The US has warned of upcoming major sanctions against the controversial under-construction Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, which aims to pipe Russian gas to Europe.

The proposed sanctions would be a major blow to the project. They come at a time when the relationship between Russia and the US has hit a fresh low, following a heated exchange of words between US President Joe Biden and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin earlier this week.

Blinken comments

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on Thursday that “any entity involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline risks US sanctions and should immediately abandon work on the pipeline”.

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“The US Department is tracking efforts to complete the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and is evaluating information regarding entities that appear to be involved,” a statement from Blinken read.

“The sanctions legislation Congress passed in 2019 and expanded in 2020, has significant support from a bipartisan Congressional majority. The Biden administration is committed to complying with that legislation”.

The statement emerged after Biden's administration failed to include new companies and vessels working on Nord Stream 2 in its last report to Congress.

This perceived lack of action immediately drew criticism from several US lawmakers, calling for Blinken to submit new sanctions designations to Congress without waiting until 17 May when the next mandatory report on Nord Stream 2 is due to be presented.

Companies in crosshairs

US authorities have singled out an insurance company supporting installation of the remaining pipeline segments in Denmark's Baltic Sea waters and other companies providing support vessels and materials to the project, Bloomberg quoted an unnamed US official as saying.

Backing: Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to attend a concert marking the seventh anniversary of the referendum on the state status of Crimea and Sevastopol and its reunification with Russia, in Moscow on 18 March Photo: AP/SCANPIX

There are also suggestions the US may directly sanction pipeline operator Nord Stream 2, which, while owned by Russian state gas monopoly Gazprom, is based in Switzerland.

Biden weighs in

Earlier this week, Biden did not mince his words when it came to describing Putin.

In an interview with US television network ABC, Biden answered, “yes, I do”, to a question on whether he thinks Putin is “a killer”.

While Biden did not go into details, independent investigations are alleged to have recently revealed long-running operations by Russian security operatives and medics, targeting Putin’s critics and opposition activists with a nerve agent known as Novichok.

Biden has also lashed out at Putin for meddling in last year's US presidential election despite prior warnings to stay away, concluding that the Russian president will “pay the price” for such alleged interference.

Moscow to respond

Biden’s pronouncements created a stir in Moscow, although Putin responded to the accusations in vague terms while ominously wishing Biden “good health”.

According to independent news outlet Meduza, Putin also used a Russian phrase that roughly translates as: “I am rubber, you are glue, whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you."

Political analysts in Moscow said the Kremlin is keen to complete Nord Stream 2 to highlight Russian influence in Europe and fulfill Putin’s plan to halt Russian gas transit flows across Ukraine, a country that he believes is in the orbit of the US.

“Once the gas pipeline is operational, the US and Europe will lose any leverage on the Kremlin” to control its attitude and potential action against Ukraine, analyst Konstantin Eggert told Moscow radio station Echo Moskvy on Friday.

Russia annexed the Crimea Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and sponsored pro-Russian separatists who captured two regions in the east of the country to turn them into what they call “independent republics”.