US senate greenlights new Nord Stream 2 sanctions on Russia

The U.S. Senate on New Year’s Day easily overrode President Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA ) opening  the door to new U.S. sanctions to derail a controversial gas pipeline from Russia to western Europe bypassing Ukraine and Eastern Europe.

The Republican-led Senate’s 81-13 vote follows the Democrat-led House’s 322-87 vote on Dec. 28. amid the the tangled politics of the moment to overturn Trump’s veto of the annual NDAA which has traditionally been regarded as bipartisan must-pass legislation and signed into law by the end of the calendar year in the 59 years running.

The US$740.5 billion defense policy bill, among other important provisions, were internationally watched for its targeting of Russia for its recent malicious cyber activity and controversial gas pipeline to the western Europe.

The  $11.5 billion, 1,225-km Nord Stream 2 project is seen by the US as a serious geopolitical risk unnecessarily increasing Europe’s reliance on Russia, sidelining other transit states of eastern Europe, and enriching Kremlin-controlled Gazprom, at a time when Moscow stands accused of undermining European security and stability.

This week Russia was reported to be stepping up work, after a one-year pause prompted by previous U.S. sanctions, to complete the nearly 90%-done pipeline before the U.S. imposes new sanctions.

Previous year’s NDAA included sanctions against foreign vessels and company executives involved in the project. The measures were later credited for bringing work on the pipeline to a halt. This time, the provisions go further, targeting companies that provide insurance cover, or services for testing, inspection and the certification necessary for completion of the project.

Targeted companies will have until 31 January to wind down involvement in the pipeline project to avoid the full force of the sanctions.

Implementing the sanctions is likely to straddle the final weeks of President Trump’s term in office, which ends on 20 January, and the incoming administration led by president-elect Joe Biden will likely press for a tougher stance against Russia.

The European Commission also opposes the Nord Stream 2 project but says there are no legal grounds to prevent the private investment from going ahead.

The US also has other sets of sanctions in place for Russian companies and foreign companies involved in Russian energy exploration over Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea and direct involvement in violence and destabilizing actions in eastern Ukraine.