The US is putting pressure on Germany to block Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline as part of a package of sanctions that would be implemented in the event of Vladimir Putin invading Ukraine.
The demand for Berlin and Brussels to prevent the pipeline from becoming operational is part of a sanctions package the US is proposing as it tries to stave off further conflict in the region amid fears in the intelligence community that Putin is preparing for military action.
It comes as US president Joe Biden on Tuesday used a two-hour call with Putin to warn him of “strong economic and other measures” if the Russian leader sends troops into Ukraine.
The threat to Nord Stream 2, which is built but not yet pumping gas, would be included alongside a package of sanctions being proposed by the US, which would include financial measures such as blocking the conversion of roubles into dollars and further targeting Russian oligarchs, two officials briefed on the plan told the Financial Times.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, who listened in to the call, said “if Vladimir Putin wants to see gas flow through that pipeline, he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine”.
“We’ve had intensive discussions with both the outgoing and the incoming German government on the issue of Nord Stream 2 in the context of potential invasion,” Sullivan added in a press conference after the Biden-Putin call.
One western diplomat said Washington and Berlin had held “some pretty robust conversations” about the pipeline, adding: “Ultimately a consensus could emerge that if there is a serious invasion of Ukraine, Nord Stream 2 becomes untenable.”
A US official said the new German government was expected to be “more helpful” to Washington’s pressure campaign against Russia, as the Biden administration tries to win European support for a strong package intended to make Putin wary of the costs of invading Ukraine.
US officials are expected to travel to Germany as soon as the country’s new government, led by chancellor Olaf Scholz, is in place.
“Nord Stream 2 is always an elephant in the room,” said the US official. “It looms large over anything to do with Russia, Germany and Ukraine.”
Putin and Biden have told their teams “to follow up” on Tuesday’s call, according to a White House readout of their conversation.
Also on Tuesday, Victoria Nuland, senior US state department official, said she thought Germany was ready to partake in significant actions against Russia if Putin were to invade Ukraine.
“I believe they are [ready] and today is the first day of the new German government,” she said when asked about Nord Stream 2 during a Senate hearing. “We’ve already begun intensive consultations with them.”
The Kremlin said the call between Putin and Biden was “frank” and “businesslike”. Putin told Biden the Ukrainian crisis had been caused by Ukraine’s “destructive behaviour” and what he described as Nato’s “dangerous attempts to take over Ukrainian territory and grow its military potential on our frontier”.
The Kremlin added the Russian president reiterated his call for legal guarantees that Nato would not expand eastward or deploy weapons systems in countries bordering Russia that could used to be attack it.
The US has spent weeks attempting to convince European partners of the risk that Putin might invade Ukraine early next year as it tries to secure allies’ backing for an aggressive response to deter him from such a move.
It is unclear what type of military escalation would class as an invasion and trigger sanctions.
In 2014, Putin denied that soldiers without insignia who seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine were Russian special forces and continues to insist Moscow is not involved in the separatist war in the country’s east — despite much evidence to the contrary.
The EU earlier on Tuesday vowed to expand punitive measures against Russia in case of “further aggression”.
Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission chief, told EU ambassadors the bloc would “respond appropriately to any further aggressions” and take “additional restrictive measures” beyond economic sanctions in case of an invasion.
Biden hosted talks with European partners on Monday ahead of the call with Putin so that he could enter the talks with his Russian counterpart with the claim that western allies were unified behind the US stance.
EU sanctions being discussed would focus on ways to target Russia’s economy and financial system, western diplomats said.
Western officials briefed on Washington’s approach said restrictions on converting roubles into western currencies would make selling Russian oil exports “much more difficult”.
The US believes Putin is assembling the troops, equipment and disinformation campaign necessary for military escalation next year. A new invasion would reactivate a slow-burning conflict in Donbas, an eastern Ukrainian region on the Russian border, which has claimed more than 14,000 lives.
US intelligence on Russia’s military preparations shared with European states in recent weeks had “created a sense of urgency” around new sanctions, a senior EU official said.
Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula following a pro-western uprising in Kyiv. Since then, the Kremlin has supported separatist forces in the Donbas region, though it denies any direct involvement in the conflict.