Biden's Russia credentials questioned over European pipeline

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks on foreign policy at the State Department, Wednesday, March 3, 2021 in Washington. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via AP) (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds)

WASHINGTON – After years of Democratic accusations that former President Donald Trump was too soft on Russia, the Biden administration is facing Republican criticism of its approach to Moscow.

In particular, Republicans accuse him of not doing enough to halt a gas pipeline to Europe that many believe will give Russia a tool for political influence over energy-dependent Central and East European nations. To make their point, they’ve delayed confirmation of some of Biden’s top national security nominees, including for the CIA and top spots at the State Department.

And, they’re planning to grill Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the matter when he testifies before Congress on Wednesday.

The Biden administration rejects the criticism, saying it has been clear about penalties for companies involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and that its goal is to bolster European energy security.

The administration also is weighing punitive measures against Russia for the SolarWinds hacking campaign, in which at least nine federal agencies and 100 private companies were breached, and has imposed sanctions on some Russians over the poisoning and imprisonment of opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

Biden's critics, though, say the Navalny sanctions are largely redundant measures. And, they have become increasingly vocal over his response to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which has not yet included any steps beyond what the Trump administration took in its waning months in office.

“We are deeply concerned that the administration’s strong statements in opposition to the pipeline are not being matched by equally strong actions," four senior Republican congressmen said in a letter to Blinken on Monday. The letter was signed by the top GOP member of the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, and the lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas.

On the Senate side, Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Tom Cotton of Arkansas have all weighed in with similar concerns.

Cruz has slapped a hold on Biden's nominee for CIA director, former career diplomat William Burns, over the matter, and is threatening similar holds on nominations of Wendy Sherman and Brian McKeon to be deputy secretaries of state.

“I’ll release my hold when the Biden admin meets its legal obligation to report and sanction the ships and companies building Putin’s pipeline," Cruz said on Twitter. “Follow the law. Stop being soft on Russia.”

While Trump was enamored of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he opposed the pipeline and criticized Germany for supporting the project.

Like the Trump administration before it, the Biden administration believes the pipeline will harm European energy security, particularly for countries in Eastern and Central Europe like Ukraine and Poland, which the pipeline bypasses. U.S. officials have long said they fear Russia will use the pipeline as a political tool against its neighbors.

At the heart of the current complaint is a report that Blinken's State Department sent to Congress last month that added a layer of sanctions to a Russian vessel and the shipowner that had been previously penalized for their work on the pipeline, but did not impose new sanctions on others.

Republicans, and some Democrats, complained that the report was redundant in identifying the pipelaying ship Fortuna and its owner, KVT-RUS. The Trump administration had hit both with sanctions in January.

The Biden administration suggests more sanctions may be coming.

“We continue to examine entities involved in potentially sanctionable activity,” the State Department said. “We have been clear that companies risk sanctions if they are involved in Nord Stream 2.”

“The administration’s focus and efforts remain the same: preventing the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which President Biden has called a ‘bad deal’ that divides Europe," it said. “The United States will continue to work with allies and partners, including Germany and Ukraine, to counter Russian efforts to undermine our collective security.”