Why Europeans Oppose the Russia Sanctions Bill

It imperils the Continent’s energy security and would end up benefiting Moscow.


European leaders symbolically start the flow of gas through the Nord Stream Baltic Sea pipeline at a 2011 ceremony in Lubmin, Germany.
European leaders symbolically start the flow of gas through the Nord Stream Baltic Sea pipeline at a 2011 ceremony in Lubmin, Germany.PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

The U.S. Senate was almost unanimous—98-2—when it passed a bill updating and expanding the sanctions regime against Russia. Congress has every right to make a strong statement on Russia’s alleged interference in last year’s presidential election. But this bill, which is awaiting a vote in the House, will not achieve its objectives and will instead cause new problems. Unless it undergoes significant revision, it would compromise European energy security and damage U.S. relations with Europe. The beneficiary of such an outcome would be Russia.

At risk is the joint stance the U.S. and Europe have maintained against Russia since it annexed Crimea in 2014. Every sanctions measure was assessed by American and European partners before enactment. Europe and the U.S. moved hand in hand to ensure that neither would exploit markets or business opportunities previously held by the other. This trans-Atlantic approach is now jeopardized by the Senate’s desire to impose additional sanctions unilaterally, without consultation and against the explicit will of the European Commission and key U.S. allies including Germany, France and Italy.

Even worse, the bill’s language suggests that it aims to advance U.S. commercial interests at Europe’s expense. Section 257 prioritizes “the export of United States energy resources to create American jobs”—which sounds to Europeans like an unfriendly political attempt to promote U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas to Europe.


One target of the bill is the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, involving both Russian and European companies. There are good arguments why Europe should diversify its gas supply, but the dependency fears around NS2 are exaggerated. Europe has taken decisive measures to boost supply security: constructing additional interconnectors and LNG terminals, employing reverse flow capabilities, and eliminating restrictive clauses on ultimate destinations. These measures make it difficult for Russia even to consider using energy as a weapon against Europe.

There is a vibrant debate in Europe about NS2 and the best way forward. Strong arguments, both pro and con, are being exchanged. The Polish and Ukrainian governments are concerned that the pipeline will compete against Russian gas flowing through pipelines in their territories. Some, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, propose to welcome all additional sources and supply routes of energy to Europe, including American LNG. Ideally, the market would decide the best course.

This is not a question that should be decided in Washington. It is a European issue, to be decided by Europeans based on European law and regulation. How would the U.S. react if Europe were to pass legislation on the merits of the Keystone XL pipeline, especially if it was perceived to benefit European business?

Even if one opposes NS2, the Senate-passed bill would harm Eurasian energy security in other important ways. Perhaps most egregiously, the bill would extend sanctions to countries outside Russia where U.S. persons provide goods, services and technology for certain projects “in which a Russian energy firm is involved.” The presence of Lukoil, a private Russian company, in Azerbaijan could potentially trigger sanctions on the Shah Deniz gas field and deter Caspian gas shipments to Europe via the emerging Southern Corridor. Under such a threat, banks could renege on financing. Rather than promote security, the bill would jeopardize one of Europe’s new gas pipeline alternatives to Russia, a $45 billion undertaking that is well under way. This provision would force American companies out of joint ventures in which Russian companies participate around the world.

The bill would expose to sanctions goods, services, technology and information that would “significantly facilitate” even the maintenance of pipelines carrying Russian oil and gas or passing through Russia. That could stall two-thirds of Kazakhstan’s oil exports shipped through the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, which is led by Chevron but has a 31% Russian government share. It could hinder operations and safety for pipelines, such as those passing through Ukraine, that deliver some 32% of Europe’s oil and a similar share of its gas consumption. For Europe, terminating such large oil or gas imports from Russia is not feasible: alternatives for such large volumes are unavailable.

Our joint U.S.-European experience with sanctions affirms two longstanding lessons. First, sanctions work best when they are multilateral. Second, sanctions alone rarely achieve a national-security outcome. Ideally, they create leverage. They almost always presume a negotiation, where adjusting the sanctions can be part of a strategy for achieving a desired goal.

Leverage goes hand-in-hand with flexibility—and the Senate bill would curtail flexibility. Its unilateral approach could tip the scales in favor of those who want to end Europe’s participation in the existing trans-Atlantic policy approach on Russia, including the sanctions regime.

If the bill becomes law in its current form, it would alienate America’s important European allies, complicating our alliance at a critical moment. A better approach would be to revise the bill in line with realities and recommit to a joint trans-Atlantic approach.

Mr. Ischinger was Germany’s ambassador to the U.S., 2001-06, and has been chairman of the Munich Security Conference since 2008.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *