WASHINGTON – The Senate shot down Sen. Ted Cruz’s bid for sanctions on a Russian gas pipeline company, after a contentious debate Thursday over the best way to deter strongman Vladimir Putin from ordering an invasion of Ukraine.
Senators in both parties invoked solidarity with Ukraine, a former Soviet Republic under siege with more than 100,000 Russian troops massed along the border.
Democrats argued that killing Nord Stream 2 now, before gas starts flowing to Germany, would cede huge economic leverage over Putin, who craves the revenue.
“Putin believes that once he brings Nord Stream 2 online, and once he’s changed the region through invasion, that no one will have the will to impose sanctions,” Cruz argued during hours of debate he forced by blocking dozens of diplomatic nominees last year.
When Russian tanks roll through Kiev in coming months, he warned, and “If the Democrats vote with Russia, with Putin… every senator, Democrat or Republican, will remember this moment.”
Recriminations echoed throughout the hours-long debate over how the pipeline has come so close to completion and how Putin felt emboldened to threaten its neighbor.
Cruz insisted that President Joe Biden encouraged the Russian aggression by waiving pipeline sanctions last spring.
Democrats hit back by noting that 94% of the project was built while Donald Trump was president – and that Trump waited until his last day in office before imposing sanctions that Congress had authorized two years earlier.
“That’s a Trump-Putin pipeline,” said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., adding that whoever is responsible for it getting this far, “Now is not the time to take off the table a key piece of leverage.”
If Cruz wins sanctions on Nord Stream 2 pipeline, is Russian invasion of Ukraine more likely?
Menendez crafted an alternative to the Cruz bill that would impose sanctions directly on Putin and his inner circle and cut Russia off from the international banking system – a comprehensive and “crippling” approach that forced Iran to the negotiating table in previous crises – if Russia attacks Ukraine.
“At this pivotal moment,” he warned, the Cruz approach “might even be the excuse Putin is looking for….We must send an unequivocal message that should Putin invade, the consequences would be devastating, that there would be a steep cost to the economy and the people of Russia,” he argued.
The current German government has stalled completion of the pipeline in response to the aggression toward Ukraine, reversing the enthusiastic push for the project from the previous chancellor, Angela Merkel.
For most of last year, Cruz froze dozens of diplomatic nominations, refusing to relent unless the president restored Nord Stream 2 sanctions that Biden had waived in order to revive U.S.-German relations frayed under Trump.
Shortly before Christmas, Cruz and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer struck a deal. Cruz allowed confirmation of 32 nominees, and Schumer promised a vote by Jan. 17 on Cruz’s pipeline sanctions bill.
Under Senate rules, that measure required 60 votes. The vote was 55-43.
But Cruz got the debate he’d sought for months.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the Republican whip, lauded Cruz for pushing so hard to force a vote.
“Sometimes around here you have to get people’s attention to get a vote on something,” he said on the Senate floor. “I’m not sure why you would wait until after the Russians cross the border and occupy Ukraine before you do something that might deter that kind of bad behavior.”
The minority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also advocated for Cruz’s bill.
“We can send a strong warning to Putin that he won’t be able to use energy as a weapon,” he said, adding that while Germany “should have shelved this project a long time ago” those who complain that Cruz’s approach is mostly aimed at embarrassing Biden and undermining solidarity with European allies are wrong.
“The pipeline itself is the wedge – decoupling Ukraine from Europe and making Europe even more reliant on Russian gas,” McConnell said. “We must not pull our punches out of some fear of provoking Putin.”
But Kentucky’s other Republican senator, Rand Paul, echoed arguments from Democrats that Cruz’s plan amounted to shooting your own hostage, eliminating whatever leverage the pipeline represents.
“The sanctionistas want to sanction an already completed pipeline,” he said, arguing that if the United States imposes sanctions now, “how are you deterring anything?”
Cruz asserted that Putin would have invaded Ukraine years ago, but couldn’t risk destroying the infrastructure Russia relied on to sell gas to Western Europe. Nord Stream 2 was designed to circumvent Ukraine.
In 2019, Congress approved sanctions authored by Cruz and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.
On Thursday, Shaheen touted her own bona fides as a pipeline opponent in chastising Cruz for pushing the same solution he sought nearly a year ago, despite a dynamic situation in Ukraine.
“We need to stop this pipeline, long term,” she said.
But for now, the project represents “leverage that the West can use at a pivotal moment, as Vladimir Putin is thinking about what he’s going to do in Ukraine….We can’t use yesterday’s solutions to help us solve today’s problems.”
Cruz insisted his bill targeted only the spinoff of the Russian energy giant Gazprom that created the 800-mile pipeline, though the text threatens any company with a role in construction or operation — a list that includes thousands of German companies.
Democrats accused the Texan of sloppiness in that regard, and of pushing a measure that would antagonize a key ally just as it’s coming around to the American position.
They also rejected Cruz’s contention that Biden emboldened Putin by waiving, noting that Trump had two years to impose sanctions but waited until the last possible moment to invoke that tool – within hours of handing the headache of a near-complete pipeline to his successor.
“This was the time when the meat of the pipeline was being built. And President Trump did nothing,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., accusing Cruz of selective outrage by pressuring Biden and keeping silent on Trump’s inaction. “This bill isn’t going to help Ukraine. It’s designed to hurt the president of the United States.”