BERLIN — The United States has informed Germany that it will impose sanctions on a Russian-owned ship involved in the construction of an undersea pipeline that is to carry natural gas directly to Germany from Russia, German officials said Monday.
The sanctions, which are to take effect on Tuesday, are the first action the United States has taken against the project, which has been a point of friction between Washington and Berlin.
The German government supports the pipeline, the Nord Stream 2, but Washington fears it will give Moscow undue leverage over Germany, Ukraine and Central Europe.
The U.S. sanctions came amid increased calls from opposition leaders in Germany for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government to halt construction of the pipeline over the jailing of the Russian opposition leader, Aleksei A. Navalny. Mr. Navalny was arrested on Sunday upon his return home from Germany, where he had spent months recovering from a near-fatal poisoning for which Moscow has been blamed.
Ms. Merkel’s spokesman condemned the Navalny arrest on Monday and called for his immediate release, but said it had no bearing on the pipeline agreement. “The German government position on the Nord Stream 2 project is that it is an economic endeavor,” the spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said. “That has not changed.”
The pipeline is being built by Nord Stream AG, a company owned by the Kremlin-controlled gas giant Gazprom. It is 94 percent complete, but construction on the project was halted in December 2019 after several European companies abandoned it following an initial threat of sanctions.
Nord Stream AG had no immediate comment on the new sanctions.
Berlin insists that Germany needs additional natural gas as a bridge energy supply to complete its ambitious project to phase out coal and nuclear power as it develops renewable energy sources.
Even German opponents of the long-disputed pipeline project were furious that the Trump administration would use the same punitive measures against a wholly European project as they would against companies doing business with sanctioned countries like North Korea or Iran.
No German companies will be directly affected by the sanctions against the ship, the Fortuna, and the Russian company that owns it, KVT-RUS. But any companies that do business with the ship or its owner, whether a port that provides servicing or an insurer, risk losing access to the U.S. financial system. According to ship-tracking data, the Fortuna is still anchored in the Baltic Sea near Rostock, in northern Germany, Reuters reported.
Last August, employees of a port in the northern German town of Sassnitz that had serviced ships involved in constructing the pipeline feared they would be cut off from using their PayPal and Amazon accounts. Republican senators sent a letter to the port’s owners warning of “crushing legal and economic sanctions” if the facility continued to provide “significant goods, services, and support” for the pipeline.
The sanctions are to come into effect the day before President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. takes office on Wednesday, and some experts raised the question of how they will be handled by the new administration. The sanctions do have bipartisan support in Congress.
“The Europeans may question whether a Biden administration would ever follow through with that, and the Navalny arrest has upped the pressure again for Germans to halt the project of their own accord,” said Julia Friedlander, a former director of European affairs at the National Security Council, who is now with the Atlantic Council.
Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department warned European companies still involved in construction of the pipeline that the sanctions it had been threatening for months could take effect soon.
As of Monday evening, neither the State Department nor the U.S. Treasury had officially announced the new measure. The news was conveyed to the German government by the American Embassy in Berlin, and disclosed by the Economy Ministry.
Pranshu Verma and Lara Jakes contributed reporting from Washington D.C.