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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Photo: Johanna Geron-Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The Ukrainian government is publicly urging senators to vote for Sen. Ted Cruz's bill sanctioning the Nord Stream 2 pipeline — calling the project "no less an existential threat to our security" than the Russian troops on its border.

Why it matters: With U.S. officials in Europe for talks with Russia this week, Democrats face an uncomfortable choice — either buck President Biden or vote against sanctions on a pipeline they have long publicly opposed. The decision comes at a moment of crisis for Ukraine.

The big picture: Nord Stream 2, which is fully built but still awaiting regulatory approval, would bypass Ukrainian transit infrastructure and deliver Russian natural gas directly to Germany.

  • Consecutive U.S. presidents have opposed the pipeline, which the Biden administration has called a "harmful Russian geopolitical project" that could allow the Kremlin to coerce Ukraine or use energy as a weapon.
  • But Biden struck a deal with Germany to waive sanctions on the company that working to finish construction on the pipeline. He contended that the pipeline was already 98% done, and it was important to repair relations with Germany after years of strain under the Trump administration.

How we got here: Nord Stream 2 has become one of the Biden administration's biggest headaches in Congress, after Cruz initiated a campaign in August to hold up all State Department nominees until sanctions were imposed.

  • In late December, Cruz reached a deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to release his hold on 32 nominees in exchange for the Senate holding a vote on Nord Stream 2 sanctions by Jan. 14.
  • Assuming all Republicans vote in favor, the bill needs 10 Senate Democrats to reach the 60-vote threshold to pass.

What they're saying: State Department spokesman Ned Price said last week that Cruz's bill "is not, in our estimation, a genuine effort to counter further Russian aggression or to protect Ukraine."

  • Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a top advocate for Ukraine in Congress and co-author of previous Nord Stream 2 sanctions legislation, told Axios that she shares the Ukrainians' concerns — but is "not convinced" Cruz's bill is the best path forward.
  • “The dynamics have changed," Shaheen said, arguing that the U.S. should continue to pursue diplomacy with Germany "to prevent Putin from acquiring a weapon that threatens Europe's broader security."

The other side: While Ukraine wants the project killed now, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other top Biden officials say the fact that it's now in limbo, with no gas yet flowing, is a source of "leverage" for the U.S. and Europe.

  • A senior State Department official told Axios that it's "inconceivable" that Nord Stream 2 would become operational if Russia invades Ukraine, and stressed that "trans-Atlantic unity" is necessary to deter Russian aggression "across the board."
  • A wedge in the trans-Atlantic relationship right now would "send the wrong signal for Vladimir Putin at what is especially the wrong time," the official said.

Between the lines: The Biden administration and Democrats frequently cite "trans-Atlantic unity" as a key reason not to sanction Nord Stream 2, but the project has few supporters left in Europe outside of Germany's ruling Social Democrats.

  • German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has called Nord Stream 2 a "private sector project" and sought to delink it from proposals for deterring Russian aggression.
  • Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a fellow Social Democrat, is now chairman of the Russian energy company Rosneft and the board of Nord Stream 2.
  • "Virtually all of Europe and even half the German government are opposed to NS2," a source close to the Ukrainian side told Axios. "If one is serious about transatlantic unity and supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression," the source argued, the "logical position" is to sanction Nord Stream 2.

Go deeper

Jan 14, 2022 - World

U.S. accuses Russia of preparing "false flag" operation to attack Ukraine

Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

The U.S. claims to have information indicating that Russia has "already prepositioned a group of operatives to conduct a false-flag operation in eastern Ukraine," laying the groundwork for a potential pretext to invade, according to a U.S. official.

Why it matters: Diplomatic talks between the U.S., its European allies and Russia failed to produce a breakthrough this week, raising fears that Moscow will invade Ukraine and unleash a devastating new war.

Updated Jan 14, 2022 - World

U.S. confirms Russia arrested REvil ransomware hackers

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking in Moscow in June 2021. Photo: Alexei Nikolsky/TASS via Getty Images

Russia's security agency said Friday it arrested members of the Russia-based cyber gang REvil that was responsible for multiple massive ransomware attacks against U.S. companies last year.

The latest: A senior administration official confirmed on Friday afternoon that Russia informed the U.S. that it arrested the alleged hackers, including an individual responsible for the cyberattack that crippled the Colonial Pipeline.

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Winter view from Charlotte as winter storm Izzy creates dangerous conditions in Charlotte, N.C. on Jan. 16. Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A major winter storm was lashing much of the East Coast on Sunday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The big picture: Heavy snow and ice accumulations are "likely to produce hazardous travel," downed trees and more power outages from the Mid-South to the Northeast, per the National Weather Service. Some parts of the U.S. can expect to see up to a foot of snow through Monday.