Declaring that “now is the time to de-escalate,” President Biden announced a suite of sanctions and other reprisal measures as a response to the SolarWinds hack and Moscow’s interference in the 2020 election. It’s a formidable package that, among other things, targets Russian sovereign debt, demonstrating that Washington could well roll out some of the same tools that it has used to crush the Iranian economy.
But the conspicuous absence of measures responding to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline echoes the Biden administration’s failure to take such a step when it announced sanctions in March to punish Moscow for the attempted assassination of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. It suggests that Biden, amid his push for de-escalation, isn’t interested in targeting a key vehicle for Moscow’s political ambitions in Europe.
When Biden moved to leave the lectern following his brief remarks, one reporter asked him about the Russian natural-gas project (which Poland, Ukraine, and other countries have urged Washington to kill because it would strengthen Moscow’s grip on Europe’s energy supply):
Question: Why didn’t you go with sanctions on Nord Stream 2?
Biden: Nord Stream 2 is a complicated issue affecting our allies in Europe. I’ve been opposed to Nord Stream 2 for a long time, from the beginning when I was out of office and even before I left office as vice president, but that still is an issue that is in play.
Lawmakers have criticized the State Department for neglecting to impose sanctions on the Russian pipeline, which are mandated by the National Defense Authorization Act. While the Biden administration designated a ship and its owner under its authority to sanction entities involved in the project, the Trump administration had already sanctioned them, meaning that the move had no practical effect.
So why does the administration seem so hesitant to go after the pipeline project that Biden and his top aides have criticized themselves? For one, it could complicate relations with Germany. The Merkel government has publicly criticized the Nord Stream 2 sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, which have targeted Russian, Swiss, and German firms.
While Reuters reported last month that the White House was considering further sanctions designations related to the project, nothing has come of that yet. Meanwhile, in Brussels last month to consult with U.S. allies, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was asked by a CNN host if the Biden administration could do anything to halt the project’s completion. He answered, “Ultimately, that’s up to those who are trying to build the pipeline and complete it.”
But Blinken has it wrong; it’s actually up to the United States, the only party capable of killing the pipeline, which is 95 percent complete.
Biden said the quiet part out loud today: For all the administration’s talk about confronting Russia and standing with U.S. partners, the White House is slow-walking implementation of Nord Stream 2 sanctions out of consideration for certain allies at the expense of others, such as Ukraine. The sanctions are only “complicated” for Berlin.