WASHINGTON – The Biden administration has decided to lift sanctions against the company overseeing the construction of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany, despite bipartisan opposition in Congress and calls from governments in Eastern Europe.
Republican lawmakers immediately accused the administration of offering Russian President Vladimir Putin a major political victory. Democrats urged the White House to reconsider and the Kremlin called the news a “positive signal.”
The State Department announced the decision in a report to Congress. The move was first reported by Axios.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken chose to lift the sanctions against the Russian company behind the pipeline, Nord Stream 2 AG, as well as its German CEO, Matthias Warnig, and other company executives because the sanctions “would have a negative impact on US relations with Germany, the EU and other European allies and partners, ”states the State Department report, obtained by NBC News.
Warnig, a longtime ally of Putin, is a former East German Stasi intelligence officer who has served on the supervisory boards of large Russian companies.
The State Department report said “close cooperation” with Germany, the European Union and other European countries will be essential for US efforts to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, to be promoted a global economic recovery, to combat climate change and to address other challenges, including combating “malicious behavior by Russia and China.”
Senator Bob Menendez, DN.J., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, denounced the decision in a scathing statement.
“I am opposed to the Biden administration’s decision to lift the sanctions against NS2 AG and Matthias Warnig. I urge the administration to tear up the band-aid, lift these waivers and move forward with the sanctions imposed by Congress, ”Menendez said.
“The administration said the pipeline was a bad idea and that it was a project of Russian malign influence. I share that sentiment, but I don’t see how today’s decision will advance. American efforts to counter Russian aggression in Europe, ”he said.
Menendez asked: “What does the administration now expect from Germany after making this important concession to exercise the waiver?” He said the decision “has created uncertainty in many parts of Europe and I expect to hear from the administration very soon on their plans for moving forward.”
Senator Jeanne Shaheen, DN.H., expressed her “disappointment”.
“The completion of this pipeline poses a threat to US security interests and the stability of our partners in the region. The administration should live up to its commitment to Congress. All available options to prevent its completion should be used,” Shaheen said in a statement.
Although several European governments and members of both parties in Congress strongly oppose the project, the government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel had quietly pressured the administration not to impose sanctions that would block completion. of the gas pipeline, which passes under the Baltic Sea to Germany.
The Biden administration sought to balance the need to counter Russia with its desire to mend relations with Germany, which were very strained under the Trump administration. But critics said the administration had not fulfilled its vows to stand up to Moscow and that the move would give Putin valuable influence over Ukraine and other Eastern European states.
“It shows that ultimately standing up to Russia was less important,” said John Herbst, a retired career diplomat who served as US ambassador to Ukraine. “It really undermines Biden’s ‘I’m tough on Russia’ position.”
Herbst said there was still time to change course and that a political backlash from Democrats on Capitol Hill could change the White House’s calculations.
Some career diplomats opposed the move, but the White House rejected their objections, two sources familiar with the talks said.
Russia currently has to transport natural gas through Ukraine to Europe. The controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline would bypass Ukraine, depriving it of its transit revenue and potentially making it more vulnerable to Russian aggression, according to Herbst and other opponents of the project.
In the report to Congress released on Wednesday, which was required under recently passed legislation, the State Department was to list the entities involved in the Nord Stream 2 project that merit sanctions. The State Department told Congress it would sanction eight ships that support the construction of the pipeline.
The report acknowledges that the company running the project, Nord Stream 2 AG, and its CEO, Warnig, are involved in sanctionable work. But he said the administration decided to drop sanctions against the Russian company, Warnig and other company executives.
The ruling means vessels working on the pipeline could be penalized, but not the company that hired them to do the work, Nord Stream 2 AG, which is owned by Russian state oil giant Gazprom and is based in Switzerland.
The decisions “demonstrate the administration’s commitment to energy security in Europe, in line with the president’s commitment to rebuild relations with our allies and partners in Europe,” Blinken said in a statement. He added that the administration would continue to oppose the completion of the pipeline: “Our opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is unwavering.”
Blinken met his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in Iceland on Wednesday.
The Russia-Germany pipeline has been a source of tension between Washington and Berlin for years. Merkel argues that this is a purely commercial matter that should not be subject to geopolitics or tied to human rights concerns.
Nord Stream 2 would double Russian natural gas shipments to Germany, providing German industry with cheap power as the country shifts from coal and nuclear power to renewable sources.
The pipeline is over 90% complete and opponents have argued that failure to act quickly will allow it to be completed.
Poland and Ukraine have made a public and private appeal to the Biden administration in recent months to act quickly to shut down the pipeline.
“We continue to count on the United States to take decisive action to stop construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline; it is not yet too late,” the Polish Embassy in Washington said in an email on Wednesday.
“Many countries perceive Nord Stream 2 as a visibly geopolitical project, aimed at strengthening Russia’s position as a major gas supplier in Europe and undermining Ukraine and the energy security of the entire region”, did he declare.
Opinion in Germany is mixed and the federal elections in September could see a new government change the country’s policy on Nord Stream 2. The Green Party is ahead of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in the polls, and its leader, Annalena Baerbock , said that Germany should reject the project gave sanctions that the EU has imposed on Russia for its actions in Ukraine.
“This pipeline is in contradiction with our sanctions, so it cannot be put in place,” Baerbock said on May 6 from Berlin at a virtual event organized by the European Think Tank Center of the Atlantic Council. “It can’t start.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said initial reports on the sanctions decision were a “positive signal” if they turned out to be true.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the lifting of sanctions would create “a chance for a gradual transition to normalization of our bilateral relations,” TASS news agency reported.
Republican lawmakers jumped at the decision, accusing the administration of showing weakness, defying Congress and failing to live up to its harsh rhetoric about Russia.
“Superb. In defiance of US law, Biden is actively helping Putin build his pipeline,” tweeted Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas. “Objectively speaking, the Biden administration is emerging as the most pro-Russian administration of the modern age.”
Cruz has sought to block confirmation of the Biden administration’s candidates for State Department positions due to the delay in implementing sanctions against companies working on Nord Stream 2.
Senator Ben Sasse, R-Neb., A member of the Intelligence Committee who criticized former President Donald Trump’s approach to Russia, said the Biden administration had made a “strategic error” .
“Two months ago President Biden called Putin a ‘killer’, but today he plans to give Putin, his regime and his cronies huge strategic leverage in Europe. You can’t pretend to be a hawk from Russia, but you just have to turn around “. Said Sasse.