The Nord Stream 2 pipeline may be half a world away, but it’s roiling politics in Washington
By NATASHA BERTRAND and ANDREW DESIDERIO
Lawmakers are ramping up pressure on the White House to try to halt the construction of a major Russia-to-Germany gas pipeline, as administration officials debate how to stymie the project quickly without alienating a key European ally. At least one senator is delaying the confirmation of a top official to make it happen.
The pipeline, known as Nord Stream 2, is a project of the Russian state company Gazprom. Lawmakers have noted that its construction would place Russian infrastructure inside NATO territory and thereby threaten its member states, and make some European countries more dependent on Russian energy. But the pipeline is more than 90 percent complete and proceeding quickly, putting the Biden administration on a tight timeline to impose additional congressionally mandated sanctions on the project.
As recently as Thursday, the Danish Maritime Authority revealed that a new Russian pipelaying vessel named the Akademik Cherskiy would soon be joining Nord Stream 2, potentially speeding construction of the pipeline even further.
“Time is running out here to get something done before the pipeline is completed,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a member of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, said on Thursday. “And I think we need to act very quickly.”
The pressure campaign escalated on Friday when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) put a hold on final confirmation of President Joe Biden’s CIA director nominee William Burns, delaying a quick vote, to pressure the Biden administration to impose additional sanctions.
“I’ll release my hold when the Biden admin meets its legal obligation to report and sanction the ships and companies building Putin’s pipeline,” Cruz wrote on Twitter Friday.
The dynamic on the Hill has put the White House in a diplomatic bind. The new administration’s overarching goal is to display a united front with Germany and the rest of Europe against Russian aggression. But Germany is eager to see the pipeline completed because it would offer a cheaper alternative for natural gas, meaning that the U.S. could anger a key ally if it proceeds with sanctions demanded by Congress.
“We very much want to restore our relationship with Germany after four years of abuse by the previous administration,” said a senior administration official. “But Congress is not budging. 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 is continuing to work its way through the interagency process, even if it is not as fast as some lawmakers want. Stopping Nord Stream 2 has long been a bipartisan priority, with members of Congress arguing that the pipeline’s completion would strengthen Russian President Vladimir Putin at the expense of Ukraine and other U.S. allies.
In its final days, the Trump administration had been planning to go as far as to sanction German entities for their role in the project, former officials said. Those entities included Nord Stream’s German CEO Matthias Warnig and the German vessel Krebs Geo. But they ultimately never did it, instead sanctioning only the Russian pipe-laying vessel Fortuna and its owner KVT-RUS.
The State Department upheld those designations in a report to Congress last month, but did not go further — angering both Democratic and Republican lawmakers who say the administration is mandated by law to identify and sanction any and all entities involved in the pipeline’s construction, which now includes at least seven Russian vessels.
Shaheen and Cruz co-authored a provision in the annual defense bill that imposed sanctions on those involved in the pipeline’s construction. Shaheen also joined Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, in pressing Biden last month to fully implement that provision.
The State Department briefed Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffers about the administration’s position on Nord Stream 2 last week and will again next week, according to a Senate aide. But staffers said they learned nothing new during the briefing, and senators themselves said they remain largely out of the loop.
You won’t like the Germans when they’re angry
Multiple current and former officials said that at the heart of the issue is how to stop the pipeline without souring relations with Germany. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is trying to rebuild Washington’s relationship with Berlin after four years of neglect and scorn by former President Donald Trump’s administration. The relationship deteriorated so much under Trump that German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously said in 2018 that Europe could no longer rely on the U.S. and “must take its destiny in its own hands.”
The National Security Council’s Europe director Amanda Sloat has also cautioned internally against moving too quickly on additional Nord Stream sanctions as the administration works to repair the U.S. relationship with Germany, the officials said.
One former national security official close to the White House captured the general sentiment: “A lot of people inside the administration feel that the Germans have been terribly mistreated, and they want to get that relationship back on its feet.”
The senior administration official noted, however, that critics should be asking 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 utterly 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 it’s our fault. Those same former officials are spreading conspiracy theories about secret discussions. The only discussion the Biden administration has had with the Germans on Nord Stream 2 is to make clear our opposition.”
As of late January, after speaking with Blinken, Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas said their position remained unchanged. But he said the relationship with the U.S. already seemed to be improving. “I have to get used to the fact that I talk to my American colleague on the phone and we agree on almost all points,” he told Reuters. “This has not been the case in the past.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said that while he’s been “supportive” of the sanctions efforts, he is also “very uncomfortable with the United States and Europe going separate ways on this.”
“I think the U.S. and Europe’s ability to cooperate on China policy is more important than our policy on Nord Stream 2,” said Murphy, a top member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “And so we’ve got to find a way to get back on the same page 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 into Russia’s hand
But other current and former officials say the risks of allowing the pipeline to be completed, and the leverage it could 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 as Russia continues its show 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 would allow Russia to bypass Ukraine in shipping Russian gas to the EU through the Baltic Sea. Its construction would deprive Kyiv of crucial revenue — which Ukrainian officials say is exactly the point.
“The core motivation for Russia is just to punish Ukraine,” Ukrainian Deputy Minister for Economy, Trade and Agriculture, Taras Kachka, told POLITICO last month. “Ukraine firmly opposes the construction of Nord Stream 2 and considers it as yet another Russian attempt to use energy as a tool for political pressure and blackmailing.”
The Biden administration imposed new sanctions on Russian officials earlier this week in response to the poisoning and jailing of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, and expects to roll out more penalties for Russia’s malign activities worldwide in the coming weeks. But Biden has so far resisted going further than his predecessor in imposing new sanctions on entities involved in Nord Stream’s construction, which current and former officials argue would be one of the most effective ways to curtail Putin’s bad behavior.
“Putting 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 for European and Russian Affairs on the Trump NSC.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) led a group of 40 Republican senators in a letter to Biden on Wednesday expressing “deep concern about the refusal of the administration to impose sanctions on entities involved in the Nord Stream II pipeline.”
Risch said he spoke with a State Department official on Thursday about Nord Stream 2 but came away disappointed.
“I don’t want to go any further than that,” he told POLITICO. A spokesperson for Risch later said “there was no new information about [Nord Stream 2] brought up on the call.”