As Russian President Vladimir Putin toys with another invasion of Ukraine, President Joe Biden and other world leaders are hoping one piece of leverage could dissuade Putin from a military advance: the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Nord Stream 2 is a natural gas pipeline stretching from Russia to Germany that’s completed but not yet pumping gas. The pipeline could provide billions in revenue for Moscow and Putin allies, and shutting down the pipeline would only be part of the economic sanctions that Biden and others are preparing for Russia if the country once again invades Ukraine.
And yet, many lawmakers on Capitol Hill think the United States should shut down the pipeline now regardless of what Putin does.
Critics view the pipeline as a bad deal that would allow Russia to squeeze European gas markets, insert divisions among European countries, and gain an economic upper hand. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Europe subcommittee, said this week that he’s interested in taking action that would prevent Nord Stream 2 “from ever becoming operational” and “ending it permanently.”
The Biden administration waived sanctions on a company involved in the pipeline’s construction earlier this year as part of an effort to rebuild relations with Germany, after four rocky years between Chancellor Angela Merkel and former President Donald Trump. And Republicans are still upset by Biden’s decision to lift the sanctions.
“Many of us were very disappointed that those sanctions were not fully implemented and the construction continued,” Johnson said Tuesday.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), who serves on both the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted that Russia has already taken on the role of a bully in recent months and needs to be stopped.
“The world has watched Russia use natural gas to coerce and to manipulate countries all around Europe, severely limited the flow of gas through Ukraine, no longer delivers gas to Hungary… Moldova has declared a state of emergency due to Russia threatening to cut off gas,” Barrasso said. “As physical construction in Nord Stream 2 nears completion, Putin reduced gas production and deliveries to dramatically increase prices.”
But Putin’s reliance on the gas pipeline may actually play into Biden’s hands.
“It is leverage for the West,” Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told reporters in a White House press briefing. “If Vladimir Putin wants to see gas flow through that pipeline, he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine.”
As Russia builds up its troop levels along the border with Ukraine, a top official at the State Department, Victoria Nuland, told lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week that the pipeline would be one of the first punishments.
“If President Putin moves on Ukraine, our expectation is that the pipeline will be suspended,” Nuland told lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.
Still, Biden’s threats to block Nord Stream 2 might not actually deter Putin.
Dan Hoffman, a former CIA station chief, told The Daily Beast that sanctions writ large won’t do much to stop a Russian advance.
“If you wanna feel better or think you’re going to make yourself feel better by sanctioning his guys, go ahead, do it. But Ukraine is an existential threat to Vladimir Putin,” Hoffman said. “So whatever threats of sanctions—they’re just not going to amount to much as far as altering his calculus.”
After a two-hour video call with Putin on Tuesday, Biden himself said he was straightforward with the Russian leader that if he invaded Ukraine he would face economic sanctions. And Biden said Putin seemed to understand those consequences. The United States may also make it more difficult to convert Russian rubles into other currencies, and Sullivan said the United States and allies may send Ukraine military weapons to help the country defend itself.
None of this, however, may stop Putin.
Nuland herself doesn’t think dangling Nord Stream 2 in front of Russia will make much of a difference, given Putin’s longstanding interest in claiming territory in Ukraine.
”I believe that President Putin will make his decisions with regard to Ukraine [regardless] of Nord Stream 2,” Nuland said. “I believe he has an aspiration to have control of Ukraine.”
The Biden administration and his closest advisers from the outset have said Biden and his team have been against Nord Stream 2. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told lawmakers just this March that Biden saw the pipeline as a “bad idea” and had been “clear on this for some time.”
Many lawmakers—not just Republicans—agree with that sentiment. Johnson said this week that he couldn’t “think of a more powerful way to punish Russian aggression than by rolling back what progress has been made and, if at all possible, prevent the Nord Stream 2 from ever being completed.”
And yet, Johnson told The Daily Beast he doesn’t think the Biden administration should be flinging around Nord Stream 2 as part of a barter with Putin to ease Russia away from invasion.
“I have been clear that Nord Stream 2 is not a bargaining chip,” Johnson told The Daily Beast. “The Biden administration needs to immediately impose the sanctions that have been mandated by Congress to prevent Nord Stream 2 from becoming operational. Biden allowing the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was a blunder. He has continually shown weakness abroad. The U.S. needs to act now, get our European partners on board and unified to hold Putin accountable and prevent further malign actions against Ukraine.”
For now, lawmakers have little sway over what the Biden administration chooses to do on Nord Stream 2. Leaders from the House and the Senate released a compromise National Defense Authorization Act for next year that stripped language blocking the pipeline, and the chances of forcing Biden’s hand on a decision now seems almost impossible.
As Nuland put it this week, the debate about Nord Stream 2, in many ways, is a question about funding Putin’s government and whether the United States and other nations want to be complicit in Russia’s buildup along Ukraine’s border.
“Energy is the cash cow that enables these kinds of military deployments,” Nuland said Tuesday. “This is part of what we are discussing with our allies and partners as we build the sanctions packages… Putin needs the energy to flow.”
The U.S. government has been lobbying European allies to use alternative energy sources as a result. “We have been counseling Europe for almost a decade now to reduce its dependence on Russian energy, including our opposition to Nord Stream… and to find alternative sources,” Nuland added.
But even that strategy might not be enough. The United States needs to take a good hard look at its energy-dependency on Russia in the coming days, too, according to Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA). Russia is America’s second favorite supplier of foreign oil, as of this August.
“We ourselves have to square up our own domestic oil policy since so much of the revenues that Putin gets come from the American consumer,” Markey said. “All that oil that’s coming into our country is something that I’m sure causes a real bemusement to Putin.”
“We’re trying to preach temperance from a barstool,” Markey added.