Politics & Policy

Biden Balks on Russia

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Vice President Joe Biden during their meeting in Moscow March 10, 2011. (Alexander Natruskin/Reuters)

When Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of an Arctic Council summit in Reykjavik later today, observers at home and, perhaps, more importantly, abroad, will harbor grave new doubts about the Biden administration’s resolve to meet Moscow’s threat to European security.

The Biden administration decided to shield Vladimir Putin ally Matthias Warnig and the corporate entity overseeing the construction of the Nord Stream 2 Russian-backed pipeline from congressionally mandated sanctions which were approved in 2019, and which Foggy Bottom has taken great pains to delay, according to an Axios report.

That’s a huge mistake, and it risks depriving Ukraine of a major source of revenue as Kyiv continues its grueling fight against Moscow-backed separatist forces in the eastern part of the country and confronts a Russian military buildup on what’s left of its border.

The pipeline, which is about 95 percent complete and runs from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea, circumventing routes that run through Ukraine, can now only be stopped by U.S. sanctions penalizing firms involved in its construction. The tricky part is that many of these entities are German and Swiss, hence the German government’s self-interested opposition to the sanctions, which now seems to be dictating U.S. policy.

This is a change. The Trump administration could not have cared less about Berlin’s resistance. Chancellor Angela Merkel and other top officials have maintained that Nord Stream 2 is merely a business transaction, one that should not be sullied by politics and extraterritorial U.S. sanctions targeting German firms. An indignant Merkel told the Bundestag last summer that “we will act in this context.”

Ukrainians, naturally, see it differently. “Remember, this is not a business issue,” President Volodymyr Zelensky told Le Figaro last month. “No, it’s a matter of war.”

Like Ukraine, Poland and other countries in the region are threatened by Russia’s tightening grip on their allies’ energy supply. In the past, Moscow has demonstrated no hesitation to turn off the spigot when it needs to get what it wants, but Berlin, driven by the importance of “securing” energy supplies for its industries (something imperiled by Merkel’s misguided turn away from nuclear to renewables) and by a lingering attachment to neo-neutralism, seems content to ignore the obvious opportunity for blackmail that Nord Stream 2 will represent.

Where the Trump administration raised hell, however, the Biden administration has toned down the American campaign against Vladimir Putin’s energy ambitions in order to avoid irritating Germany, a country that it sees as a vital strategic partner.

Blinken has warned entities involved in the pipeline that they are at risk of triggering U.S. sanctions, and the State Department will technically deliver on his threat. In fact, it has to act, because that’s what the law requires, as impatient members of Congress have pointed out repeatedly over the past several months. Senators Bob Menendez and Jeanne Shaheen wrote in a March letter to Blinken that the sanctions “are not simply an authority provided to the executive branch — they are mandated in law — and publicly available information suggests that further sanctions are warranted.”

The administration is technically meeting these statutory requirements while vitiating their intended effect. As Axios reports, it will sanction a “handful of Russian ships” and also designate the Nord Stream 2 corporate entity and its head, Warnig (a former Stasi agent), thus admitting they are involved in sanctionable activity and fulfilling its legal obligations. Yet Blinken’s team will at the same time use its authority under the law to waive the actual sanctions on the corporate entity and Warnig.

Yesterday afternoon, the administration put a ridiculous spin on the story. Officials told Axios that the waiver actually “establishes leverage” over those entities, since they know that the U.S. could impose sanctions at any moment. If so, why not actually impose the sanctions? And even though Blinken’s team followed up the report by releasing the summary of a call with the German foreign minister where the secretary of state “emphasized U.S. opposition” to the pipeline, the administration’s actions speak louder than its diplomatic talk.

Some might say that soft-pedaling U.S. opposition to Nord Stream 2 brings the U.S. closer to Berlin when German support to counter China is more important than ever. This ignores, however, the awkward reality that the Merkel government, with its eye firmly on the opportunity for German companies in China, has courted Beijing, expressing relative indifference to the Chinese Communist Party’s abuses. Making matters worse, the administration appears to be aligning itself with a government that may be on the way out. If the country’s ruling coalition is replaced in September by a coalition led by the Greens (something that is by no means impossible), Berlin may change direction, since that party opposes Nord Stream 2.

The administration’s approach reveals a key fault of its foreign policy: When the president says, “diplomacy is back,” he means that a certain deference to Western European leaders is back. When he and his top advisers extol the importance of alliances, they really only mean a few of them.

Earlier this month, Blinken took an admirably tough line against Moscow, visiting Ukraine for meetings with top officials, including Zelensky. “I can tell you, Mr. President, that we stand strongly with you,” Blinken said, adding, “We look to Russia to cease reckless and aggressive actions.”

But if the Biden administration refuses to pluck such low-hanging fruit as sanctioning Putin cronies, why would Lavrov take such demands seriously?

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