Senate Dems offer sanctions-lite on Russian pipeline as an alternative to tougher GOP bill

Senate Dems offer sanctions-lite on Russian pipeline as an alternative to tougher GOP bill

Sen. Ted Cruz‘s bill to reimpose sanctions on Russia‘s Nord Stream 2 pipeline got some competition Wednesday from a Democratic bill that would threaten, but not impose, new penalties on the project.

The new bill also gives Democrats an alternative to badly embarrassing President Biden for nixing the Trump-era sanctions on the Russia-to-Germany natural gas pipeline. The sanctions, mirroring Mr. Biden‘s stance, would only take effect if Russia invades Ukraine.

Republicans say the U.S. can’t wait until after an invasion to get tough on the Kremlin.

The Biden administration has lobbied against the bill by Mr. Cruz, Texas Republican, that would immediately affect the Russian undersea pipeline into Germany.

The new measure, led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, includes a bevy of threats against Russia should they invade. It would then impose mandatory sanctions against Russian officials and financial institutions as well as measures to bolster Ukrainian defense forces.

“This legislation makes it absolutely clear that the U.S. Senate will not stand idly by as the Kremlin threatens a reinvasion of Ukraine,” Mr. Menendez said.

The bill would express a “sense of Congress that Nord Stream 2 is a tool of the malign influence of the Russian Federation.” It directs the Biden administration to “consider all available and appropriate measures to prevent the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from becoming operational,” and “to review its prior waiver of Nord Stream 2 in light of the Kremlin’s military buildup and aggression of Ukraine.”

The bill’s language on Nord Stream 2 falls well short of the immediate sanctions proposed by Republicans, which Mr. Cruz managed to force to a vote in the Democrat-run Senate by the end of the week.

“It’s political theater,” John E. Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who now serves as senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, said of the Menendez bill.

“Having those sanctions is not a bad thing at all,” he said. “But it is designed to allow the Democratic senators to say, ‘See, we’re tough on Russia too, we just don’t like the bill Cruz put on the floor.’ Menendez‘s bill is all about protecting their flanks on Nord Stream 2.”

The Biden administration waived the Trump-era sanctions against the pipeline in May. It argued that the sanctions would have little effect in curbing progress on the pipeline, which runs through the Baltic Sea.

Critics contend that the natural gas pipeline will increase Moscow’s dominance over European energy markets and put Germany and other countries at risk of energy extortion.

Mr. Cruz got the Senate’s Democratic leaders to schedule a Jan. 14 vote on his sanctions bill in exchange for him releasing holds on dozens of Mr. Biden‘s nominees for ambassadorships.

Mr. Cruz‘s bill needs 60 votes to pass and Republicans have said they are confident they can secure enough support to get it over the finish line.

The vote puts Senate Democrats in a bind over backing tough-on-Kremlin legislation that would embarrass Mr. Biden. The Menendez bill offers a way out.

Mr. Menendez was highly critical of the removing pipeline sanctions but voting to undo Mr. Biden‘s moves would be a rebuke on a much larger scale.

Several Democrats remained on the fence early this week, prompting Biden administration officials to meet with senators to try to walk back support for the Cruz bill, which they say could tank U.S. leverage amid high-stakes negotiations with Russia.

The State Department said Tuesday that it was working with lawmakers “on a package of sanctions that maximizes the potential costs to Russia if they further invade Ukraine which [Mr. Cruz‘s] legislation does not do.”

Mr. Menendez‘s proposal is in line with Mr. Biden‘s stance but does little to quell hawkish Republicans adamant about reimposing sanctions immediately.

Nonetheless, Mr. Menendez rejected the premise that his bill was meant to draw support away from Mr. Cruz‘s bill.

“My focus on my legislation is not to defeat Sen. Cruz,” Mr. Menendez said. “It is to find the most powerful way to deter Russia from considering invading Ukraine. And I think what we have done in this package that I call the mother of all sanctions package is the most powerful way to achieve that.”