The Senate on Thursday rejected a Republican effort to impose sanctions related to a Russian-German natural gas pipeline during a pivotal period for the future of Ukraine and broader questions about trans-Atlantic responses to new Kremlin aggression.
Senators voted 55-44 against legislation from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that would require the imposition within two weeks of enactment of sanctions in the form of asset freezes and travel bans on European business officials leading the finalization of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The bill needed 60 votes to pass.
“We can send a strong warning to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin that he won’t be allowed to use energy as a weapon,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, in Thursday floor remarks in favor of the bill. “Really, the government of Germany should have shelved this project itself a long time ago. Berlin can still make the right call.”
The White House and Democrats opposed the legislation even amid near-uniform agreement in Washington that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is, in the words of the State Department’s No. 2 official Wendy Sherman Wednesday, a “Russian geopolitical project that undermines energy security and the national security of a significant part of the Euro-Atlantic community.”
Six Democrats joined 49 GOP senators in voting 'yes': Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Nevada’s Catherine Cortez Masto, Jacky Rosen of Nevada, Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin and Mark Kelly of Arizona. GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky voted against the bill.
Most Democrats are rallying around a broader Russia sanctions bill authored by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez of New Jersey.
In an official statement of administration policy issued as the chamber began voting, the White House said it "strongly opposes" the Nord Stream 2 bill.
"The administration does not believe this bill is a genuine effort to counter Russian aggression or protect Ukraine," the statement said. "In fact, if passed, the legislation would only serve to undermine unity amongst our European allies at a crucial moment when we need to present a unified front in response to Russian threats against Ukraine.”
“The administration strongly believes any new sanctions authority should allow us to impose maximal costs on Russia if it further invades Ukraine, in a manner that would preserve Transatlantic unity, which this legislation does not do," the White House added.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who until last year was the Democratic counterpart to Cruz’s multiyear effort to stop construction of the underwater pipeline, spoke against the legislation. She argued that averting an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine superseded the longer-term concerns around how an operational Nord Stream 2 could be used by Putin for energy blackmail purposes against European importers.
“I have been a strong and long-standing opponent of Nord Stream 2 … but right now we’re in a different place on this,” said Shaheen, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Europe subcommittee. “When the dynamics change on the ground, then our approach and our foreign policy should reflect those changes. We can’t look at this legislation in isolation. … [It] is coming at a time when the administration is exhausting every single diplomatic avenue to deter Putin from further violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity.”
Sherman and other top Biden administration officials are in a full-out diplomatic sprint this week in Europe to try to build consensus within NATO and with the European Union on a multilateral set of punishments Putin would face should he give the invasion order to the roughly 100,000 troops he has deployed along Ukraine’s borders.
Those retaliatory responses reportedly include severe export controls on Russia’s ability to import a range of Western-made products, a slew of financial sanctions and large weapon shipments to Ukraine to support what experts predict would turn out to be a long-running insurgency against Russian invaders.
The new German coalition government, which is generally less supportive of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline than its predecessor government, led by former Chancellor Angela Merkel, has suspended regulatory approval of the pipeline, which could drag on well into 2022.
'Petty differences aside'
Cruz argued his bill “represents the best way to deter Putin from invading Ukraine by sanctioning the company that is racing to finish and make operational the Nord Stream pipeline, which Putin desperately wants completed so that he can use it as a cudgel against our European allies.”
"Can we put petty differences aside and can we come together to defend our friend and ally Ukraine against imminent Russian aggression," Cruz said, pleading for Democratic support on the floor Thursday.
However, Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., argued the sanctions in Cruz’ bill wouldn’t actually succeed by themselves in killing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. For one thing, the legislation includes a national security waiver that Biden could exercise, as he did last year on a similar measure. And even if the waiver were not used, it would take only a matter of weeks for Russian state energy firm Gazprom, which owns the pipeline, to name new corporate officers who wouldn’t be deterred by American asset freezes and a travel bans.
“There’s no amount of U.S. sanctions that can be effective here,” Murphy said. “Even if we were to sanction the German-Swiss company [the Gazprom subsidiary Nord Stream 2 AG], the German board of directors, in a matter of days or weeks, the Russians could re-engineer the financing of the project to keep it going.”
The Ukrainian government supports the Cruz bill and strongly opposes the pipeline becoming operational. Were that to happen, in a few years when its current contract with Gazprom expires, Ukraine would likely see the lucrative transit fees it charges Russia to allow the transit of natural gas through its territory fall off a cliff.