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Canada caught between allies as Germany presses for return of Russian turbine

Canada faces a tough choice this weekend between angering Germany and offending Ukraine as it ponders the fate of a large turbine that has been undergoing repairs in the workshops of Siemens Energy Canada.

The turbine normally drives gas through the Nord Stream One pipeline that runs from Russia to Germany. Last month, while undergoing scheduled maintenance at a Siemens Energy facility in Montreal, the turbine was caught up in sanctions the Trudeau government brought against its owner, Russian oil and gas giant Gazprom.

Russia responded by cutting the flow of gas through the pipeline by 60 per cent. It has said since that unless the turbine is returned by Monday, July 11, it will not restore normal flow.

That poses a serious problem for the German government, which is struggling to fill the nation’s storage tanks to get through the coming winter. Some other European countries, such as Italy, face similar problems.

On Friday, Germany began rationing hot water, dimming street lights and closing swimming pools as it faces the prospect of energy shortages that could leave its people shivering and its businesses shuttered this winter.

Germany pleads ‘with heavy heart’

Robert Habeck, Germany’s finance minister and deputy chancellor, has acknowledged that his country made a “grievous mistake” when it allowed itself to become so dependent on Russian energy. But Habeck said Berlin now has no choice but to ask Canada to override its sanctions and return the turbine.

“It is with a heavy heart that we had to ask for this,” he told Bloomberg News.

“If it’s a legal question for Canada, I want to make clear that I’m not asking them to deliver it to Russia, but to bring it to Germany.”

canada caught between allies as germany presses for return of russian turbine
The German government acknowledges Russian President Vladimir Putin may be using the turbine as a pretext for energy blackmail. (Gleb Garanich/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images)

Habeck acknowledged that the turbine may simply be a pretext Russian President Vladimir Putin is using to blackmail Germany with energy shortages. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has openly said the same. But Habeck said Germany still wants the turbine to put that theory to the test.

“If we want to take this road of excuses away from [Putin], I’m calling on the Canadian government not to wait too long and make the decision before the maintenance period starts” on Monday, he said. “Otherwise, I’m quite sure that Putin will find a political problem in the pipeline.”

Siemens Energy says sanctions still stand

There were reports from Berlin on Friday that Canada had decided already to accede to Germany’s request.

CBC News asked a spokesperson for Siemens Energy Canada about those reports. “That’s the first I’ve heard of it,” said Ann Adair.

“No change,” she added. “We continue to stick to the sanctions.”

Adair also said that merely delivering the turbine to Germany rather than to Gazprom would not be enough to get around the sanctions. She said Siemens would expect to see the matter dealt with through a formal sanctions exemption, justified on humanitarian grounds by Germany’s energy needs.

Federal Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said Friday that “it’s not simple and we have not made a decision, but we certainly are talking with our friends, Ukraine and Germany.”

Kyiv to Canada: Don’t give in 

Canada is getting pressure from both Berlin and Kyiv. Ukraine’s embassy in Canada issued a statement on Friday, saying “we are aware of the dialogue between Canada and Germany regarding the Siemens turbine and do hope that the Government of Canada will ensure full integrity of the current sanctions regime.”

The government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been severely critical of Germany, accusing it of being too dependent on Russian energy and too lukewarm in its support for Ukraine. It has complained bitterly that, since Russia invaded its territory on Feb. 24, Europe has sent much more money to Russia in energy payments than it has given to Ukraine to spend on its defence.

canada caught between allies as germany presses for return of russian turbine 1
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky watches Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greet an unidentified Ukrainian soldier as the two leaders arrive for a joint press conference in Kyiv on May 8. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

Ukraine is keen to cut Russia’s energy exports to Europe in order to reduce what it sees as the Kremlin’s leverage over governments like Germany’s. It would view the return of the turbine and a restoration of normal flow to Nord Stream One as actions strengthening the Kremlin’s grip.

Diaspora pressures 

The Ukrainian Canadian Congress wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and members of his cabinet Wednesday to say that the fate of the turbine is “a test of the resolve of the Government of Canada to maintain sanctions and to continue to isolate Russia.”

The letter points out that the German government itself has acknowledged that demands for the turbine’s return may simply be a manoeuvre to justify a decision the Kremlin already has taken.

“The Russian Federation is once again using energy as a weapon to sow discord among Ukraine’s allies,” wrote UCC president Alexandra Chyczij. “It is also clear that Russia seeks to set a precedent for the waiver of sanctions which will then be used to extract more waivers of sanctions and to undermine Western unity.

“Any waiver of Canadian sanctions would be viewed as a capitulation to Russian blackmail and energy terrorism. [It] would only serve to embolden the Russian terrorist state, with far-reaching and negative consequences not only for Ukraine or the European Union, but for Canadian security as well.”

canada caught between allies as germany presses for return of russian turbine 2
Minister of Natural Resources Jonathan Wilkinson: ‘The point of the sanctions was not to penalize our ally, Germany.’ (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Wilkinson seemed well aware of the pressure from both sides when he spoke to CBC News on Friday.

“We have to be sensitive, certainly, to the plight of the Ukrainians and the terrible suffering that is going on in Ukraine,” he said.

“We also have to be sensitive to the very legitimate economic concerns of the Germans, who are worried, to be honest with you, about not having fuel to heat their homes in the winter and not having fuel to be able to run the industrial parts of their economy, which would be a disaster for all of Europe if that were to happen.

“That pipeline supplies not only Germany but a number of other European countries with gas. And the government in Russia is using the turbine as an excuse to reduce flows of gas to Germany and to others.”

Wilkinson said Canada continues “to absolutely support the sanctions that we and others have put into place to try to ensure that Russia pays a price and ultimately will withdraw.”

“But the point of the sanctions was not to penalize our ally, Germany. It was not to try to collapse the economy of Germany and Italy and Slovakia and Austria. And so we are working to try to find a solution that will work for everybody.”

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