Germany’s economics minister on July 31 urged the European Union to fight back against new sanctions by the United States that could penalize Western companies doing business with Russia.
The new sanctions targeting Russia's energy firms were included in legislation passed overwhelmingly by Congress last week and expected to be signed into law by President Donald Trump.
The provisions affecting Europe would allow Trump to impose sanctions on Western businesses working with Russia's Gazprom to build the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline between Russia and Germany through the Baltic Sea.
European leaders say the sanctions will jeopardize their energy security and hurt their economies.
"We consider this as being against international law, plain and simple," German Economics Minister Brigitte Zypries said in an interview published by the Funke Mediengruppe newspaper chain on July 31.
"The Americans can’t punish German companies because they have business interests in another country,” Zypries said. "Of course, we don't want a trade war. But it is important the European Commission now looks into countermeasures."
Zypries said Berlin had repeatedly asked Washington not to include the provisions affecting European companies in a broader bill targeting Russia with sanctions over its alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election, aggression in Ukraine, and other matters.
"Unfortunately, that is exactly what they are doing. That means that it is right that the European Commission now considers countermeasures," she said.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned last week that "if our concerns are not taken into account sufficiently, we stand ready to act appropriately within a matter of days" of the provisions taking effect.
The United States has for years opposed the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, saying it will only increase European dependence on Russia for natural gas when Western allies should be diversifying their energy sources away from Russia.
But the sanctions bill represents the first time Washington has taken concrete action in its opposition to the pipeline that could lead to punitive measures against European companies.
The new sanctions are also coupled with provisions encouraging European countries to purchase liquefied natural gas from the United States as an alternative to relying on Russian gas.
"One is left with the sense that the United States is looking to its own economic interests," Volker Triere, the head of the Germany Chamber of Industry and Commerce, said last week.
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel warned last week that Germany will not tolerate sanctions against European companies involved in the Nord Stream project.
Some German business groups are advocating countersanctions against the United States if Trump decides to impose sanctions on European companies.
U.S. lawmakers had modified the bill after initial complaints by European leaders that it was too harmful to companies working with Russia on Nord Stream.
Meanwhile, Russia retaliated on July 28 over the sanctions in the bill by ordering the United States to reduce its diplomatic staff in Russia by 755 people.
Late on July 31, the White House said it was mulling a response to the Russian order.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told a news briefing that the administration is looking at possible options and would say something more definitive at a later date.
Vice President Mike Pence, who is visiting Eastern Europe and Georgia this week, said "we hope for better days, for better relations with Russia" eventually, despite Trump's plans to sign the sanctions bill.