BERLIN – The Biden administration imposed sanctions Wednesday on Russian companies and ships for their work on a European natural gas pipeline adamantly opposed by the U.S., but President Joe Biden angered many Democratic and Republican lawmakers by opting not to punish the German company overseeing the project.
Waiving penalties regarding ally German in the Nord Stream 2 project was “in line with our commitment to strengthen our Transatlantic relationships as a matter of national security,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
The U.S. has battled for years to block the pipeline, now 95% complete, though construction has not yet started on its German leg. The pipeline will carry natural gas from Russia to Germany, increasing Russia's leverage as a vital energy supplier in Europe. The U.S. argues that the pipeline threatens European energy security, heightens Russia's influence and poses risks to Ukraine and Poland in bypassing both countries.
Critics of the pipeline had hoped to stop it by targeting the German company and its top executive.
Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he opposed Biden’s waiver for Germany. Senior committee member Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, said the pipeline “allows Russia to further spread its malign influence."
“Oh, my God, enable Russia!” Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, exclaimed at the decision. “Joe Biden, thank you so much for allowing Russia to export their goods,” she said, sarcastically.
Blinken said the Biden administration would continue to fight the pipeline. “Our opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is unwavering,” he said.
Biden's administration has emphasized strengthening alliances internationally to deal with foreign policy challenges. U.S. relations with Germany were unsettled by President Donald Trump's frequent affronts to Germany and other European allies and Trump's enthusiasm for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who spoke with Blinken by phone 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.
The administration was making public the sanctions as 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 sanctions named eight Russian ships and companies. 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 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 that the pipeline should be abandoned because of Russia's treatment of opposition leader Alexei 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.
In Germany, the two leading contenders to succeed Merkel after the country's Sept. 26 general election have contrasting positions on the pipeline.
Lee reported from Reykjavik, Iceland. Knickmeyer reported from Oklahoma City. Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro in Washington and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.