WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ted Cruz has expressed confidence that new U.S. sanctions will prevent the completion of a controversial Russian natural gas pipeline to Europe even as the Kremlin hurries to finish the undersea project.
Congress earlier this month passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which includes legislation sanctioning any companies that provide upgrading services for vessels working on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline or that provide insurance and certification services for the project.
The sanctions legislation will take effect should President Donald Trump sign the NDAA. The White House has threatened to veto the massive NDAA over separate legislation in the package.
The United States in December 2019 passed a bill that imposed sanctions on vessels laying the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, forcing Swiss-based Allseas to stop work on the project shortly before its completion.
Russia is now seeking to retrofit its own vessels to finish the pipeline, which is more than 90 percent complete, prompting Congress to pass the latest round of sanctions in an attempt to foil any more progress.
“This project, I believe, will never deliver gas,” Cruz, who co-sponsored the legislation, told an online conference on December 16 organized by the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.
The sanctions target “critical vulnerabilities without which the pipeline cannot be completed,” he said.
Cruz said Russia is spreading disinformation that the project’s completion was inevitable just as it did last year before the first round of sanctions.
“We know that they were wrong then. They are wrong now also. This project is not going to be completed,” he said.
Cruz, a Republican from Texas, the largest producer of oil and gas in the United States, dismissed claims that the sanctions were an attempt to further open the European gas market for U.S. energy exports, calling it Russian propaganda.
“As far as I’m concerned, getting [gas] anywhere other than Russia is a material improvement for everybody,” said Cruz.
Christopher Robinson, a deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. State Department’s Europe and Eurasia bureau told the conference that Washington had long been opposed to Nord Stream 2 and its predecessor, Nord Stream 1, before the United States had the ability -- legally and technically -- to export liquefied natural gas (LNG).
The United States began exporting LNG in February 2016, more than three years after Russia said it intended to move ahead with the second phase of the project.
Washington is opposed to Nord Stream 2 on the grounds that it undermines Ukraine and increases European dependence on Russian energy.
The pipeline would not increase total Russian natural gas exports to Europe, rather it would reroute Russian gas destined for the continent under the Baltic Sea to a port in Germany, bypassing an existing land route through Ukraine and depriving Kyiv of billions of dollars in annual fees.
Nord Stream 2 was scheduled for completion in early 2020 but was delayed by the first round of U.S. sanctions. Russia is now seeking to lay the remaining 100 kilometers of the 1,230-kilometer pipeline, announcing earlier this month that it had begun work on a 2.6 kilometer stretch in German waters.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in January, a few weeks after the first round of sanctions were imposed, that he hoped the project would be completed by the end of March 2021.
Ben Schmitt, a researcher at Harvard University and former European energy security adviser at the State Department, told the conference that Russia could increase aggression toward Ukraine if it completes the project and is no longer dependent on its neighbor’s pipeline system.
Russia illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and soon began backing rebels in two of the country’s eastern provinces.
The project has divided the European Union.
While some nations, especially in eastern Europe, have expressed opposition to the pipeline, Germany supports it, raising concerns on both sides of the Atlantic that Washington could damage relations with Berlin if the legislation becomes law.
Debra Cagan, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, said U.S.-German relations are so expansive that the sanctions dispute is just a “blip on the radar.”
Germany, she pointed out, would only consume about 15 percent of the gas it receives from Nord Stream 2 and resell the rest to other countries.
Furthermore, it would be on the hook for $10 billion if the project isn’t completed, she said.
“I think we have to be honest here and say that [German opposition to sanctions] is more about profits than about geopolitics,” she said.