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Biden Faces Decision On Gas Pipeline From Russia That Could Alienate Germany

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Biden administration is trying to repair frayed relations with key allies in Europe. Here is President Biden speaking during the virtual Munich Security Conference on Friday.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The Transatlantic Alliance is a strong foundation - the strong foundation - on which our collective security and our shared prosperity are built.

SHAPIRO: Well, we're going to talk now about one issue that may not be so easy for Biden to solve, one that could alienate a close ally - Germany. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Hundreds of feet below the surface of the Baltic Sea is an enormously long pipeline, snaking from northern Russia to Germany. This is the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which will roughly double Europe's energy supply when it's finished. The last 100 miles of the pipeline have yet to be completed because of opposition by the U.S.

JIM RISCH: We have a real national interest in seeing that we stop the Nord Stream 2 pipeline

NORTHAM: That's Jim Risch, top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He's part of a broad bipartisan effort in Congress to stop construction of the $11 billion pipeline, which is owned by a consortium led by the Russian state gas company Gazprom. The fear is that the pipeline will give Moscow more economic and political clout over Europe. Last week, the U.S. sanctioned one Russian ship involved in the project. Risch says President Biden needs to do more.

RISCH: We have passed laws that demand, require sanctions on all entities and persons that are involved in this project. And we want to see this law enforced.

NORTHAM: Even if that includes sanctioning German and other European companies - construction on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was suspended for more than a year after the Trump administration threatened sanctions, but work resumed again earlier this month. President Biden has called the pipeline a bad idea. State Department spokesman Ned Price said today that energy security is a constant topic of discussion with America's closest allies.

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NED PRICE: We continue to examine entities involved in potentially sanctionable activity. We have been clear that companies risk sanctions if they are involved in Nord Stream 2.

NORTHAM: Dan Fried, a former assistant secretary for Europe and now with the Atlantic Council, says the Biden administration is in a tough position because it may have to sanction allies to stop the pipeline from being completed.

DAN FRIED: The Biden administration can be forgiven if they just decide to let the sanctions try to kill it. That would be a reasonable policy choice.

NORTHAM: But Fried says that would come at a price.

FRIED: Because sanctioning German entities has - will carry big political costs with Germany, right when the Biden people - to bring back German-U.S. relations back to some kind of normality. That's a big price.

NORTHAM: But if the Biden administration doesn't take action and implement sanctions, it could look like it's caving to the Russians.

FRIED: The Biden people are probably asking themselves, is there a door No. 3? And the answer is maybe.

NORTHAM: The U.S. could limit its sanctions to Russian companies or businessmen. Some have even suggested the U.S. could convince German Chancellor Angela Merkel to abandon the entire project. That's highly unlikely, says Kristine Berzina with the German Marshall Fund.

KRISTINE BERZINA: Nothing has made Germany, the chancellor, steer away from this pipeline.

NORTHAM: Berzina says Merkel and other German leaders need the gas pipeline to help the country wean itself off coal and nuclear energy.

BERZINA: Germany, I think, has seen the fact that it has weathered such storms in the past, still has maintained many years of good ties to the States and, somehow, it will maneuver through this situation.

NORTHAM: Pipeline or no pipeline, Berzina says, energy politics won't kill the U.S.-German relationship.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.