Seaside resorts are always curious places during the winter, but Lubmin, on Germany’s northern coast, is odder than most.
For one thing, it really does feel empty. The streets are dotted with houses, but there is nobody around.
For another, there is a decommissioned East German nuclear power plant not far from the harbour.
And thirdly, Lubmin is home to just about the most controversial building project in the world.
For here, in a turning off the main road, you can find the place where Nord Stream 2 pops up from the earth – a mass of long, wide pipes that emerge from the ground and then get funnelled off in various directions.
Explainer: How the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has been controversial from the start
Not heard of it? You will.
Nord Stream 2 is a pipeline that connects Russia with Germany, capable of bringing in enough natural gas to power around 26 million households.
It is, depending on your perspective, either a commercial triumph that secures Germany’s energy security for years to come, or a warning sign of how Russia can exploit its natural resources to beguile western governments.
It might well be both.
Germany’s pivot away from nuclear power stations
By the end of this year, Germany will have closed all its nuclear power stations and will lean ever more on natural gas as it grows its renewable energy sector.
Nord Stream 2, combined with the earlier Nord Stream 1 pipeline, are designed to ensure that supply.
Building the second pipeline has long been controversial.
While former chancellor Angela Merkel insisted it was simply a commercial venture, much of the rest of the world has seen it as a geopolitical exercise by the Kremlin.
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Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko criticises Germany over lack of support for Ukraine
Certainly, the pipeline creates a sense of dependency upon Russia, which is awkward at the best of times but all the more inflammatory when Russian troops are massing on the Ukrainian border.
Viewed from a bank on the other side of the road, Nord Stream 2 is the sort of thing you could drive past with just a shrug of curiosity.
It’s a mass of steel, concrete and low-rise buildings.
For the moment, with the pipeline yet to start work, it is still. And yet this building is loaded with political weight.
Germany to defy NATO?
NATO allies have no desire for a military conflict with Russia.
Instead, their plan for deterring, or punishing, President Vladimir Putin revolves around the spectre of punitive economic sanctions and an obvious target would be Russia’s lucrative energy sector.
So that’s the problem for Germany. Imposing sanctions on Russia could mean disrupting its own energy supplies or even shuttering Nord Stream 2 for good.
Olaf Scholz, the relatively newly-elected chancellor, was reluctant to agree and his hesitancy reverberated around the world.
By the time he agreed to support the sanctions proposals, Germany had been castigated by politicians in America, Britain, Poland and beyond.
“I do think the backlash against the German position does register and it has influenced the position of the government to now put sanctions on the table,” says Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute, a think tank based in Berlin.
“As a nation, we are reputation-sensitive. Nord Stream 2 is now on the table in terms of sanctions.
“It has taken a long time – a few weeks ago the chancellor was reluctant to put it on the table but now he’s confirmed that if Russia does attack Ukraine then that could have consequences for Nord Stream.”
It was that specific hesitation that spooked people – the idea that Germany, the richest nation in the European Union, might not join a NATO sanctions programme.
‘Irritating’ statement has created a ‘disastrous’ image of Germany
Even now, after Chancellor Scholz has conceded that he would accept sanctions, the point has had to be reinforced repeatedly, most recently by his foreign minister Annalena Baerbock. Trust has been tarnished.
Its defenders would say that Germany is in a curious, delicate position.
Lubmin, for instance, stands in land that was, until a few decades ago, East Germany, and there are millions of Germans who grew up under Communist control, looking towards Moscow as their political hub.
Similarly, there is a theory that Germany retains a deep-rooted guilt over the suffering it imposed upon Russia during the Second World War.
Certainly, the shame of that conflict still moulds an engrained desire to favour diplomatic negotiations over military conflict.
While other NATO members talk of sending weapons to Ukraine, Germany has sent thousands of helmets and has blocked the export of German-made weapons from Estonia, even though the weapons in question are aged howitzers that date back to the days of East Germany.
Thomas Erndl believes that “irritating statements” have led to a “disastrous image” emerging of Germany.
As an opposition politician from the CSU party, he might be expected to be critical. But he is also the vice chairman of Germany’s highly-respected foreign affairs committee, and he is sure that his country is getting things wrong.
“I think the government should revisit its position and think about supplying weapons to Ukraine,” he tells me.
“We need to increase Ukraine’s defence capabilities. If the government cannot go that far then at least they should allow other countries to supply deliveries.
“When Germany was, in the past, on the front line in the Cold War, we could rely on others. Now it is up to us to support the countries on the frontline.
“We need to get that message into our people so they know what’s up and why it’s important to support the Ukrainians.”
Ukrainians in Germany feel ‘powerless’
We meet a group of Ukrainians in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate, where soldiers from East and West once stared at each other.
They are nervous about their home country and irritated that Germany is not doing more. And they want to talk.
Anton Dorokh is a filmmaker, originally, from Donetsk, says: “For us, it seems that we have an enemy on one side and the allies on the other and then we see them doing business together and we’re like – what’s going on?
“You’re supposed to be supporting us.
“We are like the allies, the friends, and we’re not getting the support.
“We are very sad but also feel quite powerless at this point. What should we do?”
Next to him, Kathryna Chernii, a student from Kyiv, nods.
“The German government has to show a clear position in this situation with Russia and Ukraine,” she says.
“It has not only about talks, not only concerns, but also active things that they can do – financial support, also support with supplies.”
Lilia Usik, a defence and security analyst, worries about her family at home in Donbas.
She says her young sister is “traumatised”, and wants Germany to take action.
“I think we need sanctions on Russia and to increase these sanctions and to show with all measures and possibilities that with every Russian aggressive step on the Ukrainian border, there will be a harsh and quick answer.”
And that, of course, takes us back to that road on the edge of Lubmin, and the gas pipeline that snakes from the Baltic Sea and emerges from the German soil.
Nord Stream 2 is a symbol of how political decisions can become toxic and of how Germany’s relationship with Russia has fallen under microscopic attention.
And now that scrutiny has started, Chancellor Scholz will be aware that it won’t end any time soon.
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