US spares ally Germany in sanctions for Nord Stream pipeline

·3 min read

REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) — The Biden administration imposed sanctions Wednesday on Russian companies and ships for their work on a European natural gas pipeline opposed by the U.S., but chose not to punish the German company overseeing the project.

The decision to spare the German company and its CEO for their involvement in the Nord Stream 2 project, made public in a report to Congress, comes as President Joe Biden looks to mend relations with a key ally that were unsettled during the Trump administration.

But the decision not to penalize the German company angered Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike, along with other critics of Nord Stream 2 who hoped to stop the project by targeting the company and its top executive. The pipeline is 95% complete although construction has not yet begun on its final leg in German waters.

The U.S. has long opposed the pipeline, which would bring natural gas from Russia to Germany. It argues the pipeline threatens European energy security and poses risks to Ukraine and Poland in bypassing both countries.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that Nord Stream 2 “poses a threat to U.S. security interests” and the stability of regional allies.

“I’ve made it clear to the Biden administration from day one that every effort should be made to prevent completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline," said Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat.

Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, said the decision would “enable Russia.”

Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also said he opposed Biden’s decision not to sanction the German company.

The White House said it remains opposed to the pipeline.

“The Biden administration has been clear that Nord Stream 2 pipeline is a bad deal; it’s a Russian geopolitical project that threatens European energy security,” White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

The administration was announcing the sanctions as Secretary of State Antony Blinken prepared to sit down in Iceland for his first face-to-face meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Their meeting was already expected to be contentions amid a sharp deterioration in ties between Washington and Moscow.

The administration was imposing sanctions on eight Russian ships and companies involved. The German company, Nord Stream 2 AG, and its German chief executive also were identified as violating U.S. law. But Biden is using presidential authority to waive sanctions on them under a national interest exemption in the legislation.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who spoke with Blinken by phone about the issue on Tuesday, praised the decision regarding the German interests involved.

“We perceive this to be a constructive step that we will gladly continue to discuss with our partners in Washington,” Maas told reporters in Berlin on Wednesday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has defended the project, noting that Russian gas already flows freely into Europe along other routes, including the existing Nord Stream 1 pipeline under the Baltic Sea to Germany.

Nord Stream 2 is owned by Russian state company Gazprom, with investment from several European companies. Domestic critics in Germany have argued the pipeline should be abandoned because of Russia's treatment of opposition leader Alexey Navalny.

In choosing not to hit Germany with sanctions and focus on Russian companies, the administration has exacerbated a battle with lawmakers, some of whom have now placed holds on the nominations of several of the administration’s picks for senior State Department positions and are threatening to block others.

Nord Stream 2 has attracted bipartisan opposition on Capitol Hill, with administration critics such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, joining Democrats such as New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, and Shaheen.

In Germany, the two leading contenders to succeed Merkel after the country's Sept. 26 general election have contrasting positions on the pipeline.

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Lee reported from Reykjavik, Iceland. Knickmeyer reported from Oklahoma City. Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

Frank Jordans, Matthew Lee And Ellen Knickmeyer, The Associated Press