Trump approves Russia-Europe gas pipeline sanctions

US sanctions against companies working on Russia's new undersea gas pipeline to Europe would likely antagonize European allies (AFP Photo/Bernd Wüstneck) (dpa/AFP/File)

Washington (AFP) - President Donald Trump on Friday signed off on US sanctions against companies building a Russian natural gas pipeline to Germany that Congress fears will give the Kremlin dangerous leverage over European allies.

The sanctions, which are opposed by the European Union, were included in a sprawling defense spending bill Trump signed at a ceremony on Joint Base Andrews, an air force installation outside Washington, DC.

They target companies building the nearly $11 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline under the Baltic Sea with the aim of doubling deliveries of Russian natural gas to Europe's leading economy, Germany.

US lawmakers have warned the pipeline would enrich a hostile Russian government and vastly increase President Vladimir Putin's influence in Europe at a time of heightened tension across the continent.

Both houses of Congress overwhelmingly approved the sanctions, with the Senate voting Tuesday to send the measure to Trump's desk.

Trump, who has been accused by Democratic opponents of being soft on Putin, had little choice but to give his approval.

The sanctions were inserted into a much wider $738 billion annual Pentagon funding bill and, given the level of congressional support, a veto would likely have been overturned.

The US measures have angered Moscow and the European Union, which says it should be able to decide its own energy policies.

Germany's foreign minister, Heiko Maas, discussed the issue during a phone call Friday with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.

Pompeo expressed "strong opposition" to the project, Ortagus said in a statement.

The German-Russian Chamber of Commerce insisted last week that the pipeline was important for energy security and urged retaliatory sanctions against the United States if the bill passes.

The US sanctions target pipe-laying vessels for Nord Stream 2 and TurkStream, a Russia-Turkey pipeline, and include asset freezes and revocations of US visas for the contractors.

One major contractor that could be hit is Allseas, which has been hired by Russia's state-owned energy giant Gazprom to build the offshore section.

Following the act's signing, the Swiss-based company said in a statement it had "suspended its Nord Stream 2 pipelay activities."

The power of Gazprom, which is closely integrated with the Russian state, is at the center of concerns about the pipeline in the United States, and also in eastern and central European countries.

Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican ally of Trump, said that halting Nord Stream 2 should be a major security priority for the United States and Europe alike.

"It's far better for Europe to be relying on energy from the United States than to be fueling Putin and Russia and dependent on Russia and subject to economic blackmail," he told the Senate last week.

However, Senator Rand Paul, another Republican, voted against the bill, objecting to its bid to "sanction NATO allies and potentially American energy companies."