The European Union has urged international partners to coordinate any new sanctions against Russia, a day after the U.S. Senate proposed additional measures against Moscow that drew a sharp rebuke from Germany and other allies.
A spokeswoman for the European Commission told the Reuters news agency on June 16 that it was "important for possible new measures to be coordinated between international partners to ensure their impact internationally and to maintain unity among partners on the sanctions."
The U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly on June 15 for new sanctions on key sectors of Russia's economy and cementing into law existing sanctions on Russia over its aggression in Ukraine and alleged meddling into the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
Russia denies acting to influence the U.S. election but the U.S. intelligence community in January issued an assessment affirming that Russian President Vladimir Putin "ordered an influence campaign" to benefit the candidacy of Donald Trump.
Germany and Austria strongly objected to a key provision in the Senate's legislation, saying it could hurt European businesses involved in a project to bring Russian natural-gas supplies to Europe.
The provision enables the United States to impose sanctions on European firms involved in financing Russian energy-export pipelines to Europe, including the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that is being built under the Baltic Sea to provide Russian gas to Germany.
The pipeline project was conceived by Russia and Germany as a way to avoid sending gas to Europe through an existing pipeline that runs through Ukraine, which has proved to be unreliable at times because of a long-running spat between Kyiv and Moscow over the cost of gas and other contract terms.
Addressing reporters in Berlin on June 16, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert described the U.S. move as "peculiar."
Seibert said it was "strange" that sanctions intended to punish Russia for meddling in the U.S. elections could also lead to penalties against European companies.
He added that Chancellor Angela Merkel shared the concerns raised by the German and Austrian foreign ministers who charged in a joint statement that the U.S. measure brings a "completely new, very negative dimension into European-American relations."
"Europe's energy supply is a matter for Europe, and not for the United States of America," the ministers, Sigmar Gabriel and Christian Kern, said on June 15.
With several major European companies involved in building the new Nord Stream pipeline, they said that "we can't accept the threat of illegal and extraterritorial sanctions against European companies" posed by the Senate bill.
Half of the cost of the new Nord Stream pipeline is being paid for by Russian gas giant Gazprom, while the other half is being shouldered by a European group including Royal Dutch Shell, an Anglo-Dutch enterprise, French provider Engie, OMV of Austria, and Germany's Uniper and Wintershall.
The United States in the past has cautioned its European allies against building the Nord Stream 2 project, saying it would increase European dependence on Russian energy supplies, but it hasn't previously attempted to interfere with plans to move the project forward.
Natural Gas Ambitions?
The Austrian and German officials said one motive behind the Senate bill may be an attempt to help U.S. natural-gas suppliers at the expense of their Russian rivals. The United States recently started shipping liquefied natural gas to Poland and has ambitions to cultivate other European customers.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin said it had an "extremely negative attitude" toward the proposed new U.S. sanctions and considers the discontent expressed by Germany and Austria "understandable."
Legislation passed by the Senate on June 15, which included tougher new sanctions against both Russia and Iran, aimed at punishing Russian President Vladimir Putin for his country’s alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and making Tehran pay a price for its "continued support of terrorism."
The bill will now be sent to the House of Representatives for approval before being sent to President Donald Trump for his signature.
By tying Iran and Russia together, Congress has made it more difficult for Trump to oppose the action as the president, who has been highly critical of Iran, would have to reject the tougher sanctions against Tehran if it rejected other parts of the legislation.
The vote came a day after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a plea for patience from lawmakers in relation to Russia, saying the administration feared being "handcuffed" by the new measure.
The United States and European Union have imposed a series of sanctions on Russia over its armed takeover of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and its backing for separatists in a war that has killed more than 10,000 people in eastern Ukraine.
With reporting by AP, dpa, Reuters, and Interfax