Senators say German chancellor backs Biden on Russia, Nord Stream 2

Senators leave embassy dinner with assurances

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and President Joe Biden participate in a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House on Monday.  (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and President Joe Biden participate in a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House on Monday. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Posted February 8, 2022 at 5:56pm

The Senate’s top Republican on Tuesday said he received assurances from Germany’s new leader that if Russian President Vladimir Putin orders an invasion of Ukraine, it would trigger the end of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was among a small bipartisan group of senators to have dinner on Monday evening in Washington with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who earlier in the day had his first one-on-one meeting with President Joe Biden, at the White House. Biden said an invasion would mean the end of the divisive gas pipeline, but Scholz declined to be as explicit.

“He confirmed what President Biden said yesterday: That if invasion occurs, Nord Stream 2 will not go forward,” McConnell said during his weekly GOP leadership press conference, referring to the underwater pipeline that would transport Russian natural gas to Germany and energy markets elsewhere in Europe.

Germany has indefinitely paused the regulatory approval process of Nord Stream 2 amid the standoff with Putin over his deployment of over 100,000 Russian troops along Ukraine’s borders.

Congress has opposed the development of the pipeline from the beginning, seeing it as giving Moscow leverage over energy-dependent European countries to coerce their governments into acceding to the Kremlin’s foreign policy wishes.

Thus far, Berlin has refrained from making explicit public pledges that it will kill the pipeline if Putin invades Ukraine again, though it has offered vague assurances on the subject. That is partly the result of the coalition politics of the new German government, which came to power late last year.

“If Russia invades, that means tanks or troops crossing the border of Ukraine again, then there will ... be no longer a Nord Stream 2,” Biden said during a joint press conference with Scholz after their Monday meeting. “We will bring an end to it.”

Breaking bread

While Scholz did not publicly promise to shutter the pipeline project when he was repeatedly pressed by reporters, he did go further than in previous comments by saying Germany would only act in unison with the United States in imposing consequences on Russia, should there be a new attack on Ukraine.

“You can be sure that there won’t be any measures in which we have a differing approach. We will act together jointly and say to our American friends, ‘We will be united, we will act together, and we will take all the necessary steps,’” the chancellor said through a translator. “We will do the same steps, and they will be very, very hard to Russia.”

Senators who dined with Scholz on Monday said he expanded on those assurances while breaking bread at the German embassy. They reported feeling more assured after hearing more about internal political dynamics that have kept German officials from making more explicit public promises on the sanctions front.

“We had a really good exchange. It was friends talking to friends. And we came away with, I think, a good feeling Germany was in the same place we are on Ukraine,” Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Jim Risch told reporters on Tuesday.

“Their view is that strategic ambiguity is an appropriate strategy. ... We use it ourselves in a lot of different situations,” the Idaho Republican said. “I came away from that dinner very convinced that that we are congruent in our view of this and are going to work together as best we can to see that, first of all, that there is no invasion, and if there is that there is a horrendous price to pay for it.”

Added Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., who was also at the dinner: “German politics are funny. They can’t say things out loud, on the fly, like we can. They form a coalition [government], and they stick to the agreements they made — which means he has less wiggle room to make public commitments on Nord Stream than we may like.”

Sanctions talks continue 

Meanwhile, talks continued on a bipartisan Senate deal on Russia sanctions, though it remains unclear when a deal might be reached that would pave the way for legislation to reach Biden’s desk

“I think time is of the essence. And, so, I certainly would love to make sure we can make it happen as soon as possible,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., whose Russia sanctions legislation is being used as the basis for the bipartisan talks, told reporters.

Asked if a bipartisan deal might be reached before the Senate adjourns in less than two weeks for a President’s Day recess period, the New Jersey Democrat replied: “I never put myself [under] time limits. I hope to.”

Risch, who is the leading GOP negotiator on the Russia sanctions package, was similarly non-explicit when asked about a timeline: “We’re running out of runway here, and it’s really important that we get this done.”

Murphy, who is also participating in the sanctions negotiations, said he was optimistic a deal could be announced this week.

Differences between Republicans and Democrats over Nord Stream 2 sanctions have been mostly worked out, he said, leaving the final matter down to what mixture of sanctions to immediately impose on Russia and how much to leave back as a deterrent against invasion.

“My sense is that there’s still paper being traded on the balance of pre-invasion and post-invasion sanctions,” Murphy told reporters. “I think the Nord Stream 2 piece is in pretty good shape.”