Amid U.S.-Russia talks, vote on sanctioning Putin's pipeline puts Democrats in a bind

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  • Vladimir Putin
    Vladimir Putin
    2nd and 4th President of Russia
  • Joe Biden
    Joe Biden
    46th and current president of the United States

The Ukrainian government is publicly urging senators to vote for Sen. Ted Cruz's bill sanctioning the Nord Stream 2 pipeline — calling the project "no less an existential threat to our security" than the Russian troops on its border.

Why it matters: With U.S. officials in Europe for talks with Russia this week, Democrats face an uncomfortable choice — either buck President Biden or vote against sanctions on a pipeline they have long publicly opposed. The decision comes at a moment of crisis for Ukraine.

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The big picture: Nord Stream 2, which is fully built but still awaiting regulatory approval, would bypass Ukrainian transit infrastructure and deliver Russian natural gas directly to Germany.

  • Consecutive U.S. presidents have opposed the pipeline, which the Biden administration has called a "harmful Russian geopolitical project" that could allow the Kremlin to coerce Ukraine or use energy as a weapon.

  • But Biden struck a deal with Germany to waive sanctions on the company that working to finish construction on the pipeline. He contended that the pipeline was already 98% done, and it was important to repair relations with Germany after years of strain under the Trump administration.

How we got here: Nord Stream 2 has become one of the Biden administration's biggest headaches in Congress, after Cruz initiated a campaign in August to hold up all State Department nominees until sanctions were imposed.

  • In late December, Cruz reached a deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to release his hold on 32 nominees in exchange for the Senate holding a vote on Nord Stream 2 sanctions by Jan. 14.

  • Assuming all Republicans vote in favor, the bill needs 10 Senate Democrats to reach the 60-vote threshold to pass.

What they're saying: State Department spokesman Ned Price said last week that Cruz's bill "is not, in our estimation, a genuine effort to counter further Russian aggression or to protect Ukraine."

  • Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a top advocate for Ukraine in Congress and co-author of previous Nord Stream 2 sanctions legislation, told Axios that she shares the Ukrainians' concerns — but is "not convinced" Cruz's bill is the best path forward.

  • “The dynamics have changed," Shaheen said, arguing that the U.S. should continue to pursue diplomacy with Germany "to prevent Putin from acquiring a weapon that threatens Europe's broader security."

The other side: While Ukraine wants the project killed now, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other top Biden officials say the fact that it's now in limbo, with no gas yet flowing, is a source of "leverage" for the U.S. and Europe.

  • A senior State Department official told Axios that it's "inconceivable" that Nord Stream 2 would become operational if Russia invades Ukraine, and stressed that "trans-Atlantic unity" is necessary to deter Russian aggression "across the board."

  • A wedge in the trans-Atlantic relationship right now would "send the wrong signal for Vladimir Putin at what is especially the wrong time," the official said.

Between the lines: The Biden administration and Democrats frequently cite "trans-Atlantic unity" as a key reason not to sanction Nord Stream 2, but the project has few supporters left in Europe outside of Germany's ruling Social Democrats.

  • German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has called Nord Stream 2 a "private sector project" and sought to delink it from proposals for deterring Russian aggression.

  • Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a fellow Social Democrat, is now chairman of the Russian energy company Rosneft and the board of Nord Stream 2.

  • "Virtually all of Europe and even half the German government are opposed to NS2," a source close to the Ukrainian side told Axios. "If one is serious about transatlantic unity and supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression," the source argued, the "logical position" is to sanction Nord Stream 2.

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