Pipe-laying vessel reaches Baltic as Russia's Nord Stream 2 target looms

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A special pipe-laying vessel that could be used by Russia to complete construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany has arrived in the Baltic Sea, a Reuters witness said on Sunday.

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The arrival of the Academic Cherskiy suggests that the pipeline project remains a priority for Moscow despite U.S. sanctions on Russia.

The Nord Stream 2 pipeline was designed by Moscow to increase gas supplies via the Baltic Sea to Germany, Russia’s biggest energy customer. Russia’s energy ministry said in December that the pipeline was expected to be launched before the end of 2020.

Footage taken by Reuters from the coast showed the Academic Cherskiy idle in a bay near the Kaliningrad region, which is separated from Russia’s mainland and is sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.

The Academic Cherskiy, which Russian gas company Gazprom bought in 2016, was in the Russian Pacific port of Nakhodka in December when the United States imposed sanctions on Nord Stream 2.

The United States says the pipeline would make the continent too reliant for energy on Russia, leaving it in Moscow’s political grip. Washington has touted exports of U.S. liquefied natural gas, or LNG, to provide Europe with alternatives to gas pipelined from Russia.

As a result of the sanctions, the Swiss-Dutch company Allseas, which was laying the pipeline, suspended work on it. Russia then said it was preparing to use an alternative vessel for the project, as 160-km (100-mile) stretch near the Danish island of Bornholm has not yet been completed.

Russia did not name the vessel at the time but said it was docked at a port in its far east.

Another vessel that could potentially be used was in another location at the time, pointing to the use of the Academic Cherskiy.

It would take less than two days for the Academic Cherskiy to reach the Bornholm area from the Kaliningrad region if it started heading that way, according to a Reuters estimate.

Reporting by Vitaly Nevar; writing by Polina Devitt; editing by Timothy Heritage