Cutting off Russia’s pipeline to power
Congress debates options to deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine
For nearly a year, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, held up confirmation votes on President Joe Biden’s ambassador appointments in an effort to demand U.S. sanctions of a major Russian natural gas pipeline. By December, the Senate had a backlog of 54 nominees waiting on its approval. Cruz relented and nominations began to pass once the Senate scheduled debate on the sanctions bill, which occurred Thursday. As the Senate debated the matter, more than 100,000 Russian troops bore down on Ukraine’s eastern border.
Cruz’s bill failed by a vote of 55-44; it needed 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. President Joe Biden has said he doesn’t want to sanction the pipeline just yet, and on Wednesday, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., unveiled a competing bill that sticks closer to Biden’s invasion prevention plan. It will consider pipeline sanctions but focus first on arming Ukraine and then exacting economic consequences if Russia invades.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, and it backs separatists in ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine. But the recent troop build-up threatens a full-on invasion of the former Soviet republic. Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded last month that NATO—a security alliance formed to counter Soviet threats after World War II—withdraw troops from much of eastern Europe and shut the door to new members, including Ukraine. Negotiations this week between the United States, Russia, Ukraine, and other European countries haven’t improved the mood. Tuesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, “We see no significant reason for optimism.”
Putin has repeatedly questioned Ukraine’s sovereignty and said he sees the nation as a natural territory of Russia—particularly the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, where more than 14,000 people have died in fighting between the separatists and the Ukrainian army. Biden has said the United States won’t send troops to push back a Russian invasion, but he could beef up the military aid the U.S. already gives Ukraine. If Russia invades, the Menendez bill would spend $500 million on military aid and authorize lethal aid including weapons built to attack tanks, planes, and ships, along with mortars and other smaller arms.
That prospect could convince Russia the cost of invasion is too high. But Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it could also backfire. “Yes, it would increase Ukraine’s ability to impose costs on the Russians. Putin would have to bring home more body bags,” Kupchan said. “On the other hand, Putin would see the further arming of Ukraine as a provocation.”
The United States and its European allies could also squeeze Russia by threatening to cut off trade if it invades. Russia has attempted to sanction-proof its economy since 2014 by deepening economic ties with China, stockpiling gold, and building a domestic alternative to a global financial transaction platform. Despite those measures, Russia would take a blow if the West stopped selling it technology or buying its major natural resources like timber and copper.
But Europe has grown increasingly dependent on Russia for the natural gas it uses to heat homes in the winter, and Russia could retaliate for economic sanctions by withholding fuel, causing shortages and soaring prices. That’s where the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that Cruz wants to sanction comes in. The pipeline has been built under the Baltic Sea between Russia and Germany but is not yet operational. Western sanctions would make it harder for Russia to open the pipeline, but it would also squeeze the U.S. relationship with Germany, which wants the fuel. Biden argues the United States should sanction the pipeline only if Russia invades Ukraine, not before.
Tuesday, Ukrainian researchers and officials urged the United States in a letter published by the Atlantic Council to sanction the pipeline now. Once it’s running, Russia won’t need Ukraine’s gas transit system, removing a deterrent to invasion, they argued. And, they noted, Russia could damage Ukraine’s transit system, deepening Germany’s dependency on Nord Stream 2 and undermining its commitment to post-invasion sanctions.
Marshall Billingslea, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former defense and security official, argues the Biden administration should embrace Cruz’s proposed sanctions along with military and economic measures. “This is a Russian dictatorship that is highly aggressive,” Billingslea said. “The only way to prevent war under these circumstances is to make crystal clear to the Russians that the cost that they will bear so far outweighs and exceeds the benefits they’ll gain. And right now, I don’t see that the Biden administration has done anything to change that cost-benefit calculus.”
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