This week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called on companies involved in the construction of the Russian-German Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to “immediately abandon work” or potentially face harsh sanctions. In a statement, the State Department said it was monitoring and assessing information about companies doing work on the project. It said: “Any entity involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline risks US sanctions and should immediately abandon work on the pipeline”.
The statement gives context to the administration’s decision, noting that, “multiple US administrations have made clear, this pipeline is a Russian geopolitical project intended to divide Europe and weaken European energy security”.
Mr Blinken also emphasised the Nord Stream 2 pipeline violates the European Union’s own energy security principles and jeopardises the security of Ukraine and Poland.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who wants the project to continue, has not yet made any comments on the US Secretary’s statement.
Berlin views the pipeline merely as a commercial project.
Brussels has also steered clear of making any statements.
While some in Washington expected the EU to butt in and side with the US President, Brussels effectively shifted all the responsibility on Mrs Merkel at the end of February.
The European Commission claimed any decision to stop the project carrying Russian natural gas to Germany would have to come from Berlin.
Ditte Juul Jorgensen, Director General of the Commission’s energy department, told lawmakers in the European Parliament’s industry committee: “For the European Union as a whole, Nord Stream does not contribute to security of supply.
“Actually stopping the construction would require a decision at national level.
“It’s not a decision that can be taken at European level.”
In response to the arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the European Parliament called for the EU to stop the pipeline from being completed.
It is not the first time Brussels and the US have been embroiled in a diplomatic row over Europe’s hesitant leadership.
The frustration of the Obama administration at Europe’s policy over the pro-democracy protests in Ukraine was brought into the open in 2014.
In an audio clip posted on YouTube, voices resembling those of Victoria Nuland, then US Assistant Secretary of State, and Geoffrey Pyatt, then ambassador to Ukraine, were heard talking by telephone about how to resolve the stand-off in Kiev after two months of anti-government protests.
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In apparent exasperation with Brussels, the voice resembling Ms Nuland at one point declared: “F**k the EU.”
The US State Department did not directly confirm that the leaked audio clip posted on YouTube captured the voices of Ms Nuland and Mr Pyatt.
However, the then Department’s spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that Ms Nuland had been “in contact with her EU counterparts” and had “of course apologised for those reported comments”.
In an attempt at damage limitation, US officials also tried to turn the focus onto Russia, suggesting that Moscow had leaked the audio recording.
They pointed to an early tweet from Dmitry Loskutov, an aide to the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Dmitry Rogozin, that said: “Sort of controversial judgment from Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland speaking about the EU.”
Former White House spokesman Jay Carney did not discuss the content of the conversation recorded in the clip, but he too invoked the Loskutov tweet.
He said: “I would say that since the video was first noted and tweeted out by the Russian government, I think it says something about Russia’s role.”
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At the State Department, Ms Psaki said that if the Russians were responsible for listening to, recording and posting a private diplomatic telephone conversation, it would have been “a new low in Russian tradecraft”.
Pressed on whether the call was authentic, Ms Psaki said: “I didn’t say it was inauthentic.”
A spokeswoman for then EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton stated that Brussels would not comment on a “leaked alleged” conversation.
However, the following day, Christiane Wirtz, Deputy Government Spokesperson and Deputy Head of the Press and Information Office of the German Federal Government, stated Mrs Merkel termed Ms Nuland’s remark “absolutely unacceptable”.
The conversation underlined mounting US frustration at the EU’s position on the democracy protests in Ukraine, as Brussels had held back from joining US threats to impose sanctions.