The Biden administration, led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, is pushing back on Congress passing tougher sanctions against a Russian energy project even as President Biden is coming under pressure to get tougher on Moscow.
The administration on Monday imposed new sanctions on a ship involved the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, a top strategic priority of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But Biden’s team is leery of tougher action on the project for fear of antagonizing Germany, an important European ally in the fight to address climate change and limit China’s growing global influence.
Nord Stream 2 is an important part of Putin’s effort to exert economic and military pressure on Ukraine because it would allow Russia to send gas to Europe without going through the country.
It’s a tough spot for Biden because while the president wants to be careful of German economic interests, he’s also under pressure to respond to Moscow's increasingly bellicose posture toward Ukraine.
U.S. intelligence has detected a buildup of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border in preparation for a possible military invasion, according to a report from Bloomberg.
Nevertheless, Senate aides say that Blinken is urging Democratic senators to block an amendment sponsored by Sens. James Risch (Idaho), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to impose sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG, which is owned by Russian energy giant Gazprom.
The amendment would also sanction companies involved in the testing and certifying of the pipeline that are required before it goes online.
"It's looking a lot to us that they are manufacturing procedural problems to avoid a politically tough vote. The Democrats are extremely nervous about voting on Nord Stream 2 because they were all against it in the previous administration but now with Biden in office there's a different calculus," said a Senate aide familiar with the debate.
"Now the administration is going all out to protect Nord Stream 2 [NS2] at a time when Russian troops are massing along the Ukrainian border. Several administration officials have been actively lobbying the Hill against a vote on NS2. It's quite remarkable," the source added.
A State Department spokesperson declined to comment, citing a general practice of not commenting on pending legislation.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) on Thursday opposed requests by Risch and Cruz to hold a vote on their amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The chairman told his Democratic colleagues that the amendment faced an unspecified procedural hurdle in the House.
Risch and Cruz will continue to press for a vote when the Senate resumes debate on the legislation after Thanksgiving. Risch last week objected to moving the Defense bill without the amendment.
It would be a tough vote for Senate Democrats who have supported using sanctions to stop the construction of Nord Stream 2.
The House included an amendment sponsored by Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas) requiring mandatory sanctions on the pipeline in its version of the NDAA, which passed on Sept. 23.
Kaptur at the time hailed the vote as an important victory.
“Those united behind the cause of liberty in Ukraine are deeply concerned about the Kremlin’s ongoing weaponization of energy to undermine European security. We are pleased the House has voted once again to fully sanction the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project,” she said in a press statement.
The passage of the amendment in the House appeared to catch the administration by surprise.
A Senate aide Tuesday said the Kaptur-McCaul amendment has been stripped out of the legislative text of the Defense authorization bill that negotiators in both chambers are working out in preconference talks ahead of a final vote in the Senate.
Senate Democrats in the past have voiced support for tougher sanctions on Nord Stream 2 compared to what the State Department is now comfortable with.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) asked Blinken in a March letter to stop the pipeline by building a strong sanctions package.
They called the pipeline “a clear tool of Russian malign influence in Europe” and part of “a clear geopolitical goal for Russia to exert long term influence over Europe’s energy fortunes.”
“The Trump Administration failed to permanently stop this pipeline, and for almost four years never used the sanctions tools available to do so, so we appreciate your leadership during this critical period as the pipeline is close to completion,” Menendez and Shaheen wrote in a March 23 letter to Blinken.
The administration tried to give some ground to their allies this week by announcing limited sanctions on the pipeline project.
Blinken informed Congress on Monday that the U.S. had imposed sanctions on a ship owned by Transadria Ltd., which is owned by a Russian shell company and helped construct the pipeline.
But the administration didn’t take any action against another ship that worked on the pipeline, Blue Ship, because it has German-affiliated ownership.
Critics say the sanctions announced this week will do nothing to stop the completion of Nord Stream 2, which would then give Putin the ability to shut off or curtail gas flows to Ukraine to achieve its foreign policy objectives.
“This announcement typifies the mix of incoherence and weakness that has come to embody the foreign policy of President Biden and the Biden-Harris administration, at incalculable cost to the national security of the United States and our allies,” Cruz said in a statement Tuesday.
Rep. Mike Rogers (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said that “the Biden sanctions enacted [Monday] are toothless.”
“They’re specifically designed to look tough, but will have no impact. If Biden and Sullivan were serious about stopping NS2 they would sanction NS2 AG and Putin Crony Matthias Warnig, along with any entity involved in the pipelines certification,” he said, referring to national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Matthias Warnig, a former East German Stasi official who is the CEO of Nord Stream 2.
Steven Pifer, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who specializes in U.S. relations with the former Soviet Union and Europe, also said the sanctions announced by Blinken on Monday will have little effect.
“I don’t think they’re going to have any impact,” he said. “The bigger issue would be whether there would be sanctions on other European or German companies. That seems to be a line that the Biden administration at this point is not prepared to cross.”
He said Germans who favor the pipeline argue that U.S. officials didn’t begin expressing serious opposition to it until late 2019, at point which the project was almost complete, and point out that billions of euros have already been invested in the project.
“The Biden administration coming in after four years of the damage that Trump had done to U.S.-German relations didn’t want to start sanctioning German companies. That would just simply do more damage,” Pifer said.
Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in July announced a climate and energy partnership to accelerate the reduction of carbon emissions and collaborate on new technologies.
A recent survey of more than 1,000 Germans conducted in September and October found that 44 percent of Germans now view the United States as their most important foreign policy partner. Seventy-one percent describe Germany’s ties with the U.S. as good or very good, compared with only 18 percent when former President Trump was in office.