will be seen as sending a public signal of support to Warsaw.

Mr Wallace told the House of Commons that the way migrants in Belarus had been treated was “a tragedy and actually a disgrace”.

He noted that a group of about 10 Royal Engineers are in Poland to see if the UK can help strengthen the Polish-Belarus border.

Mr Wallace added: “At the same time, I think on the diplomatic channels we must make very clear that this is unacceptable behaviour. It is a hybrid destabilising method deployed by too many countries with human beings being trafficked.”

Elsewhere in his Mansion House speech, Mr Johnson announced new ambitions for the UK to build a quantum computer as he said it was time to “go big” on the technology, which is only in its nascent development.

Mr Johnson said: “I am setting the ambition that the UK will aim to build a general purpose quantum computer, and secure the single biggest share of a global quantum computing market by 2040.”

‘Negotiated’ solutions to Northern Ireland Protocol possible

Mr Johnson last night also said it would be reasonable for the UK to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, even as he stressed he favoured a “negotiated” deal to ease trade tensions there.

The Prime Minister said: “We would rather find a negotiated solution to the problems created by the Northern Ireland Protocol and that still seems possible.

“But if we do invoke Article 16 – which, by the way, is a perfectly legitimate part of that Protocol – we will do so reasonably and appropriately because we believe it is the only way left to protect the territorial integrity of our country and to meet our obligations to the people of Northern Ireland under the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.”

The remarks are a new phrasing of a familiar position from the UK Government – that the conditions for triggering Article 16 have been met, even as hope remains for a new agreement to emerge from talks with the EU.

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