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Congress may force Biden to stop Russia's Nord Stream 2 pipeline

Congress may force Biden to stop Russia's Nord Stream 2 pipeline
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Nord Stream 2, the Kremlin’s pet project to bypass Belarus, Poland and Ukraine and deliver natural gas directly to Germany, poses a graver threat than Russia’s recent military buildup in the region. Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinOvernight Defense: Pentagon pulling some air defense assets from Middle East | Dems introduce resolution apologizing to LGBT community for discrimination | White House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine White House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine It's well past time for strategic defenses and counterpunches on cybersecurity MORE has consistently used gas as a political weapon, and Nord Stream 2 would make it easier to do so in the future.

Joe BidenJoe BidenObama: Ensuring democracy 'continues to work effectively' keeps me 'up at night' New Jersey landlords prohibited from asking potential tenants about criminal records Overnight Defense: Pentagon pulling some air defense assets from Middle East | Dems introduce resolution apologizing to LGBT community for discrimination | White House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine MORE, who put Putin on notice in his first call as president, has been reluctant to take action that would block the completion of the pipeline. Construction has resumed and, if nothing changes, it could be finished by Christmas. What gives?

Biden wants warm relations with Germany, a worthy motive after Donald Trump’s damaging treatment of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Pipeline proponents argue that sanctions would damage U.S.-German and even transatlantic relations if the U.S. “sanctioned Germany.” Thus, the administration chose not to sanction new firms — even Russian firms — involved in the renewed construction of the pipeline, though it was legally required to do so.

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The story isn’t over. A strong bipartisan majority in Congress wants to kill the pipeline and will step in. Congress has already passed laws to halt the pipeline — the Protecting Europe's Energy Security Act (PEESA) and Protecting Europe's Energy Security Clarification Act (PEESCA) — and these laws contain mandatory sanctions. The administration cannot simply ignore them when sanctionable activity is taking place. What’s more, this legislation is carefully written so that the sanctions would not be applied to German firms, which undercuts the notion that sanctioning Nord Stream 2 means sanctioning an ally.

The Congressional position is a serious problem for the Biden administration, given its desire to accommodate Merkel, but not the only one. The other problem is Germany. Washington has sought a way to justify its inaction. For over two months there has been contact with Berlin, which has yielded only vague pledges.

No surprise. Berlin believes that its bogus argument that the U.S. shouldn’t sanction its ally gives it the whip hand. While tough on Putin, Merkel worries about her domestic supporters, which include a business community anxious to develop lucrative deals with Russia. Plus, this would not be the first time the German business community got away with bending the rules. Germany’s Siemens sold turbines in 2015 and 2016 to Russia that made their way to Crimea in violation of EU sanctions and paid no major price. Why not do it again?

Berlin’s position has currency because Washington has not carefully defined its interests in Germany, Europe, and Russia, which admittedly are complicated. The problem is the unacceptability of allies making geopolitically problematic business deals with rivals who are illegally occupying the territory of neighboring countries and whose reckless behavior threatens EU partners and NATO allies. Ugly too is the sight of former heads of government serving as well paid advocates for Moscow’s geopolitical ploy.

The historical reality isn’t pretty either. Cooperation between Berlin and Moscow has often come at the expense of the neighboring smaller nations. That was true when the Holy Alliance of Prussia, Russia and the Austrian Empire was on the prowl after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 against countries seeking independence, and when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact allowed Hitler to start World War II and Stalin to seize a good chunk of Eastern Europe. This was well understood when NATO was created, as one wag put it, to keep "the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down."

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Much has changed. Germany has become the leading nation in Europe and America’s most important Atlantic ally. The picture in Germany isn’t one of uniform support for the pipeline either. Many in Germany, including those in the Green Party, understand the dangers of Nord Stream 2. The Green Party has officially made halting Nord Stream 2 part of its party platform and is expected to do well in the September parliamentary elections. Even if the Greens do well then, they would not become part of a new government until late in the year, and much work can be done to complete the project before then.

These are all reasons for Biden to act on his insight that Nord Stream 2 is a "bad deal" for Europe and for the US. Acting now is fully consistent with his intention to restore U.S. leadership abroad. Leadership sometimes means persuading allies to do or accept things that, for their own parochial reasons, they do not want to do.

But if this is not enough to move the administration to defend U.S. interests, there is always Congress. The Senate Foreign Relations just approved an amendment requiring the State Department to identify whether 20 ships involved in the project are subject to sanctions within 15 days of the legislation being passed. If the administration continues to dawdle, there may well be sanctions legislation targeting Nord Stream 2 AG, a wholly owned subsidiary of Gazprom based in Switzerland, which has contracted with the already-sanctioned Fortuna vessel and virtually all other entities engaged in pipe-laying for Nord Stream 2. Sanctions against Nord Stream 2 AG could be a deathblow to the project.

Observers looking for an historical analogy might set their sights on the Ford administration which wanted to avoid antagonizing the Soviet Union by making human rights and the right to emigration a major issue in the bilateral relationship. Congress felt otherwise, and the result was the passing of the Jackson-Vanik legislation imposing sanctions on the Soviet Union to ensure freedom of emigration.

Naturally, Republicans oppose Nord Stream 2. Democrats in Congress such as Sens. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSchumer says Senate will vote on repealing 2002 war authorization The Hill's Morning Report - Biden-Putin meeting to dominate the week Sanders drops bid to block Biden's Israel arms sale MORE (D-N.Y.) and Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenCentrists gain leverage over progressives in Senate infrastructure battle Tensions grow between liberals and centrists on infrastructure Cosmetic chemicals need a makeover MORE (D-N.H.), who have spoken strongly against the project, are well positioned to persuade Biden to apply the mandatory sanctions laws that would stop the project once and for all.

John E. Herbst is the director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.