In a nearly unanimous vote on Tuesday, the House passed a bill that imposes new sanctions on Moscow and forces Trump to seek congressional approval before easing any restrictions on Russia. The bill, part of a larger sanctions regimen that would also impose new restrictions and punitive measures on Iran and North Korea, was also passed by the Senate in another nearly unanimous vote (98-2) on Thursday. Unsurprisingly, the Trump administration has already signaled the President’s willingness to sign the bill (the same one that they were just badmouthing), turning an “L” into a “W” by mere say so.
The reaction to the bill from Russia is precisely as one would expect:
The sanctions are “equally dreadful from the point of view of international law and international trade relations,” Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday, warning that “such actions would not be left without a response.”
“This is already having an extremely negative impact on the process of normalising our relations,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Interfax news agency, warning that the sanctions are taking the US and Russia into “uncharted territory in a political and diplomatic sense.”
“We should look for counter measures that won’t harm our national interests, but will be painful for the Americans,” said Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the foreign relations committee in Russia’s upper house, stressing that such retaliation “should not be just symbolic.”
And sure enough, in the wake of the bill’s passage by the Senate, Russia began its retaliation, forcing the US to cut its diplomatic corps in Moscow and suspending America’s use of a storage facility in the Russian capital.
Related Reading: “It’s Time To Retaliate”: Putin Expels 755 U.S. Diplomats
But, of course, this type of fiery rhetoric and these kinds of counter-measures are exactly what you would expect from a country that is being put through the ringer by the undisputed world superpower, right?
So how about this statement?
“In a remarkable moment of candor, the US draft law reveals what this is really about: the sale of American liquefied gas and the displacement of Russian natural gas supplies from the European market. The aim of the sanctions is to secure jobs in the natural gas and oil industry in the USA. Political sanctions should not be associated with economic interests.”
Is this (admittedly accurate) description of the legislation and its contents the work of an angry Russian diplomat? A Russian military officer or businessman?
Nope. Try again. It’s part of a joint statement from German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern. And the two aren’t alone in holding this sentiment. A number of high-ranking European officials have sounded off about this bill, recognizing as they do that, whatever else might be going on here, the widening rift between Russia and the US is a dagger pointed at the heart of Europe.
Take European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who said of the new sanctions regime:
“The EU is fully committed to the Russia sanctions regime. However, G7 unity on sanctions and close coordination among allies are at the heart of ensuring the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements. This is a core objective that the EU and the US share. The US Bill could have unintended unilateral effects that impact the EU’s energy security interests. This is why the Commission concluded today that if our concerns are not taken into account sufficiently, we stand ready to act appropriately within a matter of days. America first cannot mean that Europe’s interests come last.”
Or of Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern:
“I consider the Russia sanctions imposed by the US absolutely unacceptable. Confusing political interests with economic interests at the expense of European jobs is a no-go. The energy supply of Europe is a matter for Europe!”
So what’s this about? Why is Europe so upset by US sanctions on Russia?
Nord Stream 2 is, as the name suggests, an extension of Nord Stream, the natural gas pipeline connecting the Russian port town of Vyborg to the German university city of Greifswald. Nord Stream currently consists of two parallel lines with a capacity of 1.9 trillion cubic feet, but the Nord Stream 2 expansion is expected to increase that capacity to 3.9 trillion cubic feet.
The problem from the EU perspective (or at least from the German perspective, which, on a bureaucratic level, may amount to the same thing) is that these new US sanctions on Russia, depending how they are implemented, could punish European companies working on the pipeline, including limiting those companies’ access to US banks. As Sigmar and Kern point out in their joint statement above, it’s not difficult to construe this move by the US as a cynical attempt to boost America’s burgeoning oil and gas export sector by disrupting the EU’s energy dependence on Russia.
This is why we’ve seen a remarkable amount of front- and back-door diplomacy from the EU on this American sanctions bill. As is now being reported, EU officials in Washington have been lobbying hard behind the scenes to limit the scope of these new sanctions and, as a result, have even managed to insert language directly into the text of the bill calling on Trump to “uphold and seek unity with European and other key partners on sanctions implemented against the Russian Federation.”
In the big scheme of things, this is not an earth-shattering rupture. Despite tough talk from Brussels (and Berlin) about “retaliation” over these new measures, no shots will be fired, no diplomatic relations broken, no dramatic shifts away from Washington and toward Moscow will be taking place. Yet.
But still, this is an interesting window into the fundamental question facing Europe in this ever-escalating Cold War 2.0 between Russia and the US. At what point will Europe have to pick a side? And is it necessarily and unquestionably the case that, if it does come to that, the Europeans will side with Uncle Sam over Comrade Vlad?
Others have framed this debate as one between the Atlanticists, who see the status quo of a Washington-run Pax Americana as essential to Europe’s livelihood, and the Eurasianists, who see the rise of Chinese- and Russian-led institutions and initiatives as a sign that Europe’s future prosperity lies in aligning itself with the rising economy of Asia. For those interested in seeing an end to an oligarchical world order, this is of course a false dialectic, as it excludes free association between independent people and reduces the world’s decision to one of NATO or SCO, World Bank or BRICS Bank, EU or EAEU.
False choice though it may be, however, it is still a choice—one that is going to affect the look and feel of the world in the decades to come. And although the EU is not going to defy the US on the world stage at this point, a growing alliance between Trump’s America and Brexited Britain might just turn continental Europe’s public opinion away from the status quo and into the embrace of Russia and China.