“Time is running out here to get something done before the pipeline is completed,” Senator Jeanne Shaheen (DN.H.), a member of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees, said Thursday. “And I think we have to act very quickly.”
The press campaign escalated Friday when Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) seized the final confirmation of President Joe Biden’s CIA director nominated William Burns and delayed a quick vote to pressure the Biden administration to impose further sanctions.
“I will release my team when the Biden administrator fulfills his legal obligation to report and sanction ships and companies building Putin̵
The dynamism on the ground has put the White House in a diplomatic bond. The overall goal of the new government is to show a united front with Germany and the rest of Europe against Russian aggression. But Germany is eager to see the pipeline completed because it will offer a cheaper alternative to natural gas, meaning the United States could anger an important ally if it continues with sanctions required by Congress.
“We very much want to restore our relations with Germany after four years of abuse from the previous administration,” said a senior official. “But Congress is not running. We are between a rock and a hard place. ”
“A bad deal for Europe”
Biden himself has publicly called the pipeline a “bad deal for Europe”, and a sanctions package on the project continues to work its way through the interagency process, though not as fast as some lawmakers would like. Stopping Nord Stream 2 has long been a bipartisan priority, with congressmen claiming the completion of the pipeline will strengthen Russian President Vladimir Putin at the expense of Ukraine and other US allies.
In recent days, the Trump administration had planned to go so far as to sanction German entities for their role in the project, former officials said. These entities included Nord Stream’s German CEO Matthias Warnig and the German ship Krebs Geo. But in the end they never did, instead it only sanctioned the Russian pipe-laying ship Fortuna and its owner KVT-RUS.
The State Department maintained these designations in a report to Congress last month, but went no further – angering both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, who say the administration has a mandate by law to identify and sanction all entities involved in the construction of the pipeline, which now includes at least seven Russian ships.
Shaheen and Cruz co-authored a provision in the annual defense proposal that imposed sanctions on those involved in the construction of the pipeline. Shaheen also joined Idaho Senator Jim Risch, the top Republican on the State Department, by pressing Biden last month to fully implement that provision.
Foreign Affairs Committee staff briefed the State Department on the administration’s position on Nord Stream 2 last week and will again next week, according to a Senate assistant. But staff said they did not learn anything new during the briefing, and senators themselves said they are largely unmoved.
You do not like the Germans when they are angry
Several current and former officials said the crux of the issue is how to stop the pipeline without deteriorating relations with Germany. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is trying to rebuild Washington’s relationship with Berlin after four years of neglect and ridicule from former President Donald Trump’s administration. Relations deteriorated so much under Trump that German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously said in 2018 that Europe could no longer trust the United States and “must take its fate into its own hands.”
The National Security Council’s European Director Amanda Sloat has also warned internally against going too fast on further Nord Stream sanctions as the administration works to repair US relations with Germany, officials said.
A former national security official close to the White House captured the general mood: “Many people in the administration feel that the Germans have been terribly abused and they want to get this relationship back on its feet.”
The official, however, noted that critics should ask why the Trump administration did not do more to stop the pipeline during its four years in power.
“The pipeline is 95% complete and the Trump administration completely failed to do anything about it when they had the chance,” the official said. “Now, former officials who let this happen on their watch are somehow insisting that it’s our fault. The same former officials are spreading conspiracy theories about secret discussions. The only discussion the Biden administration has had with the Germans about Nord Stream 2 is to clarify our opposition. ”
After the end of January, after speaking with Blinken, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said their position was unchanged. But he said relations with the United States already seemed to be improving. “I have to get used to talking to my American colleague on the phone and we agree on almost every point,” he told Reuters. “This has not been the case before.”
Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) Said that although he has been “supportive” of the sanctions effort, he is also “very uncomfortable with the United States and Europe going their separate ways in this regard.”
“I think the ability of the United States and Europe to work together on China’s policy is more important than our policy on Nord Stream 2,” said Murphy, a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “And then we need to find a way to get back on the same side with Europe, and my hope is that the Biden administration will be able to have a more functional relationship on energy issues with Europe than Trump did.”
Playing in the hand of Russia
But other current and former officials say the risks of letting the pipeline end and the leverage it can give Russia over Europe and NATO far outweigh the consequences of angering Berlin in the short term. And they argue that if Germany is willing to move forward with this project, even if Russia continues its demonstration of aggression in eastern Ukraine, there is little evidence that Germany will honor its commitment to maintain some gas transit through Ukraine , even after the pipeline is completed.
Nord Stream 2 allows Russia to bypass Ukraine by sending Russian gas to the EU through the Baltic Sea. That construction will deprive Kiev of important revenue – as Ukrainian officials say is exactly the point.
“The main motivation for Russia is just to punish Ukraine,” Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Economy, Trade and Agriculture Taras Kachka told POLITICO last month. “Ukraine strongly opposes the construction of Nord Stream 2 and considers it another Russian attempt to use energy as a tool for political pressure and extortion.”
The Biden administration imposed new sanctions on Russian officials earlier this week in response to poisoning and imprisonment by Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny and expects to impose more sanctions on Russia’s malicious activities around the world in the coming weeks. But Biden has so far resisted going further than his predecessor by imposing new sanctions on entities involved in Nord Stream’s construction, which current and former officials claim would be one of the most effective ways to curb Putin’s bad behavior on.
“Placing a stake in the heart of Nord Stream 2 could and would drain billions from Putin’s coffers,” said Ryan Tully, who served as senior director of European and Russian affairs at Trump NSC.
Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) Led a group of 40 Republican senators in a letter to Biden on Wednesday expressing “deep concern over the administration’s refusal to impose sanctions on entities involved in the Nord Stream II pipeline.”
Risch said he spoke to a State Department official on Thursday about Nord Stream 2, but came away disappointed.
“I do not want to go further than that,” he told POLITICO. A spokesman for Risch later said “there was no new information about [Nord Stream 2] raised up at the call. ”